Citizens Must Connect Dots between Local, Global Concerns to Advance Sustainable Development, Say Panellists in DPI/NGO Conference Round Table

6 September 2011

Citizens Must Connect Dots between Local, Global Concerns to Advance Sustainable Development, Say Panellists in DPI/NGO Conference Round Table

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

Citizens Must Connect Dots between Local, Global Concerns to Advance Sustainable

Development, Say Panellists in DPI/NGO Conference Round Table


(Received from a UN Information Officer.)

BONN, 5 September – If the movement towards sustainable societies was to advance, civil society must encourage people to realize that their local concerns were also global concerns, speakers said during this morning’s fourth and final round-table discussion of the sixty-fourth annual DPI/NGO Conference in Bonn.  They suggested that by “connecting the dots” between different layers of society, volunteers and activists could have a greater impact on global problems.

Introducing the discussion, entitled “Sustainable Development Governance Issues from Local to Global:  The Role of Citizen Participation”, Anne-Marie Chavanon, Chair of the Democracy, Social Cohesion and Global Challenges Committee of the Conference of International Non-Governmental Organizations at the Council of Europe, said that, while the panel included high-level experts, those in the audience were also experts with whom the speakers looked forward to a lively dialogue.  The purpose of the round table was to discuss how civil society, in concert with other actors, could foster more civic participation and volunteerism.  Hopefully the round table could answer questions relating to:  the proper interaction between sustainable development and governance; how people could link local and global concerns; and how society could accelerate progress towards the Millennium Development Goals.

Thierno Kane of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa recalled that in March 2011, the people of Senegal had taken to the streets to demand that their constitutional rights not be infringed by a political candidate who had tried to assume office with only 25 per cent of the vote.  That action had come after years of cuts in public services and people had taken to the streets to say “enough is enough”.

The point of that story was to raise the question of what civic participation meant, he said.  Was it just a matter of saying that things needed to change or a matter of taking to the streets and saying “enough is enough”?  The Senegalese people had decided that for the next election, they did not want the Constitution to be touched.  They were registering voters and taking other concrete actions to ensure their voices would be heard.

He said local issues must be connected to global problems.  The Conference theme was “connecting the dots”, and in that vein, one of the things that activists needed to do was to show young people that what happened in Bonn or Rio or New York affected their lives and was important to them.  He encouraged civil society to develop responsible citizens who understood that local concerns were also global ones, saying that began with educating and involving young people.

Konrad Otto-Zimmermann, Secretary-General of the ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, continued the dialogue by saying that talking about building sustainable communities required a conversation about the frameworks that were already in place and in which civil society had room to manoeuvre.  For example, how accessible were local governments and assemblies to civil society actors and the public?  Were the political structures at the state and federal level accessible to people as well?

Mr. Otto-Zimmermann said a society in which civil society organizations were woven into the social fabric provided a good basis for influencing the political establishment.  That type of influence was more difficult to accomplish at the State and national levels, but NGOs could work together to have more of an impact on the higher levels of government, he said.

Farah Cherif d’Ouezzan, Director of the Thaqafat Association, said that in large part, when she spoke about NGOs in Morocco she was speaking about volunteers because the work was largely unpaid and most people had to have a paying job while working for NGOs, in addition to their regular employment.  The Thaqafat Association tried to involve young people in its work and to change people’s perceptions about the nature of volunteerism, she said, adding that the Government was also involved in encouraging NGO and civic participation, which had helped her organization earn recognition for its work.

She said that one of Thaqafat’s latest projects was the launch of a voluntary service year as a way to contribute to the development of the missing skills that young people did not get from formal education.  The Association was encouraging the Ministry of Youth and the Ministry of Education to work together to restore the broken trust between the Government and civil society, she said, adding that making volunteerism a more structured part of society would allow people to be more involved in democracy and prepare youth to be more active in building their countries.  Volunteerism was a way to sustain the motivation and willingness that had swept across North Africa this year, she said.

