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View the documentIn brief

NGOs aim to influence UN on environment and development

Interdependence and solidarity are popular catchwords as national and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) prepare to make their voices heard during this year's United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro.

Agenda Ya Warlanchi ("People of the Earth" in Kiswahili), the plan of action issued by the NGOs following their own world conference in Paris last December, sometimes assumes the appearance of a catalogue, reflecting the diversity of its participating groups. But it also makes clear that NGOs want to see a clear link between development and environment. Most now favor development models different from those of the consumer societies of the North, and want to strengthen the NGO, role of trying to blend development with environmental awareness.

"We've always worked on environment and development", says; Djamila Bouali of Environment and Development of the Third World (ENDA), an international NGO created in 1972 after the first UN Conference on the Environment. "When we intervene in rural areas of the Sahel, although environment is not a priority objective, it integrates necessarily and completely with the project".

The environment/development relationship is less structural for some other NGOs. But, as Patricia Feeney of the British-based OXFAM organization declares, "for a very long time our projects in Africa have been concerned with soil erosion. For several years, in Burkina Faso, for instance, we've been conducting agroforestry activities to protect and reclaim the soil. But we didn't call them environmental projects then, and we still don't now".

Annie Simon, information officer for the French group, Terre des hommes, adds that "in 1989, Terre des hommes formed its first environment and development group at the request of our partners in the South, for whom the two approaches had become more and more closely related. We have relatively recently become more careful not to support environmentally-unfriendly projects in the name of development, but rather to encourage ecological agriculture".

Within ENDA, discussions on such topics as biodiversity often generate new ideas. In Senegal, efforts are being made to re-integrate young, unemployed urban workers into the rural environment, not only to create an income for them, but to re-create an ecosystem by applying more environmentally-friendly farming techniques, such as organic farming and crop rotation. A data bank will be established on local plant varieties known for their disease resistance.

New things learned

Simon stresses that these new needs and activities "don't mean we are making a strategic change of position, but rather that we are doing more thorough work on what we were doing before, by reviewing it in the light of new things learned". Though development must now be "sustainable", human beings - rather than animals' rights, or the rights of an anonymous "planet" - remain their focal point. The environment is understood in a broad sense including physical, economic, cultural and social factors.

This approach is illustrated by the idea of "Primary Environmental Care (PEC)", proposed by OXFAM, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), Action Aid, the World Wide Fund for Nature-UK (WWF), the World Rainforest Movement and Groundwork Foundation-UK. The concept links satisfaction of people's basic needs with environmental protection and strengthening the power of communities.

Proponents also stress that "meeting people's basic needs is the essential purpose of PEC because poverty and the lack of economic alternatives often drive populations to degrade their environment". The strategy of most NGOs is based on the concept that in order "to achieve equitable development in a sustainable environment" it is necessary to fight the causes of poverty and strengthen people's participation. This means taking into account both the right to the environment and that of development, involving them in the same strategy.

The French NGOs, in their separate report titled Construire la dcratie internationale ("Building international democracy"), to be presented to UNCED as an appendix to France's official national report, state that "citizens, with their knowledge, must also participate in the production of this new right....this is the price the earth must pay for a chance to survive".

Committing themselves on the environmental issue doesn't indicate a change of purpose for NGOs. Indeed, their long-standing themes - criticism of technical development models, agricultural problems, the distribution of wealth within and among nations, the problems of external debt and the regulation of world trade - could not be more topical.

"The environment has put development in the right perspective", says Simon. "Global environmental problems such as the greenhouse effect, give rise to a planetary awareness, to the idea of North-South interdependence, which up to now we hadn't really succeeded in getting across to people".

Few conferences take place now without at least some discussion of environmental issues. Last September, in Abidjan, a seminar was organized by the Ligue internationale d'etude et de promotion de la sante communautaire (LIEPSC), the Centre regional de l'eau potable et de l'assainissement de Cote d'Ivoire (CREPACI) and the Union Africaine pour le developpement et l'enuironnement (UADE). The theme was "NGO strategy in Africa in the environment sector for the 1990s: water and sanitation".

Is this seeming switch in emphasis from water as a traditional concern of hygiene and health, to water as part of the general environment, a mere cosmetic attempt to use popular jargon as an "open sesame" to loosen donor purse strings? Probably not. The problem of dwindling water resources and their concerted management has only become more acute after a decade spent trying to make water more accessible to people in developing countries. It really does boil down to a fundamental question of environmental protection.

Such messages will be heard with increasing emphasis when delegations gather in Rio.

Christine Poupon