JOHANNESBURG – A global scolding of both President George W. Bush and the United States began before the World Summit on Sustainable Development summit started here in South Africa. It continues to this day.
For example, decorative pins with a caricature of Bush in stripes reminiscent of the cartoon character Waldo saying "Where’s W?" are prevalent around the summit site, mocking the American president for his decision to forgo the conference.
The criticism has become so severe that at one point, a senior delegate to the conference intoned the United States in general, and the Bush administration in particular, were "waging a global attack on women’s reproductive rights." What, exactly, this has to do with the environment or development questions was not clear. But it makes for good theater.
The casual observer might see the primary theme of the conference as a public scolding of the United States. But it misses the real story of what’s going on here, behind the scenes.
What most media outlets aren’t reporting is that there has been significant progress on some substantive issues. And much of that progress has been led by the United States.
Meanwhile, it is the Europeans who have been flogged mercilessly by delegates and representatives from the developing world for their policies on trade and technology.
The United States a hero and the EU a villain? Could it be? One week ago, who would have guessed this?
First, the Euro bashing. The issues that have dominated the summit so far have mostly had to do with trade. And on that front, Europe has been getting a comeuppance.
"European consumers are paying to destroy livelihoods in some of the world’s poorest countries," said a representative from Oxfam, the development agency. At issue are European crop subsidies and farm supports, such as those for sugar growers. Oxfam goes on: "An agricultural commodity that could play a real part in poverty alleviation in southern Africa does not do so" because European price supports make African sugar uncompetitive.
"EU Policies Keep the Poor, Poor," blared a headline in the environmental publication TerraViva. "[Europeans] are rich and could give us a chance to live," said a sugar-cane farmer in Mozambique.
The environmental activist from India, Vandan Shiva, has been especially critical of Europe for its support of farm subsidies that freeze out the developing world. And farmers from the developed world marched to the summit on Wednesday where, among other things, they called on European governments to eliminate the heavy subsidies and technology restrictions they place on trade.
Meanwhile, the United States was applauded by Peter Fabricius, an expert on African trade and development. Writing about the "Good News" from the summit in the Earth Times, Fabricius praised the considerable efforts made by the United States delegation to free up trade as a solution to poverty in the developing world.
The efforts by the U.S. here follow up on a promising proposal earlier this summer by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick that "points to the next stage of reducing barriers to agricultural trade and, ultimately, to their elimination."
Of course, the United States still has a ways to go. It has its own subsidies and obstacles to trade, and was criticized in the wake of its recent Farm Bill. But while U.S. protection is not to be supported, it is nothing like the European protection measures that are three times greater than U.S. supports.
Moreover, the U.S. delegation, led by the State Department’s Paula Dobriansky, announced a series of what are called "Type II agreements." These are basically private-public partnerships designed to, say, help provide clean drinking water for the world’s poor. So contrary to its reputation as a unilateralist or as disengaged on global climate and poverty questions, the United States came to the summit armed with practical ideas for alleviating misery and suffering around the world.
Leave it to a few American politicians to rain on America’s parade here. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, showed up to criticize the United States for not doing enough to encourage the development of renewable energy sources. When asked where the money for a new $50 billion solar energy initiative he proposed might come from, he pointed to the United States’ defense budget and suggested there might be room there to find money for new alternative energy programs.
So despite President Bush’s absence, which many activists seem content to harp on, the United States is fully engaged working towards practical solutions to real problems. And it’s the policies of Europeans that are being criticized by the developing world. You might not hear much about it from a hostile media. But that’s the real story out of Johannesburg.
Nick Schulz is the editor in chief of Tech Central Station.