Civil society- challenge and opportunities

Pulished in July 2002.

The world into which I was born was occupied by about 2.5 billion people and 6 million elephants. Today I share the planet with some 6.5.billion people and there are 600,000 elephants. There is a reasonable chance that I will still be alive on the day the 8 billionth person is born and will read of the death of the last wild elephant. Meanwhile GDP per capita has almost tripled to around $15,000 a year in developed world in that same lifetime and quadrupled to around $2,500 in the developing world. As I have grown richer in money the world has become poorer in forests, fisheries, wetlands, birds and much else.

These numbers neatly define the core challenge of sustainable development. How can we deliver rising real incomes to more than 8 billion people without undermining the ecological foundations of the economy on which those rising real incomes depend? We too easily forget that everything in our economy that does not come from fossil fuels and non-fossil minerals is essentially a product of six bio geophysical systems – croplands, rangelands, forestlands, freshwaters, oceans and the atmosphere. Degrade the productivity of those systems and you eventually undermine the economy.

It was at the Earth Summit, more formally the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, that this interdependence of the economy and the environment was first enshrined in global public policy. Attended by the leaders of 124 nations, this Summit was the largest gathering of world leaders that had ever taken place on any subject. The outputs where on a scale to match, two global treaties were opened for signature, on climate change and on biodiversity; a massive global action plan, Agenda 21, was adopted as was a formal statement of principles, the Rio Declaration.

The Summit was also remarkable for setting a new standard of participation in inter-governmental relationships. Present at the Conference alongside the several thousand official delegates were some thirty thousand participants representing the so-called major groups – non-governmental organisations, community associations, local government representatives, professional and academic institutions, trades unions and, for the first time at such an event, leaders from the business community. Although formally only observers at the Conference, these participants from civil society engaged vigorously with the official delegates and with the thousands of journalists present to create an unprecedented ferment of public debate on global issues.

Ten years later, the world’s leaders are gathering again. This time in Johannesburg, South Africa, for the World Summit on Sustainable Development. If most come, as they did to Rio, there will be nearly 200 leaders such has been the growth in the number of nations in the past decade. They will be gathering in a very different mood from the post Cold War optimism that infused Rio.

Today we live in the shadow of September 11th amidst a rising tide of seemingly intractable conflicts around the world in the Middle East, in South Asia and in many places in Africa. The scourge of AIDS is collapsing life expectancy in some countries as fast as it is growing in others. And the signals of stress from the planet’s ecosystems become ever more insistent: most of the warmest years on record have occurred since the Earth Summit, three-quarters of the world’s fisheries are now exploited at or beyond their sustainable catches, an area of tropical forest larger than Venezuela has disappeared in a decade.

In the period between Stockholm, the first ever global conference on the environment in 1972, and Rio we learned that the economy and the environment were interdependent. This led to the call to integrate environmental with other public policies in order to deliver sustainable development. In the ten years since Rio we have also learned that you cannot deliver sustainable development in an inequitable world. Alleviating poverty is as much an imperative as protecting the environment. And, in these grittier times, we have come to realise that governments alone cannot accomplish the necessary transition.

Much of what was agreed between governments in 1992 has led to only relatively small changes in public policy in most countries. The reality is that whilst we are putting in place appropriate public policies on some of the issues in some places, the planet as a whole is further away from sustainable development now than it was a decade ago. The problems are growing faster than our efforts to solve them. But largely unnoticed, in local authorities and community associations, in voluntary organisations and big and small businesses, in schools and universities and professional bodies throughout the world, there has been a ferment of debate and activity as civil society strives to meet directly the exigencies of sustainable development.

One of the greatest difficulties the world faces in making the transition to sustainable development is the democratic dilemma. Change on the scale now needed inherently requires long term policies which sometimes involve unpopular choices. Democracy is essential to sustainable development but to be vital democracy requires regular changes of government at fairly short intervals. In today’s media dense world that often leads to a sacrifice of the long term and to popular rather than appropriate policies. One has only to think of how difficult it has been to change agricultural policies in Europe and North America which destroy their own environment at the same time as they condemn millions of the world’s poorest people to continued misery.

This does not mean that we have to make a false choice between democracy and sustainable development. Rather, we must recognise that democratic leaders will always be constrained by the willingness of their citizens to accept the requirements of progressive public policies. This means that long term change required for sustainable development must begin first in the base of society. The key change agents are thus the voluntary organisations, businesses, municipal and community organisations, churches and other local bodies that make up that base. Increasingly, the role of government, and of inter-governmental organisations, must be to provide an enabling framework which guides but does not manage their activities.

The keys to escaping from the democratic dilemma over sustainable development are partnerships and networks, the recognition by all the players that the scale and complexity of these issues is such that they cannot be solved by any one of them. The market will not deliver sustainable development and nor will governments. Tidy ideologies rooted in the 20th. Century that cling to either view simply get in the way of progress in the distinctly untidy 21st. Century in which we are already living.

We have already seen the power of such networks in relation to issues such as river blindness where it took years of learning the hard way to make significant progress which only occurred when inter-governmental agencies, national governments, local communities, philanthropic foundations, NGOs and businesses all began to work together as a network. This is the model that underlies the new Global Fund which is tackling AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

The Johannesburg Summit will spend much of its time negotiating text as all such gatherings do. There will be a Johannesburg Declaration and a Plan of Action which, for all their lack of specificity will provide some guidance to future action. But the really innovative, and by a long way most important, debates in Johannesburg will be over the dreadfully titled Type 2 initiatives.

These will recognise and register partnerships and networks of those committed to the implementation of solutions to the problems of sustainable development. This innovation takes the recognition of the importance of participation in international relations another big step forward and gives the institutions of civil society a further opportunity to become directly engaged in making the transition to sustainable development.

Delivering the full potential of this initiative will however require significant changes in the way business and the non-governmental organisations relate both to each other and to governments.  It has been very largely the work of the environmental NGOs which has alerted public and policy makers alike to the urgency of the problems facing the planet. They now need to recognise that it is time for a second generation of environmentalism focussed more on defining solutions than problems; more willing to work with rather than just against business and government. The business community which has all too often in the past acted as a brake on sustainable development must now recognise that the political and social stability on which all business success ultimately depends cannot be maintained without their much more active engagement in the necessary change. Governments, and especially their political masters, will need to be much more open to working with both.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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