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,

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