Founder & Chairman


This is the transcript of a video interview produced and directed by Michael O'Callaghan at the U.N. World Summit on Sustainable Development, in Johannesburg, in 2002.
Full transcript (2,723 words, slightly edited for clarity).
© 2002-2019 Global Vision Foundation.
Mark Halle, from the USA, is the founder of the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (, which works with governments, inter-governmental organisations and NGOs to provide non-partisan reporting and facilitation services at the intersection of global trade and sustainable development.
At the time of this video interview he was Chairman and is now a Distinguished Fellow of the ICTSD Board.
He is also the Director of Trade and Investment and European Representative of IISD - the International Institute for Sustainable Development, and was formerly Director of the Global Policy Division at IUCN - the World Conservation Union.
How do you feel about the future now, 10 years after the first Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro in 1992?

Listen, I feel optimistic about it because if I didn't, life would be too depressing! I think that we've not had a good decade since Rio. A lot of good things have happened, you can point to all sorts of success stories, but we haven't done well. And I'm disappointed that the governments at this meeting didn't come together and say listen, you know, let's set aside some of our particular immediate interests in the interests of a long-term solution for all of us. I think the lack of leadership among governments here is very disturbing. That said, I'm absolutely convinced that solving the problems of sustainable development no longer lies with governments. I think they've lost a great deal of their legitimacy. They will continue to lose their authority, and they'll be replaced by other things. What those other things are I don't think we know exactly, but I think we know some elements of them. I believe strongly in partnerships between governments, civil society, and the private sector. I believe in networks. I believe in global public policy partnerships that take on a very specific issue, bring all the stakeholders together, and really aim at solving them. And I think we might have done better to split up this agenda into an agenda on water, one on agriculture, one on habitat or whatever, and try and really make progress on those specific issues. It might have been better to combine the Monterey conference with Johannesburg so you would get your finance ministers here, talking with the people who are perhaps setting goals, so you can attach money to those goals. We have to find a new way of doing things. I think the era of global summitry is really coming to an end, because the law of diminishing returns has just, has just gone too far.

What's happening with the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS)?

Trade services is part of the built-in agenda of the World Trade Organisation, in other words it didn't require an agreement in Doha to get started on it. And, right now they are moving forward at a fairly steady pace - of course this is in WTO terms where things never move very fast. The problem with trade in services is not the fact of liberalising it - in many cases that's probably a very good idea. The problem is, that we're moving in to a field where we don't know what the impacts will be. So you're taking decisions that commit governments well ahead of our ability to understand what the impact is going to be. If you look at the Uruguay Round and the agreement on Intellectual Property Rights - the famous TRIPS agreement - people had no idea what the impact was going to be. And even those who were promoting it during the Uruguay Round will admit that, they'll tell you: some of the things that have happened since, some of the impacts that have been, we never anticipated, we had no idea how it was going to play out. There is a real concern in negotiating something that is going to lock countries in, without having any sense of what the impact is going to be. That said, the Agreement on Trade in Services operates in a different way from the others, in the sense that services are only liberalised if a country puts forward that service to be liberalised: it's not a blanket thing. It's something you opt into and buy into. And I hope maybe countries will maybe be more careful because of that.

Do you think there's a need to reform the WTO, or will it evolve into something better of its own accord? And how are we going to reconcile the conflict between private shareholder money and the public interest?

Certainly the WTO needs reform! We've said that ever since it was founded, I think we were one of the first to say it. I don't think it's going to happen through evolution, and I think the best way of affecting it through doing two things.

One is to really push for opening up the trade policy process at the national level, so that when people go to WTO to negotiate, they're not just carrying a brief that's been handed to them by the major corporations of their country, they carrying something that's resulted from a broad and open debate, so they're representing a concept of the national interest that's much broader than simply the interest of your leading exporting companies. That's the first thing.

