South Africa: Working the Web--Johannesburg Summit

The web offers the perfect opportunity to keep an eye on delegates at this year's world summit

Do you remember June 1992? Take That's It Only Takes a Minute infected the charts with a weird boy band virus from which the UK hit parade has never really recovered. Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs gave the British censors something to worry about. Leeds won the last ever first division title and Liverpool Football Club were the FA cup winners.

Meanwhile, 108 heads of state from 172 countries were busy saving the planet at the earth summit in Rio. It is difficult to say how the earth summit has improved the environment and helped those most in need. But it is much easier to say that in 1992, the web was a toddler in contrast to the speeding giant of mass communications it now is, giving a voice to all who can get online.

Those at Rio planned the planet's salvation by coining the concept of "sustainable development". With sustainable development in more common parlance than it was 10 years ago, (take the government's site for example: what can we expect this time at the world summit on sustainable devel opment which begins next week? The official websites at and aim to provide a democratising influence.

"We set out to create a digital memory of the summit," says Lomin Saayman, web manager of, "and to take a snapshot of this moment in human history. But we wanted to provide a greater interface for people with interests in these matters."

Time will be devoted to reviewing environmental progress or regress since Rio. And there will be particular emphasis on the developments in GM and global trade.

The UN's commitment to global capital is clear from its Global Compact. But such power ungoverned is risky, says Friends of the Earth, which is campaigning for a legally binding treaty on corporate accountability.

Corporate accountability will be a hot topic, and the internet has played a key role in this debate.

There is no better example than at Run by Friends of the Earth International, the site collects first-hand accounts and audio from ordinary people. There will be live radio broadcasts from the summit to community stations throughout Africa, and the web version will connect to stations globally.

"The web is a critical tool for NGOs," says Mike Childs, the FoE earth summit coordinator. "Companies will be shouting about how green they are but the web allows this greenwash to be exposed almost immediately. The use of audio makes this even more effective; it's a thousand times more powerful to hear people's voices than to read their stories."

Shell is just one of many multinationals accused of "greenwashing". But it is at the forefront of the race for a lifetime achievement award at this year's Green Oscars on a cynically amusing website. Eskom, electricity supplier to South Africa and one of the sponsors of the UN summit, is nominated in the best make-up section. The site also has nominations for "bluewashing", which it describes as "advertising and PR with humanitarian or human rights themes, drawing on greenwash techniques."

All that cleaning up is going to take a lot of water and the supply of safe water is set to flood the summit with alarming statistics from charities such as Water Aid. It claims that over the course of the conference, "50,000 children in the developing world will succumb to diseases linked to poor drinking water, hygiene and inadequate sanitation."

Africa continues to suffer from terrible famines and humanitarian aid packages will be reviewed and negotiated for developing countries. Meanwhile, renewable energy technologies will be discussed as a way of taking the heat off global warming and supplying developing countries with electricity, It is estimated that half a million tonnes of carbon dioxide will be produced by the more than 60,000 delegates flying into Johannesburg. But clever people at and have come up with a scheme that offsets the carbon dioxide an individual's flight creates by planting trees.

Alternatively, Margaret Beckett, John Prescott and Tony Blair could have taken the same route as Ruth Hollinger, Toby Hammond, Paul Bradbury and Owy McGrath. They decided to cycle the 10,000 miles from London to Johannesburg. They would have needed to have set off eight months ago. But then again, it probably would have done them, and us, a lot of good.

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