Little Actions Can Make a Big Difference; Your Hard Work Adds Up, Round Table Speakers Tell Volunteers at Sixty-fourth DPI/NGO Conference

6 September 2011

Little Actions Can Make a Big Difference; Your Hard Work Adds Up, Round Table Speakers Tell Volunteers at Sixty-fourth DPI/NGO Conference

6 September 2011
Press Release
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Little Actions Can Make a Big Difference; Your Hard Work Adds up, Round Table

Speakers Tell Volunteers at Sixty-fourth DPI/NGO Conference


(Received from a UN Information Officer.)

BONN, 4 September — Participants in the sixty-fourth annual Department of Public Information/Non-Governmental Organization (DPI/NGO) Conference were urged this afternoon not to grow discouraged in the face of so many seemingly intractable problems because their individual actions combined to make a big difference in the world.

The comments came during a round table discussion entitled “The Role of Civil Society in a Fast Changing World:  Civic Engagement and Voluntary Action for Achieving Sustainability”.  Lalanath de Silva of the World Resources Institute opened the discussion by saying that volunteers sometimes wondered whether their work made a difference.  Hopefully people would take away from the round table that little acts added up to make a big difference, the same way that individual grains of sand combined to make beaches, or single drops of water made up the oceans.

He urged participants to ask themselves some questions; for example, what did people mean when they talked about a fast-changing society?  Technological, ecological, political and corporate changes meant things were moving at an ever faster pace, and people needed to ask who was driving that change and whom it was benefiting.  The next question was, what was meant by civic engagement and voluntary action, and what support was available for those actions? he said, inviting the panellists to talk about volunteerism in their communities and how to create an atmosphere that fostered volunteerism.

Rose de Lima Ramanankavana of the International Association of Charities said that in her native Madagascar, deforestation was leading to desertification and many other environmental problems.  As usual, poor people suffered the most, she said, citing some of the main causes of poverty in the country as poor infrastructure, a lack of reliable and transparent structures, a need for public awareness and education on environmental concerns, the absence of a social security system, greed and a lack of ethical values.  Despite that, Madagascar was a beautiful country with resilient people who worked hard to survive.

She went on to say that despite its name, her NGO did not provide charity.  Rather, it promoted sustainable development, education and empowerment to enable the poorest women to build sustainable communities.  Their projects included the registration of unregistered children, vocational training, literacy training, programmes to promote the Millennium Development Goals and collaboration with international aid agencies.

Kees Biekart, Senior Lecturer in political sociology at Erasmus University’s International Institute of Social Studies in Rotterdam, emphasized the importance of understanding how change occurred in order to adapt to the challenges ahead.  Describing the three-sector model — civil society, private sector and government — as “a bit outdated” and too simple to apply to the world’s complex current problems, he said people must rethink the way in which they used civil society because it was not a monolithic entity and comprised multiple actors with different agendas.  In light of new technologies such as social media, there was a need to rethink civil society organizations because such technologies were creating a new space for them.  There was also an assumption that change was caused by external development aid when in fact there was much change happening inspite ofit.  People should look at change through a different lens because civic engagement was driving a great deal of it, he said.

Anna Golubovska-Onisimova, Co-founder and President of the Ukrainian environmental non-governmental organization MAMA-86, said her organization worked on environmental issues and had prepared an environmental action plan in consultation with a broad range of participants.  Stressing the importance of a number of Ukrainian national laws on the informed consent of citizens in environmental decisions and policymaking, she urged participants to strive for public participation and access to justice on environmental matters.

Jeremy Wates, Secretary-General of the European Environmental Bureau, agreed with Mr. Biekart that civil society was not a homogenous body, noting also that not every civil society actor was concerned about the environment.  However, public involvement and engagement on environmental issues was more helpful than not.  Regarding how legal frameworks could enforce accountability, transparency and participation, he said there was a need for legal frameworks that guaranteed the right of access to justice, the right of participation and the right of access to information.  Since the adoption in Bali several years ago of the UNEP Guidelines on Principle 10, he recalled, the European Union had made a great deal of progress in including citizens in environmental decision-making.  That was due in large part to the Aarhus Convention, under which any person could bring charges of environmental violations, he said, noting that the instrument’s participation and compliance mechanism was “incredibly strong”.

He went on to say that the Convention’s success highlighted the need for legally binding treaties as opposed to voluntary commitments, adding that it was doubtful the European Union would have achieved the same progress without the binding legal framework of the Aarhus Convention.  The Convention also showed the importance of multilateral and international negotiations.  Even though it had been negotiated among United Nations Economic Commission of Europe member States, it was open for accession by any United Nations Member State, he said.  There were several options for developing legally binding treaties.  For example, there was the option of developing other regional conventions, using Aarhus as a model, but it could reflect the particular needs of a particular region.  In fact, there had been talk that the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) was considering such an option for that region, he said, adding that another option was to create an international convention based on UNEP’s Principle 10.

Maria Teresa Mesquita of Brazil, speaking as a respondent, stressed the importance of communication, education and public awareness campaigns, saying NGOs were in the best position to spread the word and mobilize people when it came to environmental issues as they could explain to citizens that environmental issues were also connected to social development, poverty eradication and social justice.  She added that people should appreciate how much had been accomplished in the last 20 years since the 1992 Rio Conference.

Heiko Warnken of Germany, a second respondent, recalled several references to governance issues, stressing that governance was a key to environmental sustainability.  Governments could work closely with civil society and much could be achieved with cooperation between the two sectors.

During the ensuing question-and-answer period, one participant asked about the exact role of the European Environmental Bureau.  Another pointed out that people around the world were “in the same boat”, whether they lived in Madagascar or San Francisco.  They therefore needed to live in a sustainable way, and to accomplish sustainability, they needed to harness the civic energy that Mr. Biekart had mentioned.

A young woman asked why there were no young speakers on the panel, especially considering that young people would play an important role in creating a sustainable future.  Another speaker pointed out that many businesses and Governments were invested in maintaining the status quo and did not wish to see society change.  Did the panellists think civil society could really accomplish change in the face of such entrenched interests?

Responding to some of the questions, Mr. Biekart said that whether they would be able to effect change in the face of entrenched interests remained to be seen, but activists must harness civic energy from all layers of society, including market and Government forces.  It was not enough to focus solely on civil society.

Regarding the absence of young panellists, Mr. De Silva agreed that more young people should have been included.

In a second round of questions and comments, an audience member said there must also be a focus on sustainability in education.  Children needed to be taught that they were part of a larger world, and sustainability should be integrated into education curricula.  Another speaker asked what NGOs could do to help States implement and speed up the pace of change.  Another said that in the future it would be beneficial for conference participants if round table panels included people who were directly affected by environmental changes rather than just NGO representatives and experts speaking on their behalf.

Ms. Mesquita and Mr. Warnken both underscored the critical role that the public could play in environmental decision-making, and they both outlined the numerous consultations that their respective Governments had undertaken to involve citizens.  Ms. Mesquita also stressed the importance of language in making the issues more accessible to citizens, pointing out that information was often only available in English, and urging those conveying information to increase the number of languages in which information was available so as to involve a broader range of people.

With respect to exerting pressure on Governments to make change, Mr. Wates said it was important for Conference participants to continue to make their voices heard, using the channels available to them.

The DPI/NGO Conference will reconvene at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow, 5 September, for its fourth and final round table, workshops and closing ceremony.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.