Note: The paper draws on inputs from the responses to the questionnaire that was circulated, the sub-regional and regional NGO meetings prior to the intergovernmental preparatory meetings, the stakeholders’ consultations at those meetings, and other contributions from NGOs and NGO networks dealing with sectoral and cross-sectoral issues.


A.      Introduction

1.   The review and assessment of progress in implementing sustainable development at Prepcomm II has two major dimensions with regards to NGOs. First, NGO perspectives on the failure of the promises and commitments of “sustainable development” of  the sustainable development agenda and the concomitant triumph of the globalization and liberalization paradigm manifested in the World Trade Organisation, Bretton Woods institutions and the increased wealth and power of transnational corporations. Secondly, the role of NGOs as partners for sustainable development as envisaged in Chapter 27 of Agenda 21.

2.   The globalization and liberalization process that has swept the world in the last two decades is today acknowledged to create deep inequities. That process has intensified in the years after UNCED.

3.   The crux of the problem is the unequal distribution of power and wealth in the world, both within and between countries. This can no longer be denied by national governments and international institutions which hold the responsibility for resolving the conflicting interests in our societies, domestically, regionally and at the global level. The massive protests at major global conferences and the unreported local protests by civil society against the pitfalls of globalization are growing.

4.   There is much talk about transparency and democracy at the national level, and NGOs have been part of this campaign in our countries. But the major countries refuse to democratise at the international level, where the global decisions are taken mainly by the G8 or the OECD or the Bretton Woods institutions and WTO, without the adequate participation of smaller nations, let alone civil society. There have been the great pressures of the rich countries to get the poorer countries to liberalise their economies, but the North practises protectionism when they insist on patenting their technologies, when they practise bio-piracy, when they do not open their doors to the products and labour coming from the South. Many of these issues challenge the WSSD directly and indirectly.

5.   Thus we need a democratisation and transformation of global institutions, and we need to inject people’s rights into them. This can only happen when people’s movements and civil society participate actively in making fundamental changes. We need democratisation and transparency in the private sector, in the financial institutions and markets, the transnational companies, we need to voice our concern about their concentration of wealth through takeovers and mergers, their ability to destroy the wealth of small countries through financial speculation, an experience that the Asian region suffered at first hand.

6.   These challenges to meet the goal of sustainable development require the full and effective participation of civil society. However, from the outset, it is important to emphasise that there must be a distinction between the private sector (especially transnational corporations and financial institutions) and citizens’ organizations (both formal and informal). The inequities mentioned above are reflected in the various groups in society. It would be a false start to assume that all groups are “equal stakeholders”. The reality is that vast majorities of our societies are ‘unorganized’ for purposes of engagement with formal structures, with many are being marginalized from development. Governments individually and collectively thus have a big responsibility in being an arbiter of conflicting interests, recognizing that there are serious inequities (wealth and power) both nationally and globally.

B.      Overall progress achieved in implementation of Agenda 21

7.   In assessing their efforts over the past 10 years to contribute to the implementation of the various UN programmes resulting from UN Summits and Conferences, as well as MEAs, many NGOs and NGO networks made the following observations and concerns.

8.   The UNCED process generated unprecedented levels of awareness around environmental issues, and the link between environment and development.  There were high hopes and commitments to achieve the integration of environment and development in a new North-South partnership.

9.   However, almost 10 years after Rio, the sustainable development agenda has failed to be implemented. While some progress has been made at the local level, especially by communities and some local governments with active NGO participation in many cases, the overall prognosis is negative. While there has been progress in concluding the POPs Convention, the Kyoto Protocol and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, the implementation of multilateral environmental agreements as a whole has been disappointing. In almost every case, there is even weakening if not outright rejection of the spirit and letter of MEAs by certain countries. 

