Monday, December 31, 2007

Come together

What if everyone agreed to invest in natural wealth (biodiversity and Nature's services) rather than just in artificial wealth (money)? We'd all be looking forward this coming year to the World Conservation Congress that IUCN - The World Conservation Union is organizing in October, 2008 in Barcelona as a most important venue with long term implications for global security and economics, and a key opportunity to address urgently threats to humankind's main assets: the Earth's natural resources.

Governments and civil society, both of which play a key role in identifying and implementing solutions - come together once every four years to collectively address these issues under the auspices of the World Conservation Congress, organised by IUCN – the World Conservation Union. Next year’s Congress will take place in Barcelona from 5-14 October, 2008.

A report commissioned by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on the relationship of the UN with civil society proposed in 2004 to embrace “multi-constituency multilateralism” by involving not only national governments, but also Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), parliamentarians, local authorities, academics, churches and the private sector in global policy-making. IUCN - with its unique membership and structure that includes governments, government agencies and NGOs, and the World Conservation Congress is a model upon which UN reformers should look to build.

At the last congress held in Bangkok in 2004 for example, 131 draft resolutions were debated on issues as diverse as the “HIV/AIDS Pandemic and Conservation”, “The Protection of Seamounts, Deep Sea Corals and other Vulnerable Deep Sea Habitats from Bottom Trawl Fishing on the high Seas” and “A Moratorium on the Further Release of Genetically Modified Organisms”. The diversity of the sponsors of these resolutions (ranging from the South African National Parks Administration to the Uzbekistani Zoological Society to the government of Australia) reflected the diversity of the IUCN membership. To be adopted by the World Conservation Congress, draft resolutions require a simple majority approval from each of the governmental and non-governmental chambers. IUCN resolutions are not legally-binding, but it is difficult for governments to ignore them later. If they do their job well, civil society organizations are there to remind them.

Governments and NGOs have one important thing in common. In theory at least, both are working in service to the public trust; they are “non-commercial” organisations. This commonality of purposes would seem to imply a natural partnership, but for a variety of reasons, governments tend to disproportionately listen to – and some would say pander to - the private sector. This is not to say that corporations don’t have an important – indeed an essential – role to play in implementing policies. One must always remember, however, that a corporation’s primary objective is to create profits for its shareholders.

Governments at the United Nations have been reluctant to approve UN reform that would give more say to NGOs, because they fear that this could compromise the government-to-government nature of the United Nations. But some recognize that in today’s world “nations” are not confined to central governments alone, and that civil society organisations are increasingly important. Look at the role of non-governmental aid organisations, for example, in providing humanitarian relief which some might argue should be the responsibility of governments. With their firmly established neutrality they can achieve better results than any government. Their independence from vested interests is what gives NGOs a unique perspective which governments are ill-advised to ignore. The IUCN model shows that grassroots democracy in international policy-making can and does work. With nearly 1000 members from 143 different countries (83 States, 110 Government Agencies and 800 NGOs) and some 10,000 scientists and experts from 181 countries, IUCN presents a unique model of multi-constituency membership.

The key question which decision-makers at all levels of society must ask is, “what can I – my country, my bank, my company, my ministry, my organisation, my family – do to contribute to the radical course correction which can move us off our present collision course.”

The great increase in global climate change awareness represented a fundamental development in 2007. But according to OECD figures, governments continue to waste annually at least $250 billion of taxpayers’ money in subsidies provided to the coal, oil and nuclear sectors (the very sectors that have done the most to put us on our collision course to start with). As a result, the development of energy efficient technology and renewable energy, which are desperately needed to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, continues to be disadvantaged. The same is true for other key sectors. “One key example of economic policy with significant environmental impact relates to production subsidies […] subsidies in three sectors with direct impact on biodiversity – fisheries, forestry and agriculture – benefit an extremely small group of people (mainly in rich countries) at extremely high cost to society (particularly in poor countries),” said IUCN in a report published in 2004.

Investing in the future of the Planet is what all responsible people should do. The IUCN has proposed a model of sustainability that recognises the dependency of society and its related economic activity on environmental health. A model that would integrate, and disseminate conservation-related knowledge, and help empower people and institutions to take action. At the same time, it would promote effective environmental governance at global, regional, national and local levels. What is useful about the IUCN and its World Conservation Congress, is that it can facilitate governments AND civil society working together to achieve their common purposes.

Governments acting alone have not managed to change the course of Spaceship Earth – they have barely begun even to recognise the threat. Industry can help identify economically efficient ways to address the solutions, but corporations alone will never take the long view. It is time to give civil society a stronger voice, and to embrace the concept of ‘multi-constituency multilateralism.’

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