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Who are the Public? A Civil Society perspective

Felix Dodds, Executive Director, Stakeholder Forum


It is striking just how much our map of the world has changed in the 17 years since the end of the Cold War. In 1990, the United Nations (UN) had as members 159 states; now, it has 192, roughly a 20 per cent increase.


So many new nations have come into existence, and even the older ones have undergone significant changes.


Indeed, according to the Hoover Digest, in 1890, there was no country that would qualify as a democracy by today’s standards, while now there are around 120 democracies – the largest number in history.


I mention this as a backdrop as it has coincided with an enormous growth of non state actor’s involvement in the UN.


Present-day global civil society perhaps materialized in 1992 with the UN Earth Summit, where over 50,000 people from around the world descended on Rio de Janeiro to the Global Forum around Hotel Gloria and Flamenco Park, with teach-ins, lectures, workshops and conferences on the key global issues concerning sustainable development. It took place at a time of great hope and expectation, as perestroika (economic restructuring) and glasnost (openness) had seen the bipolar world of two competing superpowers give way to a great swell of people power and a firm belief that a new Utopia could be created. Such a desire for change was unsurprising and has in fact been apparent throughout history, as Oscar Wilde once reflected


A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and always seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of Utopias.


Rio was something of a high point of political achievement, and according to the Global Forum’s organizer, Chip Lindner, ‘it became the first international experiment in democratizing intergovernmental decision making.’ These were the first steps towards what I would call stakeholder democracy, and the first signs of what Chip Lindner determined as a move towards global democracy:




Given the problems that confront us as a community of nations and peoples, we are now more than ever bound together by a common destiny. And solutions to those problems will have to be found both nationally and internationally. That means that international institutions and national governments must become increasingly more accountable and responsive to the views and expectations of the world’s peoples as a whole. Indeed, it means that as we approach the next century we must move even further in the direction of global democracy




I have to admit to being someone who hasn’t been working around the Aarhus Convention actively but has been an admirer from a far. My subject is what is the public? Ill try and answer that from my perspective I am not sure it is from a civil society perspective as I have a problem with the term civil society and I guess therefore a problem representing that term.

As we know the Aarhus Convention defines it as:

"‘The public’ means one or more natural or legal persons, and, in accordance with national legislation or practice, their associations, organizations or groups;"


The UN has a problem dealing with what is now 2870 accredited NGOs compared to 700 in 1992 at the Rio Conference and would surely have an impossibly job if it had to deal with every member of the "public"

It requires the public, civil society, Major Groups, stakeholders or whatever term we are using to come together to interface with the UN as the spaces for that interface although more than ten years ago are limited.

I would add that I think it has not helped to have so many terms in play at the same time.

I want to add a couple of thoughts at this point

The roots of our conversation here today can be found in the ‘participatory democracy movement of the 1960s’ Tom Hayden put it well when he said

"At the center of that vision was a moral view of human beings, "ordinary people" in the process of history, a view which held that systems should be designed for human beings and not the other way around. The dignity of the individual in this perspective could only be realized through active citizenship. That in turn required a society of citizens, or a democracy of participation, where individuals had a direct voice in the making of decisions about their own lives"



Dick Morris credited with ensuring President Clintons reelection in 1996 in his book the New Prince says we are moving from Madison Democracy - representative democracy to Jeffersonian Democracy - participatory Democracy. I think he is right in the direction but that we are at this point in a period of stakeholder democracy. and that we are trying at various levels in society to develop the structures, vocabulary and institutions to embed this phase I firmly believe that such developments will strengthen our democracy. The drop in voter turnout in many countries clearly demonstrates that people are no longer happy to just elect a politician for four or five years, trusting they will have the knowledge, the judgment and the foresight to take difficult decisions in a complicated world. The emergence of the stakeholder approach, in effect, is grounded on the realization that our present institutions – at all levels – are inadequate and have to change


Stakeholder Forum have played a role over the last fifteen years in trying to develop different ways for stakeholders to engage with global processes it has facilitating the setting up of NGO or stakeholder coalitions around global processes such as the UN Commission on Sustainable Development the Habitat II Conference, the more recent UN Conference on Land Based forms of pollution to the marine environment, it has coordinated lobbying teams for a number of UN conferences, it has developing new of stakeholder engagement with the UN such as our proposal to the Second Committee of the General Assembly in October 1996 to introduce stakeholder dialogues at the CSD and then under the leadership of late Joke Waller Hunter the then Director of the Division on Sustainable Development worked with the WBCSD and the ICFTU in the development of that model into a more effective one.