The second, I think, is for all of us who believe in reform - all of us who carry an agenda on agriculture or on services, on education or whatever - to be a lot more specific and a lot more, I think, constructive on what we're doing. Don't just say "this is wrong, we don't like what's happening here", but go in there with language that they understand, with proposals that can mesh with the way they do things, and that can help them achieve what they want to achieve through trade liberalisation while at the same time achieving social gains and environmental conservation. It can be done! We fundamentally believe that trade does not have to be incompatible with sustainable development. It is now! But the question is not to pull down trade, it's much more how to build up sustainable development through trade.

We spoke about the ten years since Rio. What are the most significant issues that the general viewer who doesn't know anything of the details we've been talking about, but who just has a sense that the world is having problems, should be aware of?

I think what I'd tell a Northern viewer who hasn't followed the process and doesn't really take a strong interest in the issues, is that there is no possible way in the medium or long term to isolate themselves from what's happening in the rest of the world. It simply won't be possible. It's not even possible now, and it won't be possible in the future to maintain their privilege in a kind of gated community and hide behind those walls. The world is much too interconnected now. Those who are poor and desperate will simply not turn over and die quietly! They, we see it now already with the social disturbances that are spilling over borders, we see it with the refugee movement, the illegal refugee movement, the pressure on Europe and other countries from people who have no other options. And, and to simply dismiss it, to put it out of the public eye and say this is not something we want to deal with is, is really not an option!

The good news, though, is that none of these problems that we're dealing with is intractable! There isn't any of the issues that was here on the table at Johannesburg that couldn't be solved with a bit of political will and not a great deal of money! All the calculations that were made of how much it would cost to reach the Millennium Goals, for example, generally surprises people by being so low. This is not beyond the realm of our societies to come up with the solutions! It's simply that it's the nature of our political processes, the nature of how special interests dominate decision-making, that we can't seem to make sufficient progress. And if you look at Rio - not just what was written in Rio - but the hope that there was around there, that - all right we have lots of problems, but now we have a reasonable idea of how we're going to go, we believe that governments are sincere here in saying that OK, things have reached a point where we have to address them - in virtually every area, although there are pinpoints of light, in virtually every area, the situation is worse, sometimes distinctly worse than it was then. And yet we come here, and governments are still crying victory because they've got a comma in one place, or they've managed to place their sentence or avoid a phrase in the text... When we recall that even the text in Rio was not implemented, how can you cry victory here with a weak text - that contains some nice ideas, some good things - but whose chance of being implemented quickly, strongly, resolutely and sincerely is very small?

Can you talk about the dysfunctionality of governments and the emergence of civil society?

Someone asked me the other day whether I thought Johannesburg had been a success, and I answered - only somewhat flippantly - that aside from the government conference, yes, it had been! And that reminds me of that expression in the United States, "aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?" And it's true: if you had spend time, wandered around here, sampled a great deal, dropped in on things, you'd find that there's an enormous amount happening. And if you were in the IUCN Environment Centre, if you were in the Business Day, if you were at Ubuntu Village, wandering around those places, if you were at the Water Dome, you find people getting together, floating new ideas, connecting around those ideas, building new coalitions and partnerships. And I simply believe that that movement is going to build and eventually take over from governments, as governments lose their legitimacy by failing to act!

Recently they published the report of the Commission on State Sovereignty. The main conclusion of that Commission was that the concept of state sovereignty is linked to the duty to protect. And if a state is not able to protect its citizens - from violence, from poverty, from misery - it begins to lose its own authority, it begins to lose its sovereignty! And I think it's time that we extended that notion to sustainable development: if the state can't protect its citizens from unsustainable development, the citizens will begin to turn away from it. They won't turn away in despair, they'll turn away and look for creative ideas elsewhere. And I think that they made a great deal about partnerships here between businesses and civil society, and probably they made too much of it - and they probably didn't make nearly enough of the hundreds of things that were unannounced, that didn't have press conferences or press releases, and which are beginning to make quite a bit of difference in this world.