10. Instead, the globalization paradigm with its “free market” driven liberalization has overtaken the Rio agenda (including multilateral environmental agreements) and the United Nations programs on women, social development, habitat, and food security that collectively call for the integration of the 3 pillars of sustainable development: ecological, social and economic. An overwhelming number of NGOs identify globalization as the fundamental obstacle to sustainable development. This was reinforced in a number of regional NGO meetings held prior to the various regional ministerial preparatory meetings between September and November 2001, for instance:

·        According to the Declaration of the Meeting of Civil Society Networks of Latin America and the Caribbean, “the growth of economic globalisation and the expansion of the markets have taken place under conditions that threaten the principles and implementation of sustainable development”.

·        The Asia Pacific Peoples’ Forum stated that “the globalization paradigm has overtaken the UNCED, and the United Nations programs on women, social development, habitat, and food security that collectively call for the integration of the 3 pillars of sustainable development: ecological, social and economic.”

·        The African NGO Forum stated that “The forces of globalisation that have shaped the world and our continent in the last decades have deepened and entrenched poverty, marginalized peoples and nations, and accelerated ecological disintegration ... this process has entrenched unequal power relationships between the north and south, and has undermined the sovereignty of African nations.

·        At the UN ECE regional meeting, the NGO Declaration stated that “The overwhelming dominance and acceptance of an unsustainable development paradigm, lack of education and public awareness, and excessive corporate influence over government policy, has led to a situation where economic growth and trade liberalization over-ride social and environmental concerns.”

11. The ecological crisis has worsened, including: loss of biodiversity; deforestation; global warming and rising sea levels, with small island states being the most vulnerable; adverse climate change;  unsustainable industrial fishing practices; inappropriate land use policies; biopiracy; new technologies with far-reaching environmental and health impact such as genetic engineering; industrial agriculture (including destructive aquaculture); big dams and resettlement schemes; destructive mining projects; water scarcity; deteriorating water quality; desertification and land degradation; air pollution; unsustainable tourism; privatization and commodification of land, traditional knowledge and the displacement of peoples, especially indigenous peoples; massive land reclamation projects. These and may other threats lead to economic and social insecurity on a large scale.

12. Poverty remains pervasive and inequity in income distribution has worsened, within countries and between the rich and poor. There is a growing and unsustainable external debt burden in many developing countries, including those that once enjoyed relatively high economic growth. Many emerging economies and economies in transition are also experiencing economic vulnerabilities. The causes include rapid financial liberalization in the post-Rio years that created an unstable international financial system (example: unregulated capital flows and speculation) and faulty policy prescriptions and conditionalities from the International Monetary Fund.

13. Crippling external debt, continuing unfair terms of trade for the exports of developing countries, especially LDCs which are primarily commodity producers, also continue to be obstacles to the implementation of sustainable development in that natural resources are unsustainably exploited with little re-invested in development programmes.

14. Recent documentation reveals that many of the poorer developing countries have in fact lost capacity in economic terms, over the last 10 years. This further undermines efforts to shift towards sustainable development, even if there is political will, as a healthy domestic private sector and viable livelihoods for communities are necessary for sustainable development.

15. The nexus between environment and development that was affirmed in Rio has been weakened, if not broken, in policy and political terms. With the unfulfilled commitments of meeting the 0.7% of GDP target and transfer of environmentally sound technology by developed countries, both the developing countries and the UN implementing bodies have been unable to implement sustainable development.

16. At the same time, the more aggressive implementation of trade agreements (under the World Trade Organisation, regional and bilateral agreements)  has worsened socio-economic conditions and the environment in many countries. The 5th  WTO Ministerial Conference that adopted an even broader agenda for more economic liberalization, far beyond trade issues, will have a major impact on the autonomy and ability of countries to choose sustainable development options.

17. This failure to shift towards sustainable development is caused by the weakening of political leaders in almost all countries. In the developed countries the political leadership has capitulated to the demands of corporate interests and traded off social and environmental concerns both domestically and internationally. In developing countries there is greater institutional fragility and the loss of national autonomy and capacity to respond to the needs of peoples and the environment.

18. The increased concentration of wealth, and hence power and influence of transnational corporations and large domestic firms, has created more unequal relations: vis-à-vis the state, and vis-à-vis NGOs and other stakeholders in society. It has also contributed to national and international corruption.

