Socio-ecological Union

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

2. Review of Strengths, weaknesses and challenges in UNEP's role with civil society

2.1. Strengths:

UNEP enjoys a positive image externally, with the public in general and civil society in particular. It has not been the subject of large scale criticism addressed at some other international agencies. Given that environmental NGOs are among the most vocal critics of such agencies, this is an indicator that on balance the organization is viewed as a positive force for sustainable development. It also implies there is a potential constituency with which UNEP can ally itself and benefit from the strength of CSO advocacy to enhance effective environmental policy and action. Specific strengths related to the areas of policy, programme, institutional aspects, outreach, consultation, and finance are outlined below.

a) Policy & Consultation - As mentioned above, UNEP has a long history of interaction with NGOs and other civil society and private sector groups, and has built strong relations with a number of these groups at the levels of policy development and programme implementation. There is considerable political will in recent years among UNEP's governing bodies to see these relations strengthened and institutionalized, as witnessed in the adoption of the Policy on NGOs and Other Major Groups in 1996, the Nairobi and Malmo Declarations (1997 & 2000), and Governing Council's decision 21/19, among other initiatives. The response of civil society groups has been positive and constructive, especially through their contribution of time and ideas in consultations with UNEP at Malmo, during GC 21, and the subsequent meetings in Nairobi in May 2001. This momentum promises to pave the way for future changes to enhance modalities of collaborative engagement.

b) Programme - At the operational level, there are a number of examples of successful engagement with civil society. The Division of Early Warning and Assessment has promoted mechanisms for engagement with CSOs in information-sharing and assessment activities, such as with GEO, UNEP.Net and Infoterra. The UNEP-GEF is proactive in identifying and collaborating with CSOs in the design and implementation of medium sized projects (MSPs). A number of convention secretariats and regional and out-posted offices have fostered strong CSO constituencies that they work with on a regular basis. The Regional Office for Europe, for example, has been particularly successful in promoting activities with CSOs, including a significant number of UNEP national committees in the region.

c) Outreach - The Communication and Public Information Division implements many of its projects in partnership with civil society and private sector groups, and has spearheaded UNEP's outreach to youth organizations. These and other programmatic initiatives provide good examples of strategies for UNEP to enhance its impact through catalytic engagement with civil society actors.

d) Institutional & Financial - The establishment of the NGOs and Civil Society Unit in the Division of Policy Development and Law in 2000 was a major step for UNEP in building on the above strengths and moving more systematically towards a far-reaching and integrated framework for working in partnership with civil society at all levels. Budgetary allocations to provide for the NGOs/CS Unit, though modest, are an indication of the organization's commitment to strengthen its work with civil society. The success in obtaining additional donor funding for CSO participation in the preparatory process towards the 2002 WSSD is an additional encouraging feature.

2.2. Weaknesses:

a) Policy - In spite of the strengths identified above, at the level of policy formulation there are no clear mechanisms for civil society to bring its vast experience and innovative perceptions to inform decision-making. Virtually the only formal procedure available is a provision for a few international NGOs to present verbal or written statements to the GC, but in practice NGO speaking slots are allocated at the end of plenary discussions, and there is no obligation or incentive for either the government delegations or the secretariat to take these contributions into consideration or even to respond.

Aside from the lost opportunity for UNEP's governance processes to gain from civil society policy ideas, this gap diminishes the motivation of non-governmental actors to contribute at this level. It should also be noted that the existing UNEP policy for NGOs, although agreed in 1996, is yet to be fully implemented.

b) Legislative - Rule 69 of the GC's Rules of Procedure limits the participation of civil society to representatives of "international NGOs having an interest in the field of the environment". This limitation means that a vast array of groups with national or local level focus, but with often high levels of competence in environmental matters are not eligible to attend. International NGOs often have little experience with local level concerns, and thus GC deliberations are denied input from a range of perspectives that are critical to informed decision-making.

It is furthermore not the case that only international NGOs possess competence in international policy issues. At least since UNCED in 1992, many fora have broadened accreditation procedures to admit certain categories of non-international organizations, and as a result literally thousands of national and local level groups have been participating in inter-governmental meetings and conferences over the past decade. The limitations set by Rule 69 have become antiquated, and deny UNEP the opportunity to gain from this collective experience in civil society.

c) Programmatic - The 1996 UNEP NGO policy states that "UNEP shall institutionalize NGO/Major Groups participation in project design, implementation and evaluation". As outlined above, a number of programmes have certainly incorporated at least the spirit of this prescription, but it cannot be said that programmatic engagement with civil society has yet been mainstreamed in the organization. UNEP's programme & project manual does mention that stakeholders should be consulted in project design, and considered for participation in implementation activities, but little is provided in the way of guidelines for doing so, and standard formats and procedures for planning and reporting do not apparently require documentation of CSO engagement in activities. Other agencies, for example the GEF, require documentation of how stakeholders have been consulted in the design process for a project proposal, and how they will be involved in implementation. Without such prescription it is inevitable that many programme officers, lacking an individual concern or understanding of the value of working with CSOs, will not choose to do so.