Do you not think that democracy is still an important idea? At the moment there's a loss of sovereignty where decisions are made in the WTO or made elsewhere by corporations. Is it not important to have local democracy, local choices, local community participation?

I think it was Winston Churchill who said that democracy is the worst system, aside from all the others! And the question is, we've had democracy in the formal sense: we've had elections, we've had candidates presenting themselves and winning or losing, we've had the processes of parliaments and so on. What I think we're discovering now is that we need a form of deep democracy! And one of the things that makes me hopeful is watching the convergence of sustainable development thinking, human rights thinking, and governance thinking. And the concept of governance, now, is not about the processes of elections or parliaments or how candidates are presented. It has to do with transparency; it has to do with the right to participate in those decisions that affect your life. The principle of subsidiarity, that you don't take a decision in Paris or London that can be taken at the level of the local community or the local province. So I find it actually very encouraging, that whole re-thinking of governance, because I think it will help governments make the transformation into those who are responsible for delivering development benefits to those who have an important role in co-ordinating and seed-funding and protecting, in solving problems, but not those who decide. And if you go to many countries in the world, government civil servants have a particular status and those outside have a much lower status. I think we're beginning to get beyond that, and I think that's very healthy.

Do you think the transition to a hydrogen economy will happen anytime soon?

Heh heh! I don't know... One of the great disappointments of this conference [the WSSD in Johannesburg] is the lack of acceptance of real quantified targets and tools to back them up on the transition to renewable energy, even though the targets that they were talking about are extremely modest. You know, this is one of these areas where well-organised specific commercial interests are still having an enormous influence on our agenda! And it's one of those areas where I think most of us are disappointed at Johannesburg, and disappointed with that coalition of countries that simply blocked any progress in that area. And it's not so much that we feel that a goal of 15 per cent of renewables would have really transformed our societies into sustainable societies, it's just that real commitment - that we are actually going to take steps to make this move, this wasn't a best endeavours thing, it was really going to be a commitment leading to a process in every country of figuring out how they can make that transition, and even that would have been very positive. Now, the way it's stated, well, they will look into it, they'll try, and they'll see whether it's convenient, and as I said, it's a disappointment.

A final question... What about the intelligence communities and the military, and their old-fashioned concept of security based on coercion and brute force that we still see now with Bush and Iraq. Can you talk about re-defining security?

It's actually a process that began with the end of the Cold War. There, the thinkers, particularly in the military and intelligence community, were beginning to say well, you know, what does security mean now that there isn't this imminent threat that we've been facing for decades? And they began thinking quite seriously about the extent to which environmental degradation was a threat - a threat to security in the sense that they have always understood it - which was a threat to your national frontiers from, for example, the massive arrival of illegal refugees, a threat to your national institutions, threats to your vital interests like being able to import petroleum freely. And they began to broaden the notion of security - first of all still confined to the state - saying what is it that makes our country secure? And lack of build-up of greenhouse gases, or closing the ozone hole, or not allowing biodiversity to disappear became a sound concept in thinking about the future security of the state.

But then the thinking went beyond the state, saying what is security? Security is really the security of livelihoods, the security of communities, and that made it much more direct, much more specific. If you're looking at how to sustain a community, or sustain a livelihood or sustain a set of traditions, then you have to look at the whole web of social interactions, the whole web of environmental resource management relationships. And that thinking has matured quite a bit over the past few years. Now there is a sense that environment is not a luxury, it's not something that because we are good at heart we devote time to and attention to, if we have a bit of spare time during our day. It's brought environment right to the centre of major public policy concerns. So if environment is relevant to terrorist attacks or freedom from terrorist attacks, suddenly environment becomes something that has to be dealt with at the highest levels of policy.

So this is an encouraging trend, but as that trend has developed, the military and intelligence community has fallen a little bit to the way side, because the issues are not issues of traditional national security. What they amount to is the security threat that arises from the lack of sustainable development. So we like this very much, because it links the concept of security to the need for sustainable development, and that's what we're all about!.