Geri Lau, head of Youth Action and Volunteering at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said most people thought of the Red Cross as responding to disasters, but some of its most important work happened before disaster struck and long after it had passed.  Communities were not just targets and recipients of help, but actually the starting points for change.  When civil society harnessed their capacities, it created very strong movements, she said.  Activists must enable everyone to reach their full potential, she said, adding that, while people were increasingly recognizing that fact, in many situations it was still the State and donors that drove agendas rather than indigenous communities.  That was not a sustainable model of development and change, she cautioned.

Local communities often rose to the challenge when Governments and donors did not, she continued.  Youth needed to be included even more in volunteerism as they already made up a large portion of the volunteer base in many countries.  Another reason why development needed to be people-centred was so that community needs could actually be met and money used to address issues that were important to local people, rather than just checking off criteria that were important to donors.  She also highlighted the need for educational curricula that taught schoolchildren the importance of developing local leadership, as well as the need for networking and partnerships.

John Matuszak of the United States, speaking as a respondent, said Rio+20 should be a conference for the twenty-first century, which meant it should include all parts of society and all parts of the globe.  Having Governments and the United Nations make decisions was not sufficient to achieve sustainable development, and the NGO community needed to look to the leadership developed at the local level in order truly to move forward, he said.

Citizens must tell Governments what they wanted and what they needed in their every day lives to make their communities more sustainable, he continued, adding that elected representatives must be held accountable.  While elections were essential, they were not enough.  People should also hold bureaucrats responsible for their actions because many unelected people, such as United Nations bureaucrats and ministry officials, for example, must also be held accountable.

He said that one of the things he wished to impress on participants was that sustainable development was not only about the environment, but also about opportunities for youth, as well as jobs and livelihoods that allowed people to contribute to society.  Hopefully, Rio+20 would be a new kind of bottom-up conference that would respond to people’s needs, he said, adding that he did not want the result to be a negotiated document that would never be read, but rather a blueprint for addressing issues that were important to everyday lives and that engaged people around the world.

In the ensuing discussion, one speaker suggested the inclusion of young people as panellists in future round tables.  Another asked how volunteerism could ensure that the human rights of women and girls were protected.  A participant observed that sustainable development began with each person in the room, saying that if everyone had brought their own coffee cups to the Conference, thousands of cups would have been saved, in addition to energy and space in landfills.  People needed to think about the small things they could do that would have a great impact, and that would help “connect the dots” between individual actions and global change.

The panellists were asked to share some concrete practices that activists could take home with them to bridge the dislocation between local and global.

Responding to some of the questions, Mr. Kane said that addressing the rights of women was important for every country.  In terns of education, there was also a need for inclusiveness and solidarity, he said, adding that a local citizen was also a global citizen.

Ms. Cherif d’Ouezzan said that, when she spoke about education she did not mean only formal education, but also informal education, such as making people aware of their human rights.  Awareness would help in addressing human trafficking and other violations.

Ms. Lau said that for her it was about how to build a culture of peace, acceptance, non-violence and integration, which could be accomplished by educating young people.  She agreed with Ms. Cherif d’Ouezzan that education also took place in informal ways, saying that was where community involvement and volunteerism could be helpful.

Mr. Matuszak, however, said education systems were not sufficient, whether in developed or developing countries.  Women lacked the same opportunities as men and society could not afford to waste half of the world’s brainpower.  As for “connecting the dots”, he said information systems and data could be useful, while data on the environment, health and other statistics must be made available to the public so that people could hold Governments responsible.

In another round of questions and comments, a speaker pointed out that in talking about “connecting the dots”, participants should realize that not all “dots” were created equal and some needed to be addressed sooner than others.  Another speaker asked how to change consumption patterns to advance sustainable development, while another asked how the sustainable development agenda could advance when all the information was in one language and the conversation took place largely in English.  Another participant asked how activists could generate cooperation among African civil society organizations.

Responding to some of the questions raised, Ms. Lau said information technology gave rise to many possibilities for sharing best practices around the world.

Mr. Kane said it was much more difficult for civil society to influence markets, so that remained an open question.

The DPI/NGO Conference will reconvene at 4 p.m. this afternoon for the closing ceremony.

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