United Nations


General Assembly

15 April 1997


            Letter dated 9 April 1997 from the Permanent Representative
              of the United States of America to the United Nations
                     addressed to the Secretary-General

    I have the honour to submit the text of a document from Under-
Secretary of State for Global Affairs Timothy Wirth to be part of the
official documentation at the special session of the General Assembly
on sustainable development, to be held from 23 to 27 June 1997 (see
annex).  The document is the outcome of the National Councils for
Sustainable Development working group at the recent Rio+5 meeting in
Brazil.  The strong vision and potential of the National Councils are
clearly reflected in the report.

    Given the importance of the report, and its relevance to
sustainable development, I request that the text of the report be
circulated to all Members of the United Nations.

                                        (Signed)  Bill RICHARDSON




           A Vision and Practical Measures for National
               Councils as Effective Mechanisms for
                      Sustainable Development
                Rio de Janeiro, RIO+5, 19 March 1997

                                Draft  3

National Councils For Sustainable Development are an important
mechanism for bringing together the groups within society, overcoming the
conflicts among differing interests, promoting policies and measures,
and catalyzing actions that integrate economy, environment and social justice.
We urge that governments create and support high level, multi-stakeholder
National Councils for Sustainable Development.  We recommend that NCSDs
take an active role proposing policies and identifying barriers to
sustainable development, supporting local action and building alliances for
private action, educating, and promoting participation.  Finally, we
recommend that multi-lateral institutions -- the World Bank, UNDP, the
UNCSD, UNEP, the regional banks among others -- involve, rely upon and
support NCSDs as an essential mechanism to foster sustainable development and
engage civil society and the private sector.

                                Table of contents


   I.  INTRODUCTION                                                  3

       SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT                                       4

 III.  THE ROLE OF NCSDS                                             6

  IV.  KEY ISSUES                                                    8

   V.  BEST PRACTICES                                                9

  Vl.  NEXT STEPS                                                   10

I.  Introduction

1. Chapters 8 and 38 of Agenda 21 recommend the establishment of
National Councils for Sustainable Development, NCSDs l/, to allow for the
implementation of sustainable development strategies and policies.  Since 1992
a number of countries have established NCSDs, or other coordination
mechanisms, but the success of the mechanisms in integrating sustainable
development into decision-making varies from country to country depending on
their mandate, composition and character - some NCSDs focus only on
environmental issues, while others are government coordinating bodies without
broad representation from other sectors.

2. Representatives of many of these NCSDs and other participants at the Rio +5
event agreed upon a clear vision of the role and character of NCSDs as
multisectoral catalysts for policies that integrate economic, environmental
and social goals across sectors and agencies.  This vision is built upon the
understanding that sustainable development is everybody's concern, and making
it work requires everybody's engagement.  Providing the opportunity 
current and future generations to live better lives requires economic,
environmental and social changes -- immediate action based on a long term
vision -- changes driven by global concerns, but contingent on local action.

3. Sustainable development is government's core concern, but must not be
only government's concern, and citizens should not believe that they
can simply wait for change and blame government if it does not come. At
the close of the Twentieth Century it is the interaction and engagement of
all of the sectors in society that creates change. Government, industry, NGOs,
labor and communities all are concerned because it is the way a society lives,
way that it produces and consumes that determines whether it is sustainable. 
The outcome of a society's efforts to achieve sustainability depend on the
choices that individuals and institutions make, and progress depends upon
broad social agreement about the goals and process of change.

4. Every country is different, and each country's approach to sustainable
development must depend on the different political, social, economic,
historical and cultural circumstances of that country. Nevertheless, there is
a universal need to find policies that recognize the interrelation between
prosperity, environment, and fairness, particularly when the divisions within
society that hinder such policies are endemic. We are convinced that an NCSD
can make an important contribution to the creation of appropriate policies and
the promotion of effective action for sustainability in every
country, and that there are certain general principles that should guide
the creation and operation of NCSDs.  These guiding principles can then be
adapted nationally within circumstances that vary from country to country. The
work can also be done collectively at the regional level within their
respective contexts.  Finding guiding principles for national and regional
sustainable development coordination mechanisms is a crucial outcome of the
Rio +5 meeting.  These proposals will guide the evolution of existing NCSDs,
and help the countries which have not yet established such councils to start
the process of establishing one.

II.  The structure and composition of National Councils for Sustainable

1. The first principle is inclusion of the widest possible representation of
the major players in both the public and private sector. To integrate
goals and policies and catalyze action inside and outside of government, the
NCSD must integrate society's stakeholders in its membership. Thus, NCSDs
should not be composed of members from government alone, because government by
itself cannot make sustainable development happen without effective social
participation.  Nor can an NCSD be fully effective if its membership is
limited to no-governmental members because that will diminish it ability to
ensure that government heeds the council's advice and implements its
recommendations. The ongoing interaction between government and other
stakeholders is essential.

