DPI/NGO Conference: On the Road to Rio+20


The third day of DPI/NGO opened with a round table on “Sustainable Development Governance: Issues from Local to Global”. The focus was on the role of citizen participation and much of the discussion spoke directly to the experience of civil society organisations and NGOs.

Thierno Kane from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa explored the link between democracy and good governance in the context of his home country of Senegal. He posed the following question: When all avenues of participation are closed, and the government does not listen, what then? Elections may take place but democracy is far more than elections. There needs to be the space within societies for people to come together, engage with decision makers and make demands on an on-going basis.

He argued that we have to re-think the definition of sustainable societies. Sustainable societies are not just environmentally sustainable, but also politically and socially stable. This was a theme that appeared repeatedly throughout the discussions. Sustainable societies are open societies. Being an open society means that there is space to debate and negotiate at all levels of the political process.

The most important message for CSOs was to be prepared. Mr Kane referred to a proverb: “Sharpen your knife and wait for the dawn”. This is not a violent message but a message of awareness and preparedness. In the words of Mr Kane: “The knife is your voting card. Go and register to vote – be ready”.

Konrad Otto-Zimmerman from Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI) presented on the different levels of decision making from the local to the national to the international arena, analysing the space for engagement at each level. He emphasised the potential for advocacy at local level due to the structure of local authorities – these structures are far more open to influence and can be very important spaces for CSOs and NGOs.

For countries with little tradition or history of civil society organisations, Mr Otto-Zimmerman stressed the importance of civic engagement in all its forms. Whether it is stamp collecting, or singing in a choir, such activities form a primary network of civic engagement.  This means that when an issue arises, there is a network to go to for help. This is the root of all civil society.

It is much harder to influence at national and global level because the structures are more closed. Dealing with issues at international level is also extremely difficult because often the issues transcend territories. He suggested that this was one of most significant obstacles we face in tackling climate change. The problem is not confined to national boarders and so questions of responsibility arise. As Mr Otto-Zimmerman put it, “Nation States are not designed to deal with non-territorial issues”. Equally, they are unable to deal with the complexity of the global common good.

Farah Cherif d’Ouezzan from the Thaqafat (‘cultures’) Association in Morocco addressed the conference on the subject of promoting citizenship through volunteerism. Her organisation works to promote citizenship through volunteerism to young people (the majority of the Moroccan population) who have become increasingly mistrusting of decision making processes and of civil society. The experience of Thaqafat Association is that volunteerism does promote responsible and responsive citizens – contributing to the networks and spaces required for the sustainable society as defined by Thierno Kane and Konrad Otto-Zimmermann.

Geri Lau from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies gave other examples of how supporting civil society leads to sustainability. She described the development approach of the Red Cross which is often present in communities long before a disaster even occurs, and remains long after. Through capacity building, communities are enabled to achieve their full potential. Taking her experiences and applying it to a definition of sustainability, she concluded that CARE is critical: Credibility, Accountability, Responsibility, Empowerment. Governments alone do not being about sustainable development. Communities are necessary partners.

John Matuszak from the USA State Department had the task of responding to the presentations, sharing his own personal views and not as a government representative. He led the USA delegation at the UN Sustainable Development Conference in May, and is also on the bureau for Rio+20. He echoed the views of the previous speakers in emphasising the critical role of civil society if we want to achieve sustainability in all its forms. He agreed with Mr. Kane: Elections are not enough. Mechanisms must be in place to keep both elected representatives and bureaucrats to account. He also stressed the importance of addressing connected issues – education, youth, and employment – as part of the sustainability agenda. Sustainable development is not just about the environment but about healthy societies more generally. With this in mind, Rio+20 needs to be a new conference that responds to societies and communities – not just States.

He urged civil society to take the initiative over the coming months. Hold meetings, educate your communities about Rio+20, invite your local decision makers, and above all, don’t just ask what they are doing but tell them what you want! We live in interesting times which present a great number of challenges but also many opportunities.

Read more about DPI/NGO:

Day 1

Day 2

Read more about Rio+20

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