Socio-ecological Union

Enhancing Civil Society Engagement in the Work of UNEP
Strategy Paper for CPR

1. Overview of UNEP's civil society engagement

1.1. Overview & definitions

UNEP realizes that engaging interested stakeholders as partners in change is important for many reasons. External stakeholders have many different perspectives that must be taken into account in order to foster long-term, broad-based support for UNEP's work. Engaging a wide range of stakeholders in addressing environmental issues expands the reach and impact of strategies far beyond the capability of UNEP's own limited financial and human resources. Thirdly, as a global institution with little operational presence at the national level, UNEP cannot easily reach the local level where many environmental problems need to be addressed, while many of its programme partners can.

The mechanisms for engaging stakeholders, particularly those in civil society, has evolved continually over the past three decades. In recent years there has been a growing need to respond to changes in the character and roles that civil society has assumed, especially since the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992. The ten-year review of UNCED, the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) to be held in 2002, will be another watershed in the history of building effective global environmental governance, and hence it is critical that UNEP review and revitalize its modalities of engagement with civil society.

The Governing Council (GC) called for such a review during its 21st session in February 2001, through decision GC21/19. This paper is the Secretariat's response to that directive, by analysing the strengths and weaknesses of UNEP's existing mechanisms for engagement with civil society, and proposing options for addressing needed changes.

The paper uses the terms civil society (CS) and civil society organizations (CSOs) to refer to societal groupings that are not part of formal government or inter-governmental structures, nor of the commercially-interested sector, but who do engage in public interest activities. Civil society thus includes formal non-governmental organizations (NGOs), scientific and professional associations, sevice clubs, community-based organizations, religious groups, etc. Many parts of this strategy apply as well to the private sector as to civil society, and where this the case private sector bodies - including their associations or umbrella bodies - are mentioned. In general, however, they are not included under the definition of civil society.

1.2. Background on UNEP's historical engagement with civil society, private sector and other major groups.

The Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment and the accompanying NGO Forum marked a breakthrough in the way major groups related to and sought to influence an intergovernmental decision making process. Through UNEP and with its interaction with NGOs and other representatives of civil society, environment and development was put firmly on the international agenda. This process also led to the establishment of a number of other bodies working on the environment, and many countries also followed suit.

As new areas of environmental problems were identified, either through research or through advocacy by environmental NGOs, new Multilateral Environment Agreements were established. The Report of the World Commission on Environment & Development in 1987, popularly known as the Brundtland Report, "Our Common Future" , further stimulated debate as the world and the UN prepared for the Rio Summit in 1992. UNCED was another watershed event, attended by representatives of some 8000 NGOs from more than 160 countries, and the Habitat II Conference in 1996 brought together some 20,000 people, including representatives of more than 500 local authorities. These conferences featured innovative mechanisms for involving major groups from the beginning of their preparatory processes.

Globalization became an issue towards the end of the century. Many people have been frightened of certain aspects of globalization, and have sought to challenge it. Civil society has responded in different ways. Major global meetings have addressed globalization over the past few years, while frustrations and misunderstandings have led to confrontations, some of the violent. The World Bank report, "Entering the 21st Century", states, "globalization reflects the progressive integration of the world's economies, and requires national governments to reach out to international partners as the best way to manage changes affecting trade, financial flows and the global environment…".

Civil society has established itself both as a responsible and as a challenging actor in these global issues. The concept of major groups participation was accepted in Agenda 21. A major challenge now for UNEP is to adapt its strategy for engagement with civil society to respond to these new realities.

Milestones in the history of the UNEP, focusing on its relations with civil society, are the following:

  • 1972 - UN General Assembly resolution 2997, calling for the establishment of UNEP
  • 1973 - NGO office established in UNEP
  • 1988 - Establishment of Youth Advisory council
  • 1995 - Governing Council resolution GC 18/4 calling for the development of a policy framework and appropriate mechanisms for working with the civil society, private sector and other major groups.
  • 1996 - Policy statement concerning NGO participation in UNEP's activities, also section on NGOs incorporated in UNEP's project manual
  • 1999 - GC 20 calling for establishment of NGO Civil society unit
  • 2000 - the Malmo Declaration, recognition of the importance of Civil Society on a par with governments and the private sector
  • 2001 - GC decision 21/19 calling for the Executive Director to submit a draft strategy for the active engagement of the civil society, private sector and other major groups in the work of the United Nations Environment programme, to the Governing Council at its seventh special session in 2002.

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