2.  A multi stakeholder process must reflect the society at large. In
addition to the government and para-governmental institutions, the
NCSD should have the representation of all major groups as
defined by Agenda 21: women, children and youth, trade unions, business
and industry, local authorities, farmers, science and technology,
indigenous people, and non-governmental organizations. Media and
education sectors should also be involved. Depending on the political
structure, some countries may profit from involving members of national
and local parliaments in their NCSD. In those cases where a committee within
the parliament is already addressing sustainable development, such a committee
should be represented on the NCSD.

3.  From the governmental side, an ideal structure should allow for a cross-
sectoral approach with all Ministers concerned, such as the environment,
economy and finance, development cooperation, planning, transportation,
agriculture, trade and industry, education, research and development, health,

4. In different countries, three kinds of NCSD structures can be found :
(i) strictly governmental; (ii) non-governmental; and (iii) mixed. The first
is considered to be insufficient to address all aspects of sustainable
development, even when the government consults with civil society. The second
structure is also ineffective if such a council is not involved in proposal
and evaluation processes with the government. The third type of structure may
be the most effective in addressing complex sustainable development issues. 
But the conditions of the success depend on the following issues:

6. Problems should be addressed at the most appropriate level according to
the subsidiarity principle in the following order of preference: at the
1) local; 2) regional (sub-national); 3) national; and 4) regional
(extra-national) or global levels.  In some cases, a regional context
including ecological boundaries (river basins, mountain regions, internal
seas and internationally shared waters...), can also provide an effective
way to focus council activities. In all these scales, multi stakeholder
discussions are useful. A cooperation and exchange of experience between all
these NCSDs at various levels appear to be an efficient way to
operationalize sustainable development.  Within the same principle of
subsidiarity, problems should be addressed by the private sector
(business and NGO); in joint partnership; and by governmental agencies.

7. The members of the NCSDs should represent various sectors of
society. Their representation is a crucial question which has different

(i) the members are chosen by the head of the executive office on an
individual basis; 
(ii) the members are elected or designated by their peers or 
constituencies; and
(iii) a combination of both.

8. None of these forms is perfect. Each has positive aspects and drawbacks. 
For example, executive-chosen members may enjoy greater freedom than
peer-elected ones, but they can be disconnected from grassroots problems, and
may not be effective in bringing their own sector along with ideas agreed to
in the NCSD. 0n the other hand electing members may present practical
difficulties.  Some major groups are not organized or are too diverse to be
able to elect a representative.  The choice depends an local, social and
political conditions.  What is important is that the method of selection and
the resulting membership preserves the integrity of the multi-stakeholder
process and supports the goals of transparency, participation and

9. Diversity of opinions is part of the success; members must adequately
represent and reflect the opinions of the network or sector they
represent.  The success of the NCSDs also depends on the caliber and
motivation of its members, Preferably, the members should be
high-level decision-makers in their respective fields, though not
necessarily technical experts.

10. Success also depends on the organization of the work within the NCSD
and the capability of the chairmanship to create a good working climate
and to negotiate imaginative consensus solutions.

III. The Role of NCSDs

1. As the voice for sustainability and the advocate of integrated
policies, an NCSD must address questions of national purpose, and should
provide a long-term vision, goals, and values that define and explain
the concept of sustainability for their nation, society, and traditions.  That
vision must respond to national concerns, and to the global issues that affect
all nations such as the alignment of trade and investment policies with
sustainable development.

2. An NCSD should be a source of clear analysis about problems, and
creative thinking about solutions, including such policy tools as
economic incentives, expenditures, information disclosure, and
regulation.  An NCSD should also consider the role and responsibilities
of the private sector and other parts of civil society. NCSDs are not a
parallel process of government, and should not exercise executive or
legislative authority, but rather should catalyze action by others.

3. An NCSD should be an effective, task-oriented advocate of
integrated policies for sustainable development, both inside and outside
of government. NCSDs should not only be part of a discussion process on values
or objectives, they should be a forum where the major groups work together,
not a mere "debating club", but a venue for cooperative action, and
commitments to real implementation.  Sustainable development is premised on
the idea that prosperity, fairness and a healthy environment are interwoven
strands of the single human dream of a better life in the future. An
NCSD can be a powerful mechanism to introduce the idea of sustainability
into the life and policies of a nation by fulfilling the following

