5 September 2011
Press Release
NGO/731
PI/2000

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

We Must Harness Volunteer Spirit in Service of Planet, Secretary-General Says


as Sixty-fourth Annual DPI/NGO Conference Opens in Bonn

 


Says Torch Bearers of Conference, Greatest Allies of United Nations,

Should Take What They Learned, Raise Awareness Back Home about What Is at Stake


(Received from a UN Information Officer.)


BONN, 3 September — “We are exhausting the capacity of our planet to guarantee our sustainable future,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a video message today as the sixty-fourth annual United Nations Department of Public Information/Non-Governmental Organization (DPI/NGO) Conference opened in Bonn, Germany.  “The solution lies in a fundamental transformation of our consumption patterns and lifestyles,” he added, thanking the large number of representatives from non-governmental organizations in attendance.


Making opening remarks this morning were Kiyo Akasaka, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information.  The Conference also heard keynote speeches by Vandana Shiva of Navdanya International, Grace Aguiling-Dalisay of VSO Bahaginan, Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, and Felix Dodds, Chair of the Conference.


Participants viewed a video montage which showcased individuals and organizations, highlighting their work and the importance of volunteerism and civil society in supporting communities around the world.


Opening Remarks


KIYO AKASAKA, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, thanked the Federal Government and the City of Bonn for their excellent collaboration and support in hosting the Conference, noting that Germany was not only a strong and committed member of the United Nations, but also a leader in the field of sustainable development.  Bonn was home to some 18 United Nations agencies and a centre for international cooperation on climate change, desertification, water, and volunteerism.  He also had high praise for the tireless efforts of the local German focal group in helping to plan and organize the event.


The next three days would be filled with activities as the Conference had a heavy agenda, Mr. Akasaka continued.  The issues before the Conference, sustainable development and civic engagement, were real and urgent.  They had only to look at the famine across the Horn of Africa — in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia — to see the scale of suffering resulting from climate, conflict and poor governance.  Today, more than 12.4 million people were in desperate need, and more than 300,000 children across the region were severely malnourished and at imminent risk of dying.  In Somalia alone, 1.4 million children were affected by the crisis, he pointed out, stressing that the future of an entire generation hung in the balance.


He went on to note that the United Nations humanitarian appeal for the hunger crisis in the Horn of Africa was still less than 60 per cent funded.  All parts of society — Governments, the public, non-governmental organizations and the private sector — must play their part in battling the worst famine in decades.  The United Nations was providing life-saving assistance to tackle the food crisis, and also taking steps to encourage sustainable livelihoods and food and nutrition security.


Today’s challenges — food, energy, finance, water, climate — were “many, and complex”, he said, citing the Secretary-General’s “50-50-50 Challenge”.  By the year 2050, the world’s population would reach more than 9 billion, 50 per cent more people than at the start of the present century.  By the same year, 2050, the world must cut global greenhouse gases emissions by 50 per cent from 2000 levels.


“We must rise to this challenge, but it will be difficult,” Mr. Akasaka said.  “Climate change negotiations are at a crucial stage.  Greenhouse gas emissions are increasing and reached a record high in 2010.  While we see some progress, on forests and on financing, too many words and promises were still broken or failed to turn into action.”  The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, to be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, next June, was an enormous opportunity, for young and older generations alike, to chart a course towards a more sustainable future.  It was an opportunity to put sustainable development at the centre of international policy making and at the centre of civic engagement worldwide.  The Conference was a crucial step towards meeting that goal, he stressed.


The Under-Secretary-General reminded the participants that sustainable societies did not just happen; they depended on informed, engaged, and empowered citizens working to make their societies sustainable.  Each citizen could make a difference.  The Conference was paying tribute to the millions of volunteers who, every day, everywhere, volunteered to make the world a better place.


Mr. Akasaka told the participants that they must not wait for catastrophes to act, and challenged them to take advantage, over the next three days, of the enormous opportunity to have their voices and concerns heard, while contributing solutions to the difficulties they faced.  “It is the people gathered in this room, NGOs and volunteers, who can inform, educate, and change minds, attitudes and practices,” he said, assuring the NGO community that in all that they did, they would have a very strong partner in the United Nations.


JÜRGEN NIMPTSCH, Mayor of Bonn, extended a warm welcome to the “United Nations City”, saying its citizens worked to foster a sense of openness and unity, like the music of its native son, Beethoven.


The participants had gathered to discuss how sustainable societies could benefit from civil society, he said, expressing his belief that the NGO community was committed to sustainability and volunteerism, and encouraging them to pursue their convictions.


He said that, as Mayor of Bonn, he was grateful for the contributions of non-governmental organizations as societies were only sustainable to the degree that their communities supported them.  Children who planted trees, people who defended human rights and social inclusion and volunteers who helped the elderly were all ways in which responsive citizens helped their communities and set examples for others.


