Multi-stakeholder Dialogue: A trend to watch
Bringing ‘stakeholders’ around a table to forge partnerships in sustainable development is a growing UN trend, but there are pitfalls in the process.
by Yin Shao Loong and Chee Yoke Ling
JANUARY 2002 was a curious month for global democracy. In New York the global business and political elite gathered in the World Economic Forum (WEF) in the Waldorf Astoria hotel whilst some 20,000 people gathered in the streets to protest the unaccountable power of the WEF. In Porto Alegre in Brazil, 45,000 activists converged on the World Social Forum to explore new alternatives to globalisation, confident that ‘another world is possible’.
Immediately preceding the WEF, another experiment in global democracy was underway. Instead of being at opposite ends of the Americas, governments, non-governmental organisations, indigenous peoples, women, youth, farmers, local authorities, trade unions, scientists and business were grouped in the UN headquarters and engaging in a Multi-stakeholder Dialogue on the future of sustainable development.
They had convened in the second meeting of the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom 2) for the forthcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg. The WSSD is the post-10-year follow-up to the historic 1992 Rio ‘Earth Summit’ - the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED).
UNCED significantly bridged the conceptual gap between development and environment by championing the concept of sustainable development and outlined an action plan for implementing sustainable development in the 21st century, Agenda 21. World leaders politically committed themselves to 27 principles in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. A Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) was set up to continue policy discussion and to monitor the implementation of the agreed action plan.
In 1998, the Multi-stakeholder Dialogue (MSD) was introduced as a feature of annual CSD meetings, designed to promote greater involvement for ‘Major Groups’ as outlined in Agenda 21 (women, youth, indigenous peoples, NGOs, local authorities, trade unions, business and industry, scientific and technological community and farmers). This was envisioned as an opportunity for governments to be involved in a dialogue where Major Groups held centrestage. It was also an attempt to stimulate the official talks as there was general agreement in a five-year review in 1997 that implementation of Agenda 21 had been weak and disappointing.
Previous CSD sessions had focused on specific areas, such as sustainable agriculture, energy, tourism and business/industry, and involved only three to four Major Groups. It was decided that for the WSSD process, all nine Major Groups would participate in the three planned MSD sessions.
It was a politically significant symbol that the first session of the PrepCom 2 MSD was held in the UN General Assembly, which is normally reserved for governments.
What NGOs said
The number of issues raised in the MSD was considerable, and these were grouped around the session themes: assessing overall progress since Rio; identifying hotspots and failures; applications of integrated approaches to sectoral and cross-sectoral areas of sustainable development; multi-stakeholder participation in sustainable development institutions; and new partnership initiatives in light of the preceding discussions.
These were furthermore influenced by themes arising from the Secretary-General’s Report on Implementing Agenda 21, which the CSD Chairman Emil Salim of Indonesia had condensed into five overall themes:
· Making globalisation work for sustainable development
· Poverty eradication and sustainable agriculture and livelihoods
· Changing unsustainable patterns of consumption and production
· Strengthening governance for sustainable development at the national, regional and international levels
· Means of implementation - Finance, Technology and Science, Education and Capacity-building.
Among the issues raised by NGOs were:
1. Making globalisation work for sustainable development:
· A new vision is required based on the positive aspects of Rio (the environment-development link, North-South partnership, common but differentiated responsibilities, equity in and between countries and generations, the precautionary principle). This requires structural changes to tame the forces of globalisation and recapture the sustainable development paradigm.
· A legally-binding framework convention on corporate accountability that includes corporate duties and obligations, liability and implementation mechanisms, monitoring.
· Phasing out subsidies harmful to sustainable development and redirection of such resources towards sustainable development.
· Improving peace and stability.
· Ratification of existing conventions and agreements including the Kyoto Protocol, Convention on Biological Diversity, Basel Convention Ban Amendment, etc.
· Developing sustainable development indicators.
· Reversing negative trends set in motion by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in its Doha Ministerial Conference.
2. Poverty eradication and sustainable agriculture and livelihoods:
· Poverty and impoverishment was a central concern. It was pointed out that the crippling effect of debt prevented partnerships or other initiatives from emerging. Calls were made for: a global consumption tax; the launch of a global initiative on community economic development responding to urban and rural poverty; increased implementation of integrated land resource planning management (ILRPM) systems recognising rights of aboriginal and indigenous peoples; joint global eco-village development with the International Council of Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI); a global initiative on urban poverty through redistributive spending on housing for the poor; linking national job creation strategies to sustainable development and implementation of Agenda 21.
· There was strong reiteration for implementing sustainable agriculture and rural development (via legally secure rights to resources for the landless, farmers and farm workers, indigenous peoples and women). Such resources include land, water, credit, information, genetic resources and appropriate technology.
· The hazards of genetic engineering were raised and there was a call for a formal ban on genetic seed sterilisation technology.
· Food security and food safety were also priorities.