Although I like to think the best stakeholder dialogues we developed were for the Bonn Water and Energy Global Conferences in 2001 and 2004 as they were linked to the eventual outcome document in a way that the CSD has only achieved once in its history under the chair of Simon Upton the then New Zealand Minister. And that is an important issue when our views are asked for under what mechanisms are they really considered by governments. There is a fascinating new book out in December this year by Elisabeth Corell and Michele M. Betsill called NGO Diplomacy which I would recommend to those interested in how NGOs have influenced global agreements.

Stakeholder Forum has also tried to share what we have learnt Minu spoke of the book she and others did for us in 2001. Which I might add we put up on the web and is completely downloadable and linked to be the Aarhus Convention web site as an attempt to share what we have learnt.

I would like to say I think the book is still one of the most important books out there on stakeholder engagement. The final chapter gives a really great overview for any meeting, process to engage stakeholders with simple questions you should ask when embarking on a process of stakeholder involvement.

What we had hoped at the time the book was produced and one of the key reasons it was produced was to try and set down some clear definitions of terms such as dialogues, stakeholders, transparency, accountability etc. In many cases taking the Webster dictionary definitions We foresaw that as more and more the stakeholder discourse became used it was vital that we agreed terminology at the beginning so that when a UN Agency or Programme talks about organizing a Dialogue it means the same thing, or wants to do a panel, or a hearing.

I would have to say we failed in managing to do that, perhaps we tried too early and that it is an inevitable process that at some point will be more standardized and the Almaty Guidelines are perhaps the avenue through which that could happen.


I would also in light of the comments by Gerardo, also draw your attention to the Negotiation and Implementing MEAs: A Manual for NGOs which UNEP published just six weeks ago joint work by Earth Media, CEDEA from Argentina, ourselves and UNEP. A manual designed to train trainers again an attempt to share knowledge that exists now with the next generation.


It builds on the book How to Lobby at Intergovernmental Meetings Mine is a Café latte which we brought out in 2004.


We have found one of the most difficult fundraising activities over the years has been to try and persuade governments to give funding for capacity building to engage in global UN processes. Considering how money is given governments or spent by NGOs to attend and how few people actual lobby it is a huge waste of funding without tooling up those people to be effective.

For example I coordinated the NGO lobbying teams for Rio+5 and of the 2000 attending about 100 were actually lobbying. Many were doing other important activities such as presenting case studies, building coalitions or learning how intergovernmental processes work but many arrived and left without any impact. I have no idea what they told their directors when they got back.

I want to focus a few moments on the key lessons learnt from my involvement:

Know your own goals


Know the decision making process in your country

Know at what level to work

Know to approach your government early enough for funding to support national processes

Know the decision making context

Know the tools at your disposal

Know when to make your position

Know your allies

Know the government officials

Know the UN Officials

Know your adversaries

Know your limits

Know your potential

Know your brackets and terms


What impact well the last coordination of stakeholder views we did for the UN Land Based Forms of Pollution to the Marine Environment the final Ministerial Declaration had 17% word for word recommendations that stakeholders had made and a further 6% that were clearly influenced by the input of stakeholders.


The changes required at all levels of governance demand an opening up, not a closing down, of our societies.


The creation of a strong democracy and international institutions needs an ever vigilant and vibrant civil society. The world will always have many different visions of the societies we want to create, as the human imagination has immense capability. The involvement of all stakeholders is one way of harnessing this capability

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