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Wednesday, 28 August, 2002, 12:15 GMT 13:15 UK
Summit diary: Bluebottles, not banquets
Young boy plays among shacks in Alexandra, not far from the summit venue
Poverty-stricken families live near the summit venue
While delegates at the summit discuss poverty in the posh suburb of Sandton, residents in the nearby overcrowded township of Alexandra live in shacks

Day four of Alex Kirby's diary from the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.

It was raining when I reached the conference centre this morning.

After the near-biblical downpours that have wrought havoc across Europe and Asia lately, a few spots of warm African rain do not amount to much.

Tonight it is thundering, with great gobbets of rain exploding in the dust, and the frogs trying to sing me to sleep.

It might surprise my family, who were sure I was coming to Johannesburg for two weeks lazing in the sun.

Avoiding extravagance

If you are not very careful you can easily find yourself trapped in the media centre for hours on end, so that you forget whether it was wet or dry when you arrived.


We're working like bluebottles... Banquets? A chance would be a fine thing

UN official at the summit
You get sucked into the merry-go-round of press conferences, briefings, frantic hunts for key sources of information, and the desolate wait for a free computer to write and send your story.

But I'm not complaining: any journalist covering this summit who does not feel both fascinated and privileged really should not be here.

For the delegates and United Nations staff, though, it is different, and very much worse.

A few weeks ago the UN sent a message round to its staff asking them to avoid ostentatiously extravagant behaviour and opulent displays of virtuoso dining.

Frugality

This was partly out of respect for the summit's subject.

French Green European Union MP Alain Lipietz meets children in the poverty stricken Alexandria township
Some MPs visited children in nearby Alexandria
You look a bit odd planning ways for other people to live adequately if you are eating the last rock python in Africa.

And it was partly also because of the reality that lies not many miles from here, beyond South Africa's borders: men, women and children starving to death for no reason.

So is the UN's injunction being obeyed?

It is - and I suspect the living would have been pretty frugal even without any strictures from New York.

One member of the UK delegation, his minder told me, "hasn't had a square meal since the summit began. He's been living on snacks, which is all he has time for".

Perhaps the Brits just don't know how to enjoy themselves. So I asked a senior minion of a mainstream UN agency how he passed his time.

"I start work at six in the morning," he said, "and I finish around 11 at night.

"I've eaten four slices of toast today. We've a staff here of just over 30 - a skeleton crew. We're working like bluebottles. Banquets? A chance would be a fine thing."

'Thankless job'

When the politicians get sucked into the talks in the final stages of the summit, shed a tear for them.

The UK's Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, looked at one stage likely to be left at home.
Residents of a Johannesburg township pile up water supplies
Residents of nearby townships lack running water

Lucky me, he must have thought. I wouldn't wish his thankless, sleepless job on anybody.

Mind you, the frugality message hasn't reached everyone here in Jozi.

One of the flyers left prominently on every workplace in the media centre tonight was from a world-famous diamond company.

I suppose they want us to buy their gems. Who do they think we are?


Read earlier instalments in Alex Kirby's summit diary:


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26 Aug 02 | Africa
25 Aug 02 | Africa
25 Aug 02 | Politics
23 Aug 02 | Science/Nature
22 Aug 02 | Africa
06 Aug 02 | Africa
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