4. Integrate.  Integration is most important.  It begins with policy
integration - the recognition that trade, fiscal, economic, energy, transport,
infrastructure, agriculture, land use and social policies profoundly affect
sustainability, and that good environmental policies can enhance prosperity.
An NCSD should provide a forum in which goals are discussed and articulated;
and policy is developed across the jurisdictional boundaries within
government, and across the sectoral boundaries outside of government. It
should provide a mechanism for collaboration regarding implementation
among mainstream sectors, and between government and the major groups
in society. Finally, since so much that affects sustainability is decided
at the community level, but the context and boundaries for local decisions are
often determined by international commitments and national policies, an NCSD
should provide a means to integrate policy and action among levels of

5. Promote Participation.  The multi stakeholder membership of an NCSD
represents a broader change that is necessary in society. An NCSD should both
demonstrate and promote processes to engage the participation of all
stakeholders in the development and implementation of policies
for sustainability and should adopt the transparent practices that support

6. Innovate. Integration requires innovation.  Existing policies are usually
sectoral, often responding to the narrow concerns of a limited constituency. 
An NCSD should be a source of creativity, long-term thinking and unorthodox

7. Demonstrate. Unorthodox ideas require proof. Sustainability is an
interdisciplinary concept that needs to be made concrete. An NCSD can
identify or create real demonstrations of sustainability in action:
sustainable community management of natural resources, eco-industrial parks,
action and education for sustainability in schools.

8. Educate and Communicate. Sustainability requires society-wide change, and
an NCSD should be a voice for sustainability throughout society in
disseminating information within government, industry, NGOs, schools, and
communities; explaining what it means, why it is urgent, and how it is
(main streaming sustainable development).

9. Monitor and Evaluate Progress.  NCSDs should define milestones, assess and
report progress on a regular basis in order to create powerful incentives for

10. Disseminate and promote tools for sustainable development practice.  The
NCSDs are the right place to propose, diffuse and evaluate tools that
will be part of the governance of the XXIst century. Four kinds of
tools are important:

- creating sustainable development indicators;

- promoting local Agendas 21;

- identifying best practices and best technologies; and 

- developing multi stakeholder approaches.

11. Support Local Action.  NCSDs need to interact with community efforts
to create sustainability, and should help to create and support national
networks of communities implementing local Agendas 21. NCSDs should
identify national laws or policies that impede local sustainability and
propose measures to support local action.

IV. Key issues

1. The role of an NCSD is broad and unconventional, and focused on
change. To establish its legitimacy an NCSD needs a clear mandate and an
official legal status from the national Ieadership that clearly specifies its
role and responsibilities, and explicitly authorizes its activities.

2. An NCSD needs the involvement of senior officials, but it also needs
sufficient independence to propose ideas, raise issues, and create solutions
that do not necessarily conform to preexisting government policies. Given
such a mandate and access to top officials an NCSD can provide a
unique source of creativity and support for leaders committed to
sustainability. To succeed, NCSD members must rise above sectoral interests
and seek solutions that cut across old conflicts.

3. An NCSD needs to be broadly focused on sustainable development, and
should not focus on a single issue. There is great value in the
development of civil society committees to advise environment ministries,
but such committees cannot effectively play the role of integrator or
monitor of sustainability. Similarly, NCSDs should report to the head of state
or government and not only to the minister of the environment.

4. The effectiveness, creativity, or credibility of NCSDs are inhibited if its
agenda is dominated by one group such as government.  The value of a
multi stakeholder process depends on the engagement of the members,
which requires that each member have a voice and equal influence.

5. An NCSD should serve as an independent voice, a catalyst,
integrator and creative force, not an operating agency of government.
lt should propose and recommend, but not make or enforce laws, nor should
it be responsible for adopting or implementing policies and projects.

6. NCSDs should have the financial, technical and human resources to
guarantee effective operation.

7. An NCSD needs a vision and a common working understanding of what
sustainable development is, but should avoid long technical debates seeking a
precise definition.  Defining a set of values and goals at the start is

8. In some countries newly created international environmental commitments
have overloaded government's capacity to respond. In those cases NCSDs can
play a special coordinating role by overseeing the fulfilment and
ratification of international agreements and other codes of conduct, but that
function will depend on the cooperation and support of multi-lateral

9. The members should disseminate information from the NCSD to their network
and consult their peers because NCSD agreement needs to be the basis for
societal agreement.

10. Essential to the monitoring and reporting function of NCSDs is the
development of appropriate indicators that reflect sustainable development
goals more effectively than traditional measures of GDP.


It is not Easy for an NCSD composed of representatives of government,
the private sector, NG0s and other groups in society to achieve agreement on
the difficult issues that are at the core of sustainable development.  Often
it is the divisions on those very issues among the sectors represented on an
NCSD that have prevented action and slowed progress toward sustainability. It
is inevitable and necessary that NCSD members bring those differences to the
council table. It is essential that the members find means to resolve those
differences if the NCSD is to be effective. Every NCSD's experience is
different, but there are a few key practices that help to build trust, and to
create the basis for agreement. The best practice is for an NCSD to operate by
consensus, building agreement among its members through information,
accommodation and understanding.  Fair process, full engagement, and a
commitment to problem solving are essential.

