PCDForum Column #8 Release Date January 25, 1991

by Tony Quizon

In 1992, the United Nations will hold a world conference on environment and development
(UNCED) in
Brazil. An official International Facilitation Committee,
on which I represent the International Council of Voluntary Agencies, is planning for independent sector participation.

It is a timely event. The rapid breakdown of socio-political and environmental systems is self-evident everywhere in our world–revealed in deepening poverty,
deteriorating life-support systems, and growing streams
of political, economic and environmental refugees. In
the Philippines alone forty percent of rural peasants will
lose their means of livelihood during this decade if the
current trend of environmental degradation is not reversed.

It is evident that the conventional approaches to development embraced by most governments, official assistance agencies, and even some NGOs are not working.
It is time to rethink fundamental assumptions, including
the belief that development is something that governments and corporations do for people. The distortions in
the allocation and flow of political power and resources
that result from this misconception lie at the heart of the
growing global crisis. We need a major corrective shift
toward a recognition that development must be people-centered, people-led, and sustainable. The UNCED
provides a focusing event around which the world’s
people have an opportunity to project their voices and
take collective action. But to fully use this opportunity,
all concerned must understand the appropriate and distinctive role of NGOs in the UNCED process.

Heterogeneity. The most essential role of the voluntary sector, in the UNCED as in society more generally,
is to bring a multitude of voices and fresh ideas into a
healthy global public debate so that fundamental issues
are identified and addressed. The conflicts and frictions
of citizen voices and pressures from below give the
debate its essential vitality. This function will not be
served if NGOs are expected to provide a united front
based on a forced “least common denominator” consensus.

  Public Consciousness. Successful international
agreements on the issues to be addressed in Brazil must
be built on a broad public consensus grounded in people’s awareness of the conditions shaping the world their
children will inherit. The NGO role is not to build public support for a conference agenda defined by the very
public agencies whose policies created the crisis.
Rather, it is to broaden and deepen public awareness of
the issues, to mobilize citizens throughout the world to
exercise creative initiative, and to hold governments
accountable to priorities defined by an informed and
active citizenry.

Relevance of Democratic Rights. NGO participation in UNCED-related meetings and deliberations is
only one issue. Participation is meaningless without
guarantees of personal freedoms. Effective environmental restoration is likely only where citizens are guaranteed their rights to form associations, express opinions,
access information, and demand governmental accountability. The guarantees of the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights notwithstanding, these rights remain
severely restricted in many countries–seriously constraining responsible environmental action.

Enabling the Sovereign People. Citizen participation in the UNCED process is not a privilege. It is a
right grounded in the universal principle that sovereignty resides in people–not governments. NGOs will
participate in the UNCED process whether their presence is welcomed by governments or not. By a strong
commitment to enabling that participation, governments
can demonstrate their commitment both to democratic
principles and to environmental action, while helping
assure that participation is productive and equitable.

Citizen groups are likely to make their most important
contributions to the UNCED process at the national
level in preparatory and essential follow-on stages. It is
appropriate, therefore, that both international guidelines
and NGO advocacy efforts stress the right and responsibility of citizens at all levels, including the grassroots, to
participate in national consultative processes.

The Brazil meeting is an important event on the path to
just, productive and sustainable use of the world’s resources, but it is only one event. While making full use
of the meeting itself to focus global attention, NGOs
must concentrate on strengthening citizen participation
and governmental accountability in the longer term


Tony Quizon is executive director of the Asian NGO Coalition (ANGOC), a regional NGO consortium body, and a
contributing editor of the People-Centered Development
Forum. This column was prepared and distributed by the
PCDForum based on his presentation to the UNCED Preparatory Committee and Secretariat at a public forum in
Nairobi. For further information contact ANGOC, MCC
P.O. Box 870, Makati, Metro Manila, Philippines.

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