BAN KI-MOON, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said voluntary action was one of the highest expressions of our common humanity.  This year the world had seen first-hand how individuals could make a difference by uniting through social networks and working for change.  NGOs needed to harness the same energy in the service of the planet that sustained them.  Looking forward to the “Rio+20” United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, he said science had made it clear that the world’s citizens were contributing to dangerous climate change and exhausting the planet’s capacity to guarantee a sustainable future.  The solution lay in a fundamental transformation of consumption patterns and life styles.


That meant, among other things, creating a sustainable green economy that would protect the environment and help achieve the Millennium Development Goals, the Secretary-General said.  However, change would not occur overnight, and would not be possible without the involvement of all sectors of society, he warned.  “Your voices, your actions, and your grassroots organizations can help to move us closer to our goals,” the Secretary-General said, emphasizing that all non-governmental organizations, individually and collectively, had an important role to play.  “We need your networks and your best ideas,” he added.


Keynote Speeches


VANDANA SHIVA, Founder, Navdanya International, an organization centred on cultural and biological diversity, said she found it interesting that when it came to the environment, there had been no money to create a new international governing body in 1992, but three years later, when it was time to establish the World Trade Organization, there had been all the money and political will in the world.  With the advent of that organization, everything had become a commodity, including water and seeds.  The very right of farmers to have seeds was threatened, she said, adding that the message that Navdanya was trying to send to the world from Bonn was that everything was not for sale, and not everything was a commodity.


She received a round of applause when she asked the Conference participants to imagine what could have been done with the $16 trillion spent on bailing out banks had it been applied to other areas.  The economic and ecological crises were making alternatives imperative, particularly if you were a pensioner in Greece, a young person in Spain or someone who had lost their home in the United States.  Alternatives would not come from the top, but must come from the people, she affirmed.  It was time to recognize that the life of nature and the creativity of future of generations, women and indigenous peoples should be placed at the heart of such a transformation.


Those gathered needed to recognize the interconnectedness of the environment and the economy, she continued.  The world community could double the amount of food grown in three years if they focused on agro-ecology.  There was no need to halve the world’s hungry population if they grew more food.   It must be recognized that human rights, such as the right to food, flowed from the rights of the earth, she noted, adding that indigenous peoples had realized the importance of recognizing the rights of Mother Earth and in that way had gained more from the environment than making from everything a commodity.


Volunteerism meant freedom, she said.  Slaves did not volunteer; only free people volunteered.  However, while volunteerism was good in society, voluntary guidelines for polluters did not work; they needed to be regulated.  She stressed that deregulation and voluntary action must be addressed, concluding by saying that it was NGO movement’s voluntary spirit that would drive the needed action forward.


GRACE H. AGUILING-DALISAY of VSO Bahaginan, an international development organization that works through volunteers to fight poverty in developing countries, said volunteerism was multifaceted, wide-ranging and important to all phases of life.  Children who lived in a world that valued volunteerism were better equipped to contribute to society throughout their lifetimes and more likely to be volunteers themselves while continuing to make contributions to their societies.


She went on to stress that financial insecurity, family instability, armed conflict and other factors had clearly disadvantaged children.  The collective and intergenerational capacity to create active citizens was further endangered by policies and laws aimed at poverty reduction.  Sustainability was propelled by volunteers, people who devoted their time and energies to people they were not obliged to support.  Those volunteers had been the catalysts for change on the micro and macro levels.


Volunteers were able to address multidimensional and multisectoral challenges brought about by poverty, she continued.  They had many partnerships, including affiliations with State and local governments, the corporate sector, faith-based groups and academic institutions.  It was therefore incumbent on volunteers to consolidate their efforts for greater effectiveness, she said, emphasizing that volunteers’ contributions to development must be recognized as such.


ACHIM STEINER, Executive Director, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), appealed to those gathered to recognize that not everything was getting worse and that some extraordinary things had been achieved, often by the very people in the room whose stories were not seen on television.  They stood up, day in and day out, throughout their communities to be heroes of change.  They were often unrecognized and overlooked, but they must continue to believe that some change had taken place and that it was worthwhile engaging in such conferences.


Noting that some participants considered the economic crisis to be more important than the environmental one, he pointed out that fish stocks were collapsing, biodiversity was disappearing and humans had more chemicals in their bodies than at any time in history.  The NGO community could not simply go on lamenting such issues, nor could it remain as voiceless and powerless in the public discourse on the economy, as that was critical to discussions on the ecology.  Civil society could no longer ignore “the malicious disconnect” between the economy and ecology, he insisted, asking participants to reflect on all the reasons that people gave for why jobs could not be created for youth or why environmental-protection laws could not be passed.


