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Governance is an overriding issue which applies at all levels and sectors of society - from local to global, from the private to the public sector - and has impacts on law and human rights, political, parliamentary, democratic and electoral systems, civil society, peace and security, public administration, public information, the media and the corporate world. Awareness of and attention to governance issues have consequently grown in every aspect of modern life, not least in relation to the environment. 'Good' governance is recognized as a prerequisite for sound policy development and as being even more important for ensuring that policies are effectively implemented.

The 30 years between the Stockholm Conference and the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development have witnessed a major overhaul of political systems, including the decolonization of Africa, the end of apartheid in South Africa, the raising of the Iron Curtain, the reunification of Germany and the disintegration of the former Soviet Union. There has been a rapid increase in economic and trade alliances, and in membership of the United Nations, which stood at 190 in March 2002. Perhaps the greatest change has been at the national level where democracy and transparency have become major issues, particularly since the 1990s, and governments have been replaced as a result of popular demand. In the past 10 years, more than 100 developing and transition countries ended military or one-party rule (UNDP 2001). The internationalization of the environment since 1972 has had a bearing on national politics in many of the developed countries, with green parties making their mark, particularly during the 1980s (Long 2000). The past three decades have also seen the massive growth of civil society movements in all the regions of the world, with many organizations taking a more proactive role. Non-governmental organizations are increasingly influencing and sometimes participating in government and private sector decisions.

A hand through the Berlin Wall symbolizes the raising of the Iron Curtain in Europe in 1989 - one of the major political events of the past three decades

Source: UNEP, Joachim Kuhnke, Topham Picturepoint

The power of the people in influencing policy has been recognized since at least the 1970s: 'It is only through the deep concern, information and knowledge, commitment and action of the people of the world that environmental problems can be answered. Laws and institutions are not enough. The will of the people must be powerful enough, insistent enough, to bring about the truly good life for all mankind.' (Commission to Study the Organization of Peace 1972).

The growing integration of finance, economies, culture, technologies and governance through globalization is having profound impacts, both positive and negative, on all aspects of people's life and the environment. With market forces beginning to dominate the social and political as well as economic spheres, there is a danger that power and wealth become concentrated in a minority while the majority become increasingly marginalized and dependent. In the 21st century, the challenge is to institute stronger governance to ensure that globalization operates for the benefit of most people and not just for profits.