NGOs AND THE UNCED FOLLOW-UP PROCESS: CONTINUING NEED FOR INDEPENDENT ACTION
PCDForum Column #42 Release Date November 20, 1992
by Martin Khor
In the aftermath of UNCED, NGOs have met in nearly every nation of the world to define the actions they will take in relation to agreements reached in Rio. Though its official fora failed to address essential issues, the UNCED process opened many new opportunities for NGOs and social movements to strengthen their campaigns. In particular, it forged new and stronger links between Northern and Southern groups, as well as between development and environment activists--and expanded their respective definitions of the problem.
It would now be difficult, for example, for Northern environmental organizations to campaign on protecting wildlife or controlling population growth without simultaneously addressing such issues as terms of trade, debt, aid, patents and the roles of the World Bank, IMF, GATT and transnational corporations. If these groups are now able to awaken Northern public opinion on such issues there are prospects for a real breakthrough.
The UNCED process also gave new legitimacy to environmental groups in the South. Previously Southern governments too easily condemned local environmental NGOs as mere tools of the North. Now that Third World political leaders have themselves signed UNCED's agreements on environmental protection, they find it more difficult to condemn their own public interest groups when they call for the implementation of these very agreements.
On the development side, a growing number of citizen groups are studying how debt and structural adjustment, adverse terms of trade, and the wrong kinds of aid destroy the environment. The need for fundamental reform of global economic institutions and North-South economic relationships is an idea whose time has come.
The official follow-up to UNCED will come mainly through the Commission on Sustainable Development to be established under ECOSOC. NGOs and independent experts are meant to play an important role and should insist on doing so. It would be naive, however, for NGOs to apply their main energies to supporting the official post-UNCED processes toward implementation of the UNCED agreements. There is much in Agenda 21 and in the other official UNCED documents signed by almost all the world's governments that does merit NGO support. There is also much that is weak or even dangerous.
Official UNCED was a political process with clear winners and losers in which many participants came to the table with priorities in conflict with UNCED's professed environmental commitment. Unfortunately, Earth and its people--both North and South--were among the losers. So too were the Southern countries that hoped to use the environment as leverage to get concessions redressing the power balance between North and South.
Among the apparent winners were the governments of the Northern countries that prevailed in their refusal to agree to concrete or meaningful commitments in areas as diverse as curbing unsustainable consumption, stopping the export of hazardous substances and wastes, and phasing out environmentally unsound technologies and occupational hazards. Western lifestyles remained sacred and consumer sovereignty continued to reign supreme.
Transnational corporations (TNCs) were the big winners at UNCED. On their behalf, governments promoted the underlying UNCED motto that "economic growth, free trade and free markets are the best way to promote environmental protection." Under the leadership of Maurice Strong, the UNCED secretariat made sure that references to the need for tighter regulation of business were avoided or erased from official documents like Agenda 21. Only laudatory references to TNCs as partners in the environmental cause were allowed.
Even as the UNCED preparatory meetings were going on, the only UN agency monitoring and preparing the ground for regulating TNCs, the UN Centre on Transnational Corporations, was closed down. In its place, the Business Council for Sustainable Development was formed by a number of TNC chiefs at Strong's urging. Nicknamed by NGOs the "Sustainable Council for Business Development, its mission is to convince the public that "self-regulation" of business by the newly environmentally conscious captains of industry is enough--or at least is superior to state or international regulation.
Historically, NGOs and peoples' movements have been
most effective when they have maintained an independent
activist stance in dealing with official agencies and agendas.
They should maintain this stance as they sift through the
UNCED documents to pick out the positive agreements that
give official sanction to their campaigns, the weak areas they
will work to strengthen, and the negative things they will
attempt to counter. In every instance they must continue to
take their issues and campaigns directly to the people, as
well as to their governments, and international agencies.
Martin Khor is Coordinator of the Third World Network and a contributing editor of the People-Centered Development Forum. This column was prepared by the PCDForum based on his Earth Summit articles in Third World Resurgence, August/September 1992. His address is 87 Cantonment Road, 10250 Penang, Malaysia.