|United Nations System-Wide
Working Party 2
Geneva, 22-23 March 1995
Information Document, 26 January 1995
A PROPOSAL FOR A PARTICIPATORY ASSESSMENT
OF THE PLANET
One of the major problems with environmental assessment is the lack of adequate and specific information about many aspects of our environment and of human pressures on it, and in particular the enormous gap in information on many developing countries and regions, which produces a bias in assessments towards the industrialized countries and towards the wealthier within those countries. The governments and their statistical services, the international agencies and the scientific community do not have the means, either financial or human, to fill all these gaps in the foreseeable future. There is also a need to build public awareness of the serious problems of environmental damage and unsustainable development now affecting the world, and the role of each person in contributing to these problems. The more environmentally concerned people frequently ask what they can do to help solve these problems.
A response to both these needs would be for UNEP and its partners in the UN system-wide Earthwatch to organize for the year 2000 a global campaign to assess the state of our planet with the widest possible participation of all parts of society, including all those involved in the Rio process.
The basic idea of the campaign would be to get everyone to participate in collecting and reporting agreed types of information according to standard procedures during the year 2000, to provide a detailed snap-shot view of the state of the world environment and the human condition at the beginning of the millennium. The press would be invited to distribute questionnaires to the public in the newspapers; local groups could canvas information even among the illiterate; the schools would participate in a census of resources and environmental quality around the schools; non-governmental organizations could collect and analyze information in their special areas of interest; the private sector could carry out environmental audits and provide a first global picture of their throughput of materials and wastes; labour unions could assess their working conditions; governments could take advantage of the interest created to carry out their normal data collection more completely and efficiently; the specialized agencies could work with their national counterparts in government to analyze the information collected. There would need to be processes of rapid feedback to the public on the results so that each person, group and country could see where they stand relative to the rest of the world. The results would also be used by UNEP as a strong foundation for the 2002 State of the Environment report, where the data would be analyzed for its implications for a more sustainable future.
This approach with public (amateur) involvement is already being used on a small scale. For instance, the US National Audubon Society has organized Christmas bird counts for decades, where local birding groups make a one-day count of all the birds in there area according to standard procedures, and the figures are compared from year to year. Birdlife International is now extending this approach successfully to other countries including developing countries. Many NGOs have networks of national member organizations which could participate in such a campaign. US Vice-president Al Gore suggested a similar idea involving the school children of the world in environmental assessment in his book "Earth in the Balance".
The Earthwatch 2000 Campaign should allow a significant improvement in global data on such critical issues as biodiversity, land use, water resources, health and human settlement conditions, waste categories and quantities, the location and state of critical habitats, etc. It could be designed in the framework of Agenda 21 to provide the data for an assessment of progress a decade after Rio.
The Earthwatch partners would need to organize scientific and technical groups (or draw on existing groups) to identify the kinds of information that would be most usefully collected, the methodologies to be used to collect and analyze it, the desirable levels of accuracy and spatial and temporal coverage, the methods of quality control that should be applied, and the techniques for processing, storing and distributing the data. These could then be discussed and refined in consultation with the organizations that would participate in the actual data collection. There would need to be many trials and pilot activities to test each methodology in the field.
The actual organization of the campaign should be decentralized as much as possible, with the early identification of partners ready to take on the responsibility for a particular country, sector or type of measurement, and if appropriate the organization of regional, national, sectoral and even local coordinating groups. This should reduce the need for major centralized funding, although a donor-supported fund to assist in particular cases would be desirable. Because of the high visibility that would come with such widespread public involvement, everyone would have an interest in participating. The campaign would lend itself to becoming a global media event, with results reported like world cup scores as they came in from around the world. NGOs could use the campaign to build their memberships; companies in the private sector to improve their image, etc. There would be widespread opportunities for commercial sponsorship at the local, national and international levels, such as by paying for simple measuring instruments in return for the right to display the corporate logo on them. The critical role in the central organization of the campaign would be to ensure that the results are sufficiently harmonized and quality-controlled to be scientifically viable. Fortunately the sample sizes should be sufficiently large that lesser standards of accuracy are possible.
The experience of the campaign could be used to identify some measurements which could be repeated on a more regular basis to improve the information flow for environmental assessment and sustainable development. In particular, the process could be used to stimulate local level monitoring, assessment and management, since people could see that they can do it for themselves and benefit directly from the results.
UNEP could take on a catalytic leadership role in this campaign, in cooperation with all the partners in the UN system-wide Earthwatch. The participatory approach is discussed in the Report on Chapter 40: Information for Decision-making and Earthwatch, for the Commission on Sustainable Development, and in the report on Environmental Monitoring and Earthwatch for the UNEP Governing Council. Funds would need to be sought to cover the organizational expenses for coordinating such a vast operation and for special assistance to its implementation in developing countries. The inter-agency Earthwatch Working Party could provide overall policy guidance, with each agency using its own constituencies and regional offices, and UNDP its country offices, to enlist widespread cooperation. The approach could also be expanded to include data collection at the national level for Development Watch.