Operating by Consensus: The development of broad agreement within a group is
slower and more difficult than the resolution of issues by majority vote. But
since NCSDs are neither executive nor legislative bodies, divided decisions
are relatively meaningless because they simply replicate the disputes that
divide society as a whole without offering resolution. The power of
the NCSD is derived not from the authority to require others to act, but the
opportunity to create agreements that enable and persuade others to act. 
NCSDs must act through other institutions, and the key to catalyzing such
action is the development of consensus that crosses the boundaries of
old disagreements that have obstructed action.

Consensus-building is also essential to trust. The members of NCSDs may have a
history of conflict and mistrust.  Decisions made by divided vote tend to
strengthen those divisions, and to reduce the incentives for accommodation and
understanding. The need for consensus makes the views of each member
equally important, and requires members to work to understand and persuade one

Fair Process: Another practice that helps to establish trust is the use of
a clear and agreed upon set of rules to assure the council's proceedings
are fair and balanced. Members must be assured they will have the
opportunity to express their views, to participate in meetings, review
drafts, and have equal access to information. For those without adequate
resources it is important that they have access to staff support and
assistance for participation.

Transparency: Part of fairness is assuring that the NCSDs own practices are
transparent, both internally, and externally. All members need to know what is
being done and said in or by the NCSD, and it is important that the public
have the opportunity to learn about and comment on the NCSDs activities. Some
NCSDs, seeking to play an active role in educating society about
sustainability, have sought broad public participation in working groups,
actively promoted press coverage, held hearings and workshops in many
different parts of their country, and set up web sites to provide

Engagement and Problem Solving: Disagreements about social, environmental
and economic goals and policies to pursue them are not simple to
overcome. They stem from strongly held ideas and significant sectoral
interests. Resolving them requires engagement, persistence, good faith
and often, dispute resolution skills.  Members need to show up for meetings
and they need to see that there is real benefit to them in overcoming
disagreement.  Even then, it is useful if members also have access to
individuals with expertise in group facilitation and dispute resolution.

V.  Next Steps

1. Capacity building.  If international cooperation agencies (World Bank,
UNDP, UNEP, UNCSD) and other international organizations support the efforts
of countries to create and/or strengthen NCSDs, then NCSDs will be better
equipped to assist in and coordinate the implementation of international
commitments.  More international cooperation agencies, (especially those
responsible for Agenda 21 monitoring and implementation), should set up
a line of funding to strengthen NCSDs, especially in the following

  (i) Sustainable development information dissemination, education and
      training of decision makers and technical staffs of relevant agencies;

 (ii) Design and implementation of operational structure, collaboration and
      coordination, and policy monitoring and evaluation mechanisms;

(iii) Networking and communication between the NCSDs and other central
      governmental, regional and local-level agencies within the country and
      among NCSDs internationally and regionally;

 (iv) Strategic planning and participatory consultation workshops, public
      hearings and press conferences;

  (v) The establishment and support of expert panels at a national level to
      provide technical information to NCSDs

 (vi) Logistic support, equipment and materials; and

(vii) Providing support to the design, implementation and recognition of
      real demonstrations of sustainability in action at the local level.

NCSDs can and should play a role as key partners for multi-lateral
institutions, bridges between the public and private sector.

2. Participation in international decision-making processes.  NCSDs should
elevate sustainable development in the global agenda, including participation
in international trade organisations and other fora addressing current trends
such as globalization, modernization, and international agreements
relevant for sustainable development. The goal of NCSD participation in this
fora is to ensure that global trade, investment and financial activities do
not become ends in themselves, but become strategic means to advance local,
national, regional and international sustainable development agenda. One
means of ensuring this could be the inclusion of NCSD members into
national delegations.

3. Counterparting mechanisms for NCSDs through UNCSD, Earth Council
and other fora.  NCSDs should continue meeting at the global level and
exchange information and learn from each other. Earth Council has acted as a
facilitator for this purpose and it should continue to play that role. The
United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development should be the main fora
for NCSDs to meet, for example two days of each session of the CSD could be
dedicated to this purpose. International development agencies and financing
agencies should provide support for this purpose.

4. These proposals will guide the evolution of existing NCSDs, and help
the countries which have not yet established such councils to start
the process of establishing one by the 6th session of the United Nations
Commission on Sustainable Development.

1/  In this paper, we utilize the term National Councils for Sustainable
Development (NCSDs) as an equivalent for all coordination
mechanisms/commissions/bodies for sustainable development.


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Date last posted: 15 January 2000 16:15:30
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