The Power of Small

This summer's World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg was supposed to be the inheritor of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, but it turned out instead to be the betrayer of its dreams. While progress was made in some significant areas, once again the United States and its allies made sure the gathering enshrined unrestrained free trade and corporate profitability as the world's "development" model.

Ten years ago, the Rio summit recognized the urgent need for all nations to respect and preserve the earth's natural resources while engaging in solutions that would create property for all. The summit produced a challenging document, "Agenda 21," that called for world leaders to evaluate a decade later the progress (or lack thereof) toward these solutions. The Johannesburg meeting was given the mandate to put into action a plan that would carry out the thrust of Agenda 21—that is, to preserve the environment while promoting development.

To know whether or not it accomplished this, one must keep in mind the outcome of the March 2002 U.N. Conference on Financing for Development ("The Monterrey Consensus") that took place in Monterrey, Mexico. The Monterrey Consensus made it clear that the agenda for the United States and its partners (Australia, Canada, and Japan) for the foreseeable future would be "free trade," which they described as an engine for development. To facilitate free trade, a high level of importance was placed on "good governance," "private flows," and "security for corporations." The Monterrey Consensus put in place funding for whatever development (sustainable or not) the United States and its partners could push through the Johannesburg gathering.

Governments approved several positive actions at the summit, including commitments for safe water and sanitation and the enforcement of environmental laws that were already on the books. But on the issue of free trade, the United States and its partners were obstacles to any substantive discussion regarding sustainable development, favoring instead sustainable profit for megacorporations over sustainable development for all. One telling example was the U.S. insistence that Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) be included in plans for "sustainable" development—even though GMOs are engineered to last for only one year and require farmers to purchase fertilizers, pesticides, and other products to maintain crop production.

PERHAPS WHAT WAS not achieved at the governmental level in Johannesburg was accomplished at the grassroots in related activities. For example, our delegation to the summit—the Global Network for Justice—left Johannesburg to visit Maputaland in northern KwaZulu-Natal, the most ecologically diverse region of southern Africa. There we met with local people who once fished in the delta region. Today, because of the creation of the Jozini Dam, the delta has dried up, and these once-fisherfolks have been forced to turn to farming to earn a living.

Our team brought to Maputaland a tool with the potential to help economically disenfranchised communities make the changes in sustainable small-scale farming that will allow them to earn a living, protect their culture, and provide for their families. The tool we brought: an analytical, replicable model—outlined in a paper titled "From Grassroots to Global: The Power of Thinking Small"—that people may find helpful in assessing their own entrepreneurial, indigenous, and cultural assets and in expanding the scope and effectiveness of their own economic development. The model is based on the metaphor of interlocking "organic gears," which can grow out of whatever local conditions they are found in. It is a living model and builds on local, indigenous knowledge, innovation, and expertise. It is in many ways the direct opposite of the approach taken by the world leaders at Johannesburg.

Did the Johannesburg summit make a difference? At the least, the gathering made very clear the obstructive posture the United States and its partners have taken in keeping local small-scale sustainable economies at a disadvantage in an evolving global economy. Until that changes, and people at the grassroots are given a real voice, the goal of sustainable development will remain a pipe dream.

Jane F. Remson, O. Carm., a member of the Congregation of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, has served since 1982 as director of the New Orleans Chapter of Bread for the World and is the main representative for her order's NGO with the United Nations. "From Grassroots to Global" is available from

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