3. Changing unsustainable patterns of consumption and production:
· Sustainable production and consumption patterns can be addressed by building on and implementing the UN Guidelines on Consumer Protection, with special emphasis on confronting barriers to change; the ecological footprint concept needs to be integrated into policy.
· The precautionary principle and risk assessment can coexist.
· The mining industry and unsound foreign direct investment create huge sustainable development problems, and the situation in Africa was highlighted.
· Massive subsidies that promote and perpetuate unsustainable production and consumption, especially in developed countries, were emphasised as an area for needed action.
4. Strengthening governance for sustainable development:
· Strengthen the CSD as an institution of global sustainable development governance.
· Institutionalise multi-stakeholder processes at all levels (global, regional, national) to take a diversity of interests into account. Capacity-building for public access to information and decision-making. MSD is more than a consultation, and resulting partnerships need power in particular for the marginalised in society. There was a call for a clear definition of the multi-stakeholder approach and how to measure it: a clear structure, objectives, indicators and a sufficient budget.
· Integrating the multi-stakeholder process into other areas of the UN.
· Appraising the role and importance of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
· Distinguishing between small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and large companies.
· Anti-corruption and global governance reform (in the economics and social sphere, in addition to the environmental arena).
· Regional and national sustainable development strategies; national councils for sustainable development (NCSD) were also called for.
5. Means of implementation - Finance, Technology and Science, Education and Capacity-building:
· Resolution of the debt problem, including debt cancellation, along with sound investment in developing countries.
· Moving the UN Financing for Development process towards Financing for Sustainable Development.
· Increase official development assistance (ODA) to accommodate access and participation.
· Identify innovative alternative financing.
· Education and training for sustainable development.
6. Specific sectoral areas (health, energy, oceans, transport, etc.):
· Climate change and ratification of the Kyoto Protocol were emphasised; calls were made for energy efficiency and an international sustainable energy fund.
· Public transportation and its cross-cutting links with land use, energy, pollution, technology and social equity were highlighted.
· Water: Community-based and -controlled integrated water resource management should be given priority; and governments should recognise access to water as a human right. Action programmes should build on the Bonn Water Conference that was recently held.
· Forests: Ratifying the Convention on Biological Diversity, investing in conservation and regeneration of forests were among issues discussed.
Some common ground
Since NGOs represented a wide area of interests, there were numerous instances of complementarity with most other Major Groups and several governments. The least complementary relationship was with Business and Industry due to the fundamental disputes over the latter’s production paradigm and claims to be practising sustainable development (through ‘sustainable mining’ and ‘sustainable tourism’). Mining was particularly highlighted by industry and this evoked strong reactions especially from the representatives of indigenous peoples who are directly confronted by huge mining corporations on their ancestral lands.
The following were some key common synergies developed between NGOs and other Major Groups:
· Farmers: Food security, sustainable agriculture and rural development; writing off the debt of least developed countries (LDCs) and helping small resource-poor farmers implement sustainable development; respecting the precautionary principle.
· Scientific and Technological Community: Sustainable production and consumption patterns; biopiracy; health; capacity-building in science and technology.
· Local Authorities: Balanced decentralisation; meeting internationally agreed targets and decisions (such as the Kyoto Protocol); water as priority urban issue; public procurement as a sustainable development tool.
· Trade Unions: Social indicators for sustainable development; stronger corporate accountability, where voluntary approaches must supplement, but not replace, regulatory activity; sustainable energy fund; build on the Bonn Water Conference; called for a review of investments and corporation involvement with regard to export-credit guarantee agencies.
· Indigenous Peoples: Criticised the mining industry; called for corporate accountability through a binding agreement with independent monitoring; pointed to problem with ‘global deals’ with the rights of the less powerful not being respected; importance of peace; called for differentiated statistics with indigenous peoples in mind; prior-informed-consent principle to be applied to indigenous peoples and resources.
· Women: Reassess the UN Global Compact; the importance of peace; globalisation’s effect on women as small traders and majority of the poor; greater corporate responsibility toward achieving economic justice; supported an international sustainable energy fund; minimise corporate influence on government delegations; CSD to chronicle best practices of collaborations.
· Youth: Sustainable development based on human rights; a global centre for science, technology and sustainable development; a plan of action and timetable of implementation for the WSSD; children and educators were proposed as new Major Groups; remove harmful agricultural subsidies; green taxes to be imposed; minimise corporate influence on government delegations and support corporate accountability initiative; poverty eradication; education in sustainable development and appropriate employment policies.
What some governments said
Many government delegations spoke in support of the MSD, but were generally non-committal on substantive issues.
Egypt fully associated itself with the NGO opening statement and stressed that the WTO should contribute to sustainable development. South Africa, host to the WSSD in August, called for the establishment of a global regulatory framework to address and change the current economic power relations. The delegation said that it was necessary for the Summit to come out with a global plan of action with concrete, time-bound targets for implementation.
