NGOs AND THE UN CONFERENCE ON ENVIRONMENT AND DEVELOPMENT

PCDForum Column #8 Release Date January 25, 1991

by Tony Quizon

In 1992, the United Nations will hold a world conference on environment and development (UNCED) in Brazil. An official International Facilitation Committee, on which I represent the International Council of Voluntary Agencies, is planning for independent sector participation.

It is a timely event. The rapid breakdown of socio-political and environmental systems is self-evident everywhere in our world--revealed in deepening poverty, deteriorating life-support systems, and growing streams of political, economic and environmental refugees. In the Philippines alone forty percent of rural peasants will lose their means of livelihood during this decade if the current trend of environmental degradation is not reversed.

It is evident that the conventional approaches to development embraced by most governments, official assistance agencies, and even some NGOs are not working. It is time to rethink fundamental assumptions, including the belief that development is something that governments and corporations do for people. The distortions in the allocation and flow of political power and resources that result from this misconception lie at the heart of the growing global crisis. We need a major corrective shift toward a recognition that development must be people-centered, people-led, and sustainable. The UNCED provides a focusing event around which the world's people have an opportunity to project their voices and take collective action. But to fully use this opportunity, all concerned must understand the appropriate and distinctive role of NGOs in the UNCED process.

Heterogeneity. The most essential role of the voluntary sector, in the UNCED as in society more generally, is to bring a multitude of voices and fresh ideas into a healthy global public debate so that fundamental issues are identified and addressed. The conflicts and frictions of citizen voices and pressures from below give the debate its essential vitality. This function will not be served if NGOs are expected to provide a united front based on a forced "least common denominator" consensus.

  Public Consciousness. Successful international agreements on the issues to be addressed in Brazil must be built on a broad public consensus grounded in people's awareness of the conditions shaping the world their children will inherit. The NGO role is not to build public support for a conference agenda defined by the very public agencies whose policies created the crisis. Rather, it is to broaden and deepen public awareness of the issues, to mobilize citizens throughout the world to exercise creative initiative, and to hold governments accountable to priorities defined by an informed and active citizenry.

Relevance of Democratic Rights. NGO participation in UNCED-related meetings and deliberations is only one issue. Participation is meaningless without guarantees of personal freedoms. Effective environmental restoration is likely only where citizens are guaranteed their rights to form associations, express opinions, access information, and demand governmental accountability. The guarantees of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights notwithstanding, these rights remain severely restricted in many countries--seriously constraining responsible environmental action.

Enabling the Sovereign People. Citizen participation in the UNCED process is not a privilege. It is a right grounded in the universal principle that sovereignty resides in people--not governments. NGOs will participate in the UNCED process whether their presence is welcomed by governments or not. By a strong commitment to enabling that participation, governments can demonstrate their commitment both to democratic principles and to environmental action, while helping assure that participation is productive and equitable.

Citizen groups are likely to make their most important contributions to the UNCED process at the national level in preparatory and essential follow-on stages. It is appropriate, therefore, that both international guidelines and NGO advocacy efforts stress the right and responsibility of citizens at all levels, including the grassroots, to participate in national consultative processes.

The Brazil meeting is an important event on the path to just, productive and sustainable use of the world's resources, but it is only one event. While making full use of the meeting itself to focus global attention, NGOs must concentrate on strengthening citizen participation and governmental accountability in the longer term process.

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Tony Quizon is executive director of the Asian NGO Coalition (ANGOC), a regional NGO consortium body, and a contributing editor of the People-Centered Development Forum. This column was prepared and distributed by the PCDForum based on his presentation to the UNCED Preparatory Committee and Secretariat at a public forum in Nairobi. For further information contact ANGOC, MCC P.O. Box 870, Makati, Metro Manila, Philippines.

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