19. This development is the result of globalisation that emphasizes the rights and freedom of corporations over their obligations and responsibilities. A major weakness of UNCED was the dismantling of the notion of regulating the private business and financial sector, especially transnational corporations. In its place was the notion of business as a partner in sustainable development, on par with all other “stakeholders”. Today, in a world that is more unequal with a small number of TNCs dominating each sector and exerting tremendous influence over governments, this concept of “partnership and stakeholders” perpetuates the myth that there is a collective endeavor, that all players are equal and conflicts of interest can be resolved by roundtables seeking consensus.

20. Thus many NGOs are extremely concerned over the Global Compact initiated by the UN Secretary-General. Although many governments, especially from developed countries, and some UN agencies regard this as an appropriate framework for a UN-private sector partnership, the Global Compact is not an equal partnership. Instead, by privileging the world’s largest transnational corporations (which have unacceptable environmental and human rights records), it underscores the inequities faced by developing countries, civil society, and non-government and people’s organizations at the negotiating table and decision-making venues. We note that some governments have also voiced their concerns.

21. Many NGOs thus call for the dissolution of the Global Compact and urge governments to regulate corporations and to lay down obligations, responsibilities and accountability consistent with sustainable development.

22. The reality is that the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” has been systematically turned around so that developing countries are bearing a heavier environmental, economic and social burden in order for developed countries to continue with business as usual. At the domestic level, the poor and underprivileged bear the burden for the unsustainable consumption and wealth accumulation of the rich.

23. However, there are some positive developments. The limitations and failures of globalisation as a model, and the failure of governments to act in favour of sustainable development, has led to growing public questioning and demands across the world. The WSSD process offers a valuable opportunity for diverse NGOs and networks to contribute concrete ideas for policy, programmes and projects in sustainable development and more importantly, to galvanise political awareness and pressure on governments and institutions to ake action.

The role of NGOs as partners for sustainable development

24. In the responses from NGOs to a questionnaire, as well as other assessments from NGO networks, on whether the past 10 years have seen strengthening of their role, some broad conclusions can be drawn.

25. The independence and sustainability of NGOs were identified as crucial factors in ensuring that NGOs can play an effective role in monitoring and implementing sustainable development. Resources, training and capacity building in research and advocacy, project planning and implementation were emphasized.

26. NGOs have also played and continue to play an important role in initiating and supporting various local activities to implement sustainable development.  The UNCED process witnessed a broad direct and meaningful involvement of NGOs in shaping the international agenda for perhaps the first time in global negotiations.  In the 10 years since Rio, the profile and standing of NGOs, generally speaking, has vastly and visible improved at national, regional and international levels.

27. Capacity building has taken place over the last 10 years, noticeably in the ability of NGOs to engage at the international level, including the work of the Commission on Sustainable Development, the Commission on Social Development, the MEAs, the landmines treaty, the UN-AIDS programme, the World Commission on Dams.

28. Engagement with UN agencies such as UNEP, FAO, UNDP and UNCTAD has also progressed. However, there are concerns that the corporate partnerships between UN agencies and big business (in addition to the Global Compact) will create more unequal participatory relations amongst the various Major Groups. This could undermine public confidence in the UN and efforts to implement sustainable development that is people-centred.

29. The translation of Agenda 21 into national plans, municipal programs and school curricula, as well as the national implementation of MEAs and other UN Summit work programmes and plans, can all be attributed, to some extent, to the fact that the UNCED process opened the right doors for NGOs vis-a vis governments and other agencies.  Many NGOs have the trust of the people, and now the government machinery too has begun to engage in dialogue and tap into their expertise and skills.   More importantly, in most cases at least, they are no longer considered adversaries but partners in achieving the goals of sustainable development. These are all very promising beginnings and much has to be done to build upon these changes.

30. NGOs have also forged closer ties and genuine partnerships among themselves through good communications and coordination. This is where the access to the Internet has boost cooperation and capacity building though it is still restricted to NGOs with access to the web and NGOs who have regular electricity supplies. NGOs in many developing countries, and especially those working at the community level, still face problems of access to the Internet. At the same time, there is a need for continued support for other means of communication and information dissemination, including audio means and regular mail, and in the various local languages.