There is also a capacity gap in mainstreaming civil society in programme activities. Lacking good direction from the programme manual, specific training in how to capitalise on CSO strengths, or personal experience, it is difficult for many staff to know even where to begin in this endeavour. Many CSOs as well do not have adequate skills or reach to deliver the quality of output expected in a UN project, and tools are not available in the system to adequately assess partner capacity. The UNEP-GEF office, for example, has faced considerable frustration in identifying NGOs capable of meeting the rigorous demands of implementing an MSP. UNEP.Net faces similar difficulties in identifying key NGOs capable of serving as national focal points for the civil society component of country profiles.

d) Institutional - Apart from establishing the NGOs and Civil Society Unit no institutional changes have yet taken place to implement the 1996 NGO policy decision. There is no adequate mechanism in place to facilitate CSO input to policy development. There are no rigorous procedures in place to ensure a coordinated mainstreaming of CSO participation in programme/project design and implementation. Regional and out-posted offices lack a coherent strategy for strengthening relations with major groups, and despite the relatively intense participation of CSOs in the work of UNEP conventions, there is no significant link between these networks and the work of the secretariat. In short, the ad hoc institutional arrangements that exist for interacting with civil society deprive UNEP of the opportunity to foster a supportive constituency of CSOs that could potentially strengthen the organization politically, significantly increase the impact of its programmes, and ultimately ensure its sustainability.

e) Outreach - Although UNEP enjoys a positive image in the eyes of those who are aware of its work, it must be recognized that the organization has a relatively low profile compared to many other multi-lateral institutions. A general lack of awareness of UNEP policies and programmes means that the rich array of information and technical resources it has at its disposal are not being accessed by many potential users. In addition it has been stated by CSOs that even if they are aware of these resources it is not easy to access them.

Communication is a two-way process, and just as it is important to have input from non-governmental actors to policy and programme design, it is also critical to have access to the success stories and best practices of these actors in order to enrich global learning about how to best address environmental issues at all levels. The exemplary work of UNCHS in mobilizing civil society to gather and share information on best practices has not been matched by UNEP. Strengthening outreach to UNEP's civil society constituency, based on the principle of two-way communication, could redress this gap. The development of UNEP National Committees, which could potentially be an important link in such a strategy, has been inconsistent and largely ineffective, and so the strategy needs to be reviewed.

f) Consultative - Recent initiatives to convene CSO consultations at Malmo, GC21, and the May 2001 Nairobi conference, are positive developments. Nonetheless, concerns are still expressed by CSOs that consultative mechanisms have not been institutionalized and there is as yet little evidence that UNEP is developing a capability to listen and respond to the outcomes of such periodic consultations. Due to its lack of national and sub-regional structural presence, UNEP does not have the opportunities that other organizations have of reaching directly to civil society. Consequently UNEP lags behind other agencies in this regard and needs to develop strategies for regular and meaningful consultation with civil society. Without such a shift in consultative strategies, the trend towards more attention being paid by civil society to the CSD, WB, UNDP and others will continue, to UNEP's loss.

g) Finance - Declines in funding of UNEP have had debilitating effects on many areas of its work, but the manner in which the organization adjusts budgetary priorities in response to this needs to be reformed. The failure to provide resources for activities aimed at strengthening engagement with civil society creates the impression that this is not a priority focus. The seriousness that UNEP attaches to its CSO strategy must be reflected in the allocation and adjustment of its budgetary resources.

2.3. Opportunities:

a) The opportunities afforded by a stronger and more strategic engagement with civil society are many. Among these are expanding UNEP's reach, strengthening political support, achieving better informed policy development, broadening "buy-in" to policy implementation, sharpening monitoring capability, strengthening regional networks, strengthening UNEP credibility and profile through the WSSD process, and fostering stronger public policy networks for consensus building and action.

b) The underpinning rationale for strengthening engagement with major groups is based on the necessary link between environmental management and broad stakeholder participation. This rationale is based on Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment & Development, to the effect that environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens; nations shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making environmental information widely available.

The management of natural resources, ownership of the processes to address environmental issues, and the adoption of demand driven solutions all require participation of stakeholders at all stages of strategic action. There is a significant opportunity for UNEP to work with its civil society constituency to provide global leadership in understanding how participatory approaches to environmental management can be a key to achieving sustainable development.

c) The up-coming WSSD in September 2002 is a major opportunity for UNEP to significantly enhance its role in international environmental governance. Its ability to convey to the international community UNEP's capacity as a principal broker of joint action between governments, inter-governmental bodies, the scientific community, civil society and the private sector, will be decisive in accomplishing such a task. Agreement by the Governing Council on the following strategies for strengthening engagement of civil society in UNEP's work need to be seen in this perspective.

2.4. Challenges

a) The principal challenge is for UNEP to be a global leader in designing policy and strategic action frameworks that build on principles of consensus, stakeholder ownership, and joint action partnerships. The strategy and policy for civil society engagement should reflect this challenge.

b) A second, though equally important challenge for the strategy to address is to ensure that the strategy itself is "owned" by its principal target, the civil society organizations UNEP needs to engage in its broader work. In order for this to happen there needs to be substantial consultation with these stakeholders: prior to finalization of this strategy, the Committee of Permanent Representatives (CPR) and the secretariat should hold in depth and wide-ranging dialogue with CSO/private sector representatives to solicit their input and reach consensus on the way forward.

c) A third challenge, in light of the radical developments in the political, social and security environments of recent times, is to design mechanisms to safeguard freedom of expression and association, and access to information and public participation in environmental decision-making. At a time when governments and their inter-governmental institutions are facing unprecedented criticism and often violent opposition to their normal decision-making channels, how do we find the means to continue, and indeed strengthen, constructive dialogue with civil society? And at a time when the enshrined rights of access to information are confronted with the evident willingness of anarchist groups to use information - provided in the spirit of augmenting public safety and security - for destructive purposes, how do we move forward in promoting public participation in decision-making? These sobering questions form the background to the strategy proposed in this document for strengthening UNEP's engagement with civil society.

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