The ecology-versus-economy debate could be seen around the world, and economics were often invoked to override environmental concerns, he continued, emphasizing that NGOs must challenge such assertions, not only with questions, but with better answers.  Nation States needed to grow their economies, but the question was what kind of growth.  The public should not be cowed by claims that they did not understand how the economy worked and that the only way to create jobs was at the expense of the environment, he argued.  Civil society activists needed to do their homework and be prepared for the discussions about the green economy in Rio.  They should also be ready with answers.  When NGOs argued for the environment, they must also be sure that what was good for the environment was also good socially and economically, as the two were not mutually exclusive.


Statements


FLAVIA PANSIERI, Executive Coordinator, United Nations Volunteer Programme and Chair, Consultative Forum of Heads of United Nations Agencies in Germany, thanked all the participants for attending and paid tribute to the many people and organizations that had made the Conference possible.  She expressed particular gratitude for the cooperation between the United Nations and the City of Bonn, and for the collaboration between Germany- and New York-based non-governmental organizations, which had been stellar.  Various other sectors had worked to make the Conference possible, including the private sector, city and State institutions, the United Nations and civil society.


The reason was that the topic under discussion was one for which Governments were held responsible and the United Nations also had a mandate to support, she explained.  But that was not enough, she warned, stressing that everyone had a responsibility to contribute something to sustainability.  Responsible citizens were needed to make a difference in terms of changing lifestyles and engaging every citizen.  NGOs needed to connect the dots between policy discussions and engaging political will with people’s initiatives.  They needed to ensure that Government action was joined with civic engagement and that the planet’s single most precious resource, its people, was a force for transformation to ensure sustainability.


That sustainability must be economic as well as social, she continued, adding that it was therefore important to look at people-centred approaches to sustainable development that would enable people to get involved while harnessing the enormous power they could express.  It was important to recognize that civic engagement was often by individuals who wanted to give back, and it was therefore to be hoped that the Conference would lead to the recognition that involving people was a central element of achieving sustainable development worldwide.


Participants were then treated to a musical interlude by Sascha Reckert, a world renowned performer and maker of glass instruments, who performed with his professional ensemble of glass musicians known as “Sinfonia di vetro”.  Bernward Geier, Coordinator of the NGO Focal Group in Germany, introduced the group, explaining that the significance of the “aquaphone” instrument they played was to raise awareness of water technologies for development.  The group accompanied British composer and singer Rhet Brewer in two pieces entitled Internal Oceans.


FELIX DODDS, Chair of the sixty-fourth annual DPI/NGO Conference, delivered the NGO welcome, and encouraged the delegates to take advantage of their three days in Bonn.  They should be holding Governments accountable to the commitments they had made because their fulfilment had been abysmal over the last 20 years.  Rio might not be the last chance they would have, but it was a critical juncture for the NGO community.  They must recapture the spirit of 1992, when they had hoped they could change some of the issues they were now facing.


He said several issues needed to be addressed:  human societies living beyond the planet’s carrying capacity; climate change as an out-of-control driver; the link between environment and security; and increased inequality around the world.  There was a need to improve the lives of the entire world’s people without compromising the planet, he said, suggesting that the NGO draft declaration would include sustainable-development goals.  Civil society must go to Rio with some sense of the goals they needed to set for the next 14 years, he added.


Calling for a convention on corporate responsibility, he said one was needed in light of the economic crisis and the failure of the banks.  Of key importance were a green economy and active community engagement.  The draft declaration was an opportunity for NGOs to inform the Rio+20 Conference of the issues that the NGO community felt were most important.  Though NGOs might all wish that they lived in a more attractive world, the reality was that they did not, he said, suggesting that they use the Conference to work together to ensure that they addressed both challenges and opportunities.


The Bonn Conference, the fourth held outside United Nations Headquarters in New York, brought together a wide range of actors in an effort to highlight effective ways in which civil society, in partnership with other actors, can contribute to fostering sustainability.  The sustainable development revolution is about individual and collective actions and empowering people to get involved.  Becoming involved with non-governmental organizations and voluntary associations empowers responsive citizens to act together and build real, sustainable societies.


Through the United Nations DPI/NGO Conference, an effort is being made to connect the dots between sustainable development and engaging communities.  As a result, the Conference has a full agenda that includes four round-table discussions on the role of non-governmental organizations and civil society in helping to shape sustainable lifestyles; the role of the green economy in eradicating poverty; civic engagement and voluntary action for achieving sustainability; and sustainable development governance issues on the local and global levels.


Numerous workshops are scheduled to provide opportunities for non-governmental organizations to interact informally in greater depth on the issues.  The workshops cover a range of topics, including:  “Volunteering for a Sustainable Future”; “Gender and Sustainability in Fair Trade”; “The Role of Farmers, Governments and Society in Tackling the Food and Climate Crisis”; “Re-assessing the Role of Young People in Tackling Climate Change:  A Case for Youth Participation”; and “Rio 2012:  A Window of Opportunity for a Multi-Stakeholder Partnership”.


The Conference met this afternoon to begin the first of four round-table discussions, which focused on how to foster sustainable consumption and production in a globalizing world.


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For information media • not an official record