31. In tandem, with these developments, donor governments and funding agencies have also worked closely with NGOs on related issues thus strengthening their capacities and increasing their effectiveness further.

32. The conclusion and entry into force of the Aarhus Convention is a significant achievement since Rio, for enhancing the role of NGOs in the environmental arena. The challenge would be the extent of implementation, and the attainment of environmental justice in practice. The opportunity for other countries and regions to give legal recognition and protection to environmental rights, taking into account the diversity of societies, will be the next step forward. 

33. Despite big gains for NGO profile and prestige since Rio, however, most NGOs remain outside the decision-making machinery of national, regional and international bodies that determine policies and they lack clout in executing any decisions.  Rio proved tentative at best in its formulation of policies towards NGOs and Chapter 27 has proved to be a mere soul searching process, not a bold framework for implementation of sustainable development.

B. Integrative approaches to sectoral and cross -sectoral objectives of sustainable development

34. UN Summits and Conferences of the nineties have all addressed the need for “partnerships”.  In order to ensure that action plans are effectively implemented  Rio, Copenhagen, Cairo, Beijing, Istanbul have all emphasized the need to draw on the support of all segments of society - NGOs, the private sector, academics, media, women, youth indigenous groups etc.

35. To date NGOs have carried out several successful integrative campaigns that cut across sectors and issues.  To mention few, the campaign on gender sensitization is by far the most prominent.  Women’s groups have managed to get their voices across the board.  The campaign against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment that led the OECD members in 1998 to abandon the project shows how NGOs can campaign in the absence of formal institutions.  The Brazilian NGO Hunger Campaign resulted in major political change in 1993.  Concerted action by NGOs to establish an effective International Criminal Court is also an example of how NGOs along with like minded States can exert pressure to negotiate issues. The UNAIDS has also seen the strong involvement of NGOs which has underpinned almost all successful responses to the AIDS epidemic whether this be community based or through peer education. The recent successful campaign by NGOs and developing country governments to ensure that the poor and needy have access to affordable drugs led to the Declaration on TRIPs and Public Health being adopted at the 5th  WTO Ministerial Conference.

C.      Enabling multi-stakeholder participation in SD institutions and mechanisms.

36. Overall, the process of enhancing consultation with NGOs whether at national, regional or international levels still leaves much to be desired. To start with, the independence of thought and action of NGOs is to a large extent a factor of the source of their funding.  The untied funding field is narrow and highly competitive.  Restrictions in freedom of speech and action are more the norm in most countries.  While attitudes towards NGOs are slowly changing, contributed significantly by UNCED, the question of public access to information in a timely and reliable fashion is not the reality yet in most jurisdictions.  Access to justice is an even more contentious issue with very few countries affording locus standi to interested parties.

37. Effective NGO participation in sustainable development institutions and mechanisms therefore  is premised upon :

·        Access to reliable information.   This has not always been forthcoming from national governments.  Currently, given new levels of security concerns, some governments are acting to restrict wide circulation of information.

·        Access to information held by corporations, especially TNCs, is even more restrictive. There has been widening claims by industry for protection of “confidential information” far beyond trade secrets and confidential business information. Information necessary for environmental impact assessment and biosafety assessment are two examples.

·        Availability of structures to allow for consultation and participation at all levels of decision making. Very rarely have governments set up mechanisms or structures for involving NGOs on a regular on-going basis.  At best an issue based approach is adopted depending upon the level of public outcry against any projects or development schemes.

·        The existence of a level playing field and equity among components in the Major Groups.  This point is an important one and straddles both the national and international arena.  At the national level, governments are increasingly comfortable making decisions with industry representatives and closing doors to citizen groups all in the name of privatizing and liberalizing the economy.  In the process, the small and medium scale entrepreneurs are left behind and often left to fend for themselves usually at the expense of environmental, labour and human rights standards.  A clear distinction has thus to be made between the large and powerful TNCs and the small scale industrialists. Many NGOs are working with small firms and farmers that are struggling to participate in decision-making, too.

