Introduction - Non-Governmental Organization Alternative Treaties at the '92 Global Forum

The treaties prepared at the International NGO Forum (INGOF) in Rio de Janeiro dealt with issues ranging from environmental concerns and how non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can better cooperate with one another to how to shape relations with other social sectors such as the youth and women's movements.

The treaty process was conceived of through the build-up to the Rio conference, as successive Preparatory Committee meetings of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) indicated that the government negotiating process, whilst far from closed to NGO participation, was nonetheless unlikely to deliver an agenda reflecting the serious need for immediate action to change our understanding of economic, material and ethical relations in the world. NGOs are increasingly gaining confidence in their legitimate claim to a voice in the global policy dialogue. They are asserting with growing conviction the need for an empowered civil society.

The intention of the process was to produce citizens' treaties which gave a brief statement of principles outlining the problem as perceived by the group concerned and then outline a plan of action which detailed what NGOs were prepared to do to solve the problem. From Rio, the treaties are intended as open and living documents, which civic organisations from around the world will be invited to share, add to, and participate in. Through electronic communication and the many regional meetings planned as follow-up to UNCED, as well as through the existing networks forged by the alternative treaty negotiators in Rio, the number of NGOs participating should grow.

The treaties focus on the specific areas where NGOs and social movements are concentrating their resources and policy work, whilst insisting on the relevance of learning from one another and cooperating as NGOs, as well as on the significance of the increasingly global nature of the context in which people are struggling to maintain an autonomous livelihood. With the common concern that the local and even the national stage is no longer a big enough context in which to address and resolve our development problems, particularly as we look at the management and control of resources, the treaties hone in on the specific campaigns and programs of all kinds of NGOs and social movements.

There is no question that the idea of joint action campaigns involving an international mix of non-profit organisations and social movements has caught the imagination of many in the international development and environment communities. There is considerable frustration with governments, a frustration that is somewhat tempered by the relative openness of many governments to NGO participation during UNCED, but at the same time emboldened by that invitation to assert their legitimacy as drafters and not only implementors of policy. As UNCED approached without any evidence that governments were willing to take responsibility for the environmental and, underlying that, the developmental crisis facing the planet, NGOs grew increasingly angry that their counsel was not being heard. The treaties were a positive response to that anger, asserting that civil society is prepared to deal with the crisis.

Few of the negotiators involved with the alternative treaties knew about the process in advance, and many had not been able to attend any of the PrepComs and so had little prior orientation. Each group was asked to prepare a treaty on a given subject, including a statement of principles, an outline of the key problems and an action plan for NGOs to implement. The groups were classified under four broad headings: economics, environment, inter-movement (between major groups) and NGO cooperation. The mechanics were relatively complex too, coping with four languages, shifting locations within a huge park where 28,000 others were participating in activities of all kinds and where only 3 or 4 scheduled opportunities were available to hammer out common positions and to build strategies from these.

The NGOs in Rio rejected the creation of a central infrastructure to promote the treaties. When voting to extend the mandate of INGOF for one year, the NGO representatives outlined seven broad tasks. There were to:

  • encourage regional networks to convene regional meetings to assess the local interest in the treaty process
  • encourage regional networks to act as caretakers of the process
  • determine the interest of regional networks in continuing to coordinate the treaties
  • identify regional coordinators for treaties where necessary
  • identify and resolve questions left outstanding around the process
  • make the treaty database available on the APC electronic communication system
  • facilitate the immediate distribution of the treaties.

The Uruguay-based electronic communications network, NGONet will manage the computer conference on which the treaties, as well as the list of participants in Rio, will be available. Everyone is welcome to sign on; the final versions of the treaties have been made available in the four languages of the conference (French, Spanish, Portuguese, and English). The onus is expected to be on individual treaty groups to further develop and realize their action plans.

The treaties are intended as open documents, ready to shift and grow as the need arises. They should be understood as processes as well as action plans, where some of the output will be in intangibles such as growth in trust, an increased capacity for NGOs to act collectively, and for NGOs to act with due accountability to evident and vocal constituencies. We look forward to watching the process develop from here, and we invite all of those committed to social change to join us.

© 2001 by Ulrich Schmitthenner • Bildschirm-Version