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Sustaining the Sustainers

Global conferences aimed at changing the world have grown humbler over the decades. Initially full of hope, they have a legacy of broken promises. The current UN conference in South Africa on the loosely defined idea of "sustainable development" may be the most humbling.

The UN, World Bank, and others have learned well how to pinpoint global problems, such as water shortages. They've learned how to pitch for more resources from rich countries while nudging poorer countries toward the latest trends in reforms.

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Just bringing 20,000 delegates and some 100 world leaders together to agree on broad solutions to a few pressing issues will do much to spread ideas, energize aid workers and activists, and perhaps devote more money to worthy causes. And cementing a global consensus on issues can alter national policies.

Europe sees such conferences as a way to help the economies of former colonies, while the US seeks greater democracy through aid and trade. They've all come to realize that private aid and market solutions do far more to lift billions out of poverty and save the planet than can centralized bureaucracies and official aid.

Sustaining the private initiative that solves global problems is difficult for the UN and national governments. That's the humbling lesson of these conferences. Business is largely distrusted, and private aid groups are an unruly lot with diverse interests.

This conference, a followup to the 1992 Earth Summit, reflects that humbling shift toward the private sector. It includes more business and technology groups, and NGOs. They speak less of the "environment" – a term suspect in some quarters – and more of "sustainable development."

Eventually, global conferences can be driven by private groups, which are more accountable in getting results.