38. The experiences of the CSD in conducting multi-stakeholder dialogues offer valuable lessons, both positive and negative. The first dialogue on the Role of Industry led to a concrete proposal for a review of voluntary initiatives which was adopted by governments. Unfortunately, the multi-stakeholder review was obstructed, due to the reluctance of industry’s representatives to participate.

39. Thus, one area of concern is the inequity among the various Major Groups which does not serve to further the goals of SD nor does sit augur well in terms of furthering the prospects for genuine partnership. This considered in the light of globalisation that has characterized the global economic scene since Rio can exacerbate the North-South divide and may eventually threaten the successful outcome of WSSD itself.

40. Some UN agencies such as UNEP have been reviewing their policies towards engaging and enhancing NGO participation in their decision making machinery.  The process itself is enlightening and will enhance the overall role and strength of UNEP in its monitoring role in SD matters.  The UNEP/CSO consultative dialogue sessions have been taking place and some NGOs have been providing their experiences, inputs and recommendations.

41. However, at other international institutions where decisions are made that impact directly on the goals of sustainable development, participation by NGOs is uneven at best and absent at worst. In the case of the WTO, even governments are voicing their objections at the untransparent and undemocratic decicison-making processes of the WTO.

42. In the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis, and the continuing sructural adhjustment programmes of the IMF for indebted countries, NGOs in the affected countries are demanding transparency and public participation in the negotiation of conditionalities so that the goal of sustainable development does not get compromised again and again.

D.      Opportunities for new implementation initiatives in response to the identified hotspots, constraints and participatory needs

43. From the questionnaire responses, regional and sub-regional NGO meetings prior to the inter-governmental preparatory meetings between September and November and ongoing inputs from NGOs and NGO networks, some proposals can be drawn.

44. Further increasing and enhancing of the role of NGOs in sustainable development efforts would decisively contribute to the reinvigoration of the SD implementation process. In this regard they should be accorded reliable access to information and not be impeded in their efforts to raise awareness of important issues at all levels, from the community to the global.

45. Solid criteria or standards have to be put in place by national governments and international bodies to ensure NGO participation and consultation is not perfunctory. NGO inputs should be adequately considered and their involvement truly meaningful at all levels in the decision making process.

46. NGOs should be assisted in strengthening their own capacities and to be able to network with each other more effectively.  Donors should make every effort to familiarize themselves with the workings of NGOs and their set ups and operations, and most importantly respect the independence of NGOs.

47. Frameworks and guide-lines for the engagement of civil society with national governments, regional and international organizations should be determined in an open, transparent and inclusive manner.  Efforts must be made to take account of the differences in the equity and bargaining strengths of various groups.

48. The financial means and other resources needed to implement these measures should be adequately ensured.

49. However, the precondition for any successful implementation initiative is the transformation of unfair and inequitable institutions and processes at all levels, so that good practices (projects or policies which abound in every sector) can be duplicated, mainstreamed and implemented.

50. Strengthening the UN is a priority for many NGOs, since the last 10 years have seen the shift of global socio-economic policy making to the WTO and Bretton Woods institutions, with those organisations themselves increasingly safeguarding narrow interests that are antagonistic to sustainable development.

51. At the same time, reform of the global economic institutions is needed. Ideas and proposals have emerged but the political will is lacking. NGOs therefore commit themselves to addressing those issues, while working to implement and mainstream successful sustainable development experiences.

52. Similarly, local, national and regional institutions and mechanisms for sustainable development have yet to be put in place. Again, it is not the lack of ideas and experiences, but political will.

53. Ten years ago, governments and civil society participants arrived at a global consensus that business as usual was not sustainable, and a new partnership was promised based on inter alia, “common but differentiated responsibilities”,  transformation of unsustainable consumption and production, the polluter pays principle, the precautionary principle, and a need to integrate ecological, economic and social dimensions if we are to attain sustainable development. We call on all governments and civil society members to reaffirm those commitments in their full integrity.