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... and a time for action

Much of what is happening goes beyond mere dialogue. Rather than waiting for political leaders to take the initiative, many individuals and groups have begun to act on their own. They note the contrasting outcomes of the 1992 Earth Summit on an informal and local scale, such as the spread of Local Agenda 21 initiatives and those pitched at the more formal and international level, such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. They draw inspiration from past and present efforts of local grass-roots movements like the Green Belt movement in Kenya and the Chipko Andalan movement in India. They also recall successful interventions at international level, such as the campaign to end the production and use of landmines.

The business community is another source of inspiration, principally for its success in developing social investment funds and establishing social stock indices. Firms that address environmental issues ahead of regulation, exemplified by companies in the Climate Neutral Network, serve as role models. Also held up as role models are partnerships between governments and other groups, such as Ecotourism Namibia and Community-Based Fisheries Management in Phang-Nga Bay, Thailand.

The more that individuals and groups apply themselves to practical initiatives, the more hope grows that significant changes are possible. The media assist by making these efforts more visible. Progressive elements in government and business communities realize that this is the most promising channel for reform. They also recognize that efforts like these are needed to get to the sources of dissatisfaction that lie at the root of terrorist activities. This realization leads to the creation of alliances amongst individuals from various stakeholder groups in support of key initiatives.

The result is a mixture of old and new initiatives. Some initiatives are highly coordinated and involve large numbers of people. Others are pursued by small groups with wide ranging, but loosely knit connections at local, regional and global levels. Whereas some are formal and embedded in national and international law, many take a voluntary approach, such as the Global Reporting Initiative, Global Compact Initiative and financial initiatives set up by the United Nations and businesses.

Efforts continue to incorporate the results of scientific research and analysis more thoroughly into the policy making process. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the Global International Water Assessment and new studies on the nitrogen cycle and persistent organic pollutants (POPs) complement the ongoing investigation of climate change by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The POPs assessment is in part a response to compelling new evidence of the long-range transport of these pollutants and the effects of their presence on animal life in the polar regions. Much like the discovery of the ozone hole over Antarctica in the 1980s, these revelations stimulate intense effort to measure and counter the risk.

These new assessments differ fundamentally from past efforts. Firstly, they are designed to include more expertise from developing regions, and to build capacity in these regions. Secondly, the contributions of social scientists are given equal weight to those of the physical and natural scientists. Thirdly, wherever possible, the many regional and local studies that comprise large parts of these assessments recruit local and lay communities as partners in the research. This stems from the desire of these groups to have a voice in the development and understanding of the issues and in how to address particular concerns.

The knowledge that these individuals and groups (particularly indigenous groups) possess has been accorded increasing recognition. The participatory approach also acknowledges that scope for action extends beyond official government channels and depends upon involvement of local communities.

'Some initiatives are highly coordinated and involve large numbers of people. Others are pursued by small groups . some are formal . many take a voluntary approach.'

Setting goals and targets and designing activities to achieve them, builds upon ongoing efforts, but also reflects progress in striking a balance between formal and informal institutions. Social and environmental goals are re-affirmed, among them reducing food insecurity and infant mortality, increasing life expectancy and literacy, stabilizing climate, halting deforestation and reversing declines in fisheries.

Rather than laying down specific numbers, quotas and timetables, however, more attention is paid to increasing accountability and transparency by instituting monitoring systems and placing responsibility on governments, industries, NGOs and others to disclose information in relation to agreed goals. The underlying principle is that the widespread availability of good information and appropriate checks and balances will encourage progress towards these goals, either directly or by way of pressure from an increasingly vocal citizenry. The goal of policy, in this scenario, is to support the efforts of individuals and groups, in government as well as in civil society, within the nonprofit sector as well in the marketplace, to pursue sustainable development.

This evolving approach calls for a reappraisal of existing multilateral agreements. The list includes environmentally oriented agreements such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. It also features more socially oriented conventions such as those on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and on the Rights of the Child.

The process of revision provides momentum, too, for the continuing reassessment of international institutions of governance, with a view to transforming them into more effective organizations. The United Nations, major financial institutions such as the World Bank, regional development banks and the IMF and the WTO are all included. Transparency and accountability are key aspects of this course of action. Similar processes are ongoing in business, voluntary and other sectors.

At regional level, new and old organizations become increasingly active. The Federation of Caribbean Nations grows out of the former CARICOM. In Europe, the growth of the EU proceeds with considerable deference paid to maintaining and improving relationships with the Russian Federation. Africa sees the further evolution of the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN). Most regions also explore greater integration of policies related to trade, migration, the management of water resources and similar transboundary issues. In this way, the regional efforts become part of a semi-formal web of global public policy networks.