Malaysia, having first-hand experience of the currency speculation that shook Asian economies in 1997 (and other countries since then), called for more controls on volatile short-term capital flows, so that sustainable development objectives will not be undermined.
The Pacific island state of Tuvalu emphasised social and spiritual values as additional conditions for the success of sustainable development, while Ghana spoke critically about biopiracy.
The European Union talked about changing production and consumption patterns; an inclusive participatory process with common but differentiated responsibilities; finance for partnerships and a global deal. The notion of a global deal was first mooted by former Danish environment minister, Svend Auken, as a reaffirmation of governments’ commitments to sustainable development which had fallen by the wayside since Rio. The EU has endorsed the idea but its content is still not well defined. However, the overall thrust of European delegations seems to be in favour of partnerships with the private sector, especially big business, though at PrepCom 3 in March, the EU spokesman said that these were no substitute for government commitments.
More worrying, the EU was promoting the WTO Doha work programme as a ‘development agenda’ - something that is contested by many developing countries at the WTO due to the controversial conclusion of the Ministerial Conference last November. Most NGOs, especially from developing countries, are campaigning to check the expanding mandate of the WTO which the EU, Japan, US and Canada want to enlarge into even more non-trade areas.
Both the Netherlands and Germany stressed the importance of stronger consumer organisations. Hungary challenged business on the use of natural resources and changing production and consumption patterns.
Japan made a generally weak statement and called for continuing dialogue regionally and nationally before the WSSD, a far cry indeed from the Rio commitments already made and unfulfilled.
Some advantages and drawbacks
There are concerns among many civil society organisations that the separate MSD sessions that are being followed in other international fora may isolate groups from making critical interventions in the subsequent governmental sessions since ‘they’ve already had their say’ - in effect eroding the different practices and opportunities for NGO involvement in actual international negotiations, especially as has developed in multilateral environmental agreements and the CSD itself.
In the WSSD PrepCom 2, numerous issues raised during the MSD were incorporated in the discussion papers put out to the governments.
However, those issues which did not find their way through into the chairman’s official report often happened to be precisely the most critical or controversial ones, such as the suggestion raised in the NGOs’ opening statement that: ‘Perhaps the greatest single achievement that the WSSD can attain is to reverse the disastrous trends in the WTO that Doha has set in motion.’ The Secretary-General’s Report on Implementing Agenda 21 had already welcomed the ‘success’ of the Doha meeting which it claimed ‘augurs well for the future of the trading system and the potential it offers to developing countries’.
Nonetheless, a proposal by the NGOs for a framework convention on corporate accountability received support from several other Major Groups and found its way into discussion documents for the second week, where it was promptly quashed by the US and others. The majority of governments remained silent on this point.
It became apparent that the MSD served a particular function which in no way was a substitute for other advocacy and lobbying efforts by concerned groups in the UN system. For particular issues it served a highly useful complementary function, clearly indicating to governments and the UN that many Major Groups could be united (and moving ahead having already strategised amongst each other) on key sustainable development issues. The sustainable agriculture and food security issue was one which had drawn NGOs, farmers, trade unions and indigenous peoples into considerable agreement. The maturity of the issue enabled it to have a successful ‘showing’ at the MSD and sent a strong message that further action and commitments from government and UN agencies were needed to turn rhetoric into reality.
In the case of the proposed framework convention on corporate accountability, the MSD provided a highly visible platform for this critical issue to be raised in front of other Major Groups and governments. Although it was struck off the list of items for discussion by the next week, it had already generated considerable discussion and interest. Its low staying power was due to the lack of support amongst the governments though a number of officials privately agreed to the need for corporate regulation and the Enron scandal was a major talking point in corridor discussions. It also flew in the face of the ‘Washington Consensus’. Nonetheless, the MSD provided a platform for this issue because it touched upon an already present widespread desire for such a mechanism and NGO pressure for corporate accountability will continue.
Another drawback of the heavy emphasis on producing partnerships through stakeholder processes is that it can easily slip into substituting or marginalising the obligations and commitments of governments. The failure of developed countries to honour their Rio commitments and the rejection or dilution of environmental agreements by the US and some others can be hidden behind the veil of partnerships. Abdication and privatisation of the role of the state (as has been the trend with globalisation) can further jeopardise the goal of sustainable development.
Moreover, contentious barriers to sustainable development such as the negative trends within the WTO or the structural problems in international financial flows cannot be resolved by partnerships. The MSD thus leaves little space for raising these important issues if there is a demand for an immediate product that must necessarily take the form of a partnership.
So, while NGOs acting in concert with other like-minded civil society groups can generate significant impact in consultative fora such as the MSD, larger challenges remain for continuing efforts in global democracy.
The nine Major Group Dialogue Papers prepared for the WSSD PrepCom 2 are available on: www.johannesburgsummit.org. Papers for the PrepCom 4 MSD (24 May to 7 June in Bali, Indonesia) are also available.
Yin Shao Loong is a researcher with Third World Network. Chee Yoke Ling coordinates TWN’s environmental programme.