The lack of capacity, in terms of skills and opportunity, to manage environmental resources undermines the potential for sustainable development – consequently, strengthening institutions and empowering people are important strategies.

The UNCED conventions recognized this and these, along with the ACCNNR, have focused on the value of procedural rights, research, education and information, as well as respect for local knowledge and value systems to achieve this. The WSSD has also drawn attention to the close relationship between well-being and empowerment. It is increasingly recognized that in enhancing capabilities and opportunities for people to participate in decisions that affect their well-being and livelihoods, health services and education must be improved, and sufficient and potable water, shelter, and adequate and nutritious food ensured. WSSD looks specifically at how these aspects of human well-being can be improved, and the MDGs set out targets related to these aspects, to be achieved by 2015.

Most policy initiatives recognize that rights of access to environmental information, participation, recourse to a court of law as well as fair, transparent and accountable processes are important procedural rights needed to support people as effective players in environmental policy and decision making. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development recognized the potential of users to be effective resource managers – by giving users a direct stake in the resource, the incentive to manage efficiently is increased. Achieving this includes strengthening tenure rights and promoting civil participation in policy development, decision making and environmental management. In addition, the WSSD’s Johannesburg Plan of Implementation identified the need to specifically promote women’s equal access to and full participation in decision making, on the basis of equality with men (UN 2002). It recognized that this needs to be complemented by mainstreaming gender perspectives in all policies and strategies, eliminating all forms of violence and discrimination against women and improving the status, health and economic welfare of women and girls through full and equal access to economic opportunity, land, credit, education and health-care services (UN 2002).

Box 7: African Union initiative to promote public participation
Several regional and sub-regional organizations create opportunities for public participation in policymaking processes. One of the most encompassing is the AUís initiative.
   The AUís ECOSOCC seeks to promote dialogue between all sections of African society on issues concerning the continent and its future. To this end, it aims to:
  • Forge strong partnerships between governments and all segments of civil society, in particular, women, the youth, children, the diaspora, organized labour, the private sector and professional groups.
  • Promote the participation of African civil society in the implementation of the policies and programmes of the Union.
  • Support policies and programmes that promote peace, security and stability and foster continental development and integration.
  • Promote and defend a culture of good governance, democratic principles and institutions, popular participation, human rights and social justice.
  • Promote, advocate and defend gender equality.
  • Promote and strengthen the institutional, human and operational capacities of the African civil society.
  • Source: AU, undated

    At the regional and sub-regional levels, empowerment has also been identified as key for sustainable development, although in many countries the development of laws and programmes to make this a reality are still lacking. The AU has, through the creation of the ECOSOCC, sought to increase opportunities for meaningful dialogue with civil society, as discussed in Box 7. At the sub-regional level, economic and development communities are also trying to empower the public. In 2001, the EAC launched the EAC Court of Justice and the EAC Legislative Assembly. The Legislative Assembly has seven standing committees, which include one on Agriculture, Tourism and Natural Resources.

    In most policy initiatives, developing skills and capacity of resource users, as well as of national institutions, is seen as essential. This issue is an important focus in the Rio Declaration, Agenda 21, several MEAs including the CBD and WSSD, and the NEPAD-EAP. The NEPAD-EAP focuses on building Africa’s capacity to implement global and regional MEAs. In order to achieve this, eight activities are identified, including human resource development, public education and awareness, strengthening institutions and improving coordination, supporting the development of information systems, mobilizing and strengthening the role of scientific and technical communities, and promoting south-south cooperation and sharing of expertise (NEPAD 2003).