CIESIN Reproduced, with permission, from: Haas, P., M. Levy, and T. Parson. 1992. Appraising the Earth Summit: How should we judge UNCED's success? Environment 34 (8): 6-11, 26-33.


How Should We Judge UNCED's Success?


Whether the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held from 3 to 14 June 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, constitutes cause for hope or for despair is a complex question. Without the benefit of a decade of hindsight, how does one appraise the effectiveness of a meeting that brought together more than 150 nations, 1,400 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and 8,000 journalists, as well as thousands of Brazilians?[1]

Instead of being judged against a single conception of what its outcome should have been, the conference, dubbed the Earth Summit, must be judged within the context of a process of increasing attention, sophistication, and effectiveness in the management of environment and development issues.[2] As UNCED Secretary-General Maurice F. Strong said in his opening address to UNCED,

The Earth Summit is not an end in itself but a new beginning. The measures you agree on here will be but first steps on a new pathway to our common future. Thus, the results of this conference will ultimately depend on the credibility and effectiveness of its follow-up.... The preparatory process has provided the basis for this and the momentum which has brought us to Rio must be maintained. And institutional changes, as the secretary-general has said, to be made within the United Nations must provide an effective and credible basis for its continued leadership of this process.... The road beyond Rio will be a long and difficult one; but it will also be a journey of renewed hope, of excitement, challenge and opportunity, leading as we move into the 21st century to the dawning of a new world in which the hopes and aspirations of all the world 's children for a more secure and hospitable future can be fulfilled.[3]

Thus, the important question is not how many treaties were signed or what specific actions were agreed on but, rather, how effectively UNCED contributed to this broader process. This more politically sensitive judgment of UNCED should be of greater use both to observers who wish to make sense of the unfolding political activities and to practitioners attempting to enhance the process.

International conferences and institutions are only as effective as governments choose to make them. International efforts to promote environmental protection have been most effective when they enhance governmental concern, provide a forum for governments to harmonize international policies, and improve national capacities to cope with environmental threats.[4] Did UNCED help establish incentives for governments to renew and reinforce their efforts to protect the environment? Did UNCED help governments deal with the unbreakable links between environmental protection and economic development in the Third World? To answer such questions, it is helpful to examine the four central outcomes of the UNCED process---specifically, new international institutions, national reporting measures, financial mechanisms, and heightened public and NGO participation.

The Conference Background

UNCED was called, in part, to harmonize the many disparate paths of environmental protection that countries have pursued during the two decades since the UN Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm (see the box on page 9). The industrialized countries, by and large, have incorporated environmental protection into their policymaking process. All now have skilled officials working full-time on environmental policy, active environmental NGOs, competent scientific communities, and legal and political institutions for evaluating environmental threats and developing and implementing responses. The depth of environmental policymaking capacity does vary among these countries, but, as a group, they have made dramatic progress over the past 20 years.[5]

In the developing world, however, change has been slower. Fewer developing countries have a significant capacity to respond to environmental threats, and none matches the capacities found in the environmentally active countries of the industrialized North. A major reason for this deficiency is that, in the countries of the developing South, environmental protection objectives are inseparable from economic issues. Whereas, in the North, environmental protection was pursued until recently as a more or less autonomous issue, in the South, this tactic has not been a viable political strategy. Because the persistence of severe poverty guarantees the continuation of disease and squalor, policies for environmental protection alone are unable to improve either public health or more aesthetic assets such as natural beauty. Environmental protection in the South is slowed down by the flagging pace of economic development. The realization of this fact undergirded the conviction of the World Commission on Environment and Development that it is "futile to attempt to deal with environmental problems without a broader perspective that encompasses the factors underlying world poverty and international inequality."[6]

When the commission presented its report to the UN General Assembly in 1987, among its recommendations was a call for the United Nations to prepare a universal declaration and a convention on environmental protection and sustainable development. The General Assembly formally moved to establish UNCED in December 1989 and named as its chairman a veteran negotiator of the Law of the Sea, Tommy Koh of Singapore, and as secretary-general Stockholm veteran Maurice F. Strong of Canada, who had also served as a member of the commission. The mandate of the conference---environment and development---was extremely broad. Although the text of the authorizing resolution focused mostly on environmental issues, the stated intention of both the secretariat and the chairman and the recommendations of the commission were that environment and development issues be fully integrated. General Assembly Resolution 44/228, which established the conference, states that UNCED's purpose was to "elaborate strategies and measures to halt and reverse the effects of environmental degradation in the context of increased national and international efforts to promote sustainable and environmentally sound development in all countries."[7]

Much of the preliminary work for the conference was conducted by the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom), which held an organizational meeting in March 1990 and four substantive sessions from August 1990 to April 1992.[8] Because little progress was achieved in earlier meetings, the bulk of negotiating was done during the fourth PrepCom, the "New York Marathon," where consensus was reached on the Rio Declaration and on about 85 percent of the text of Agenda 21. The balance, including the most contentious items, was forwarded to Rio for negotiation under the strict deadline imposed by the arrival of most heads of state and ministers at the end of the conference. Also scheduled for signing at UNCED were two environmental treaties that had been negotiated separately and concluded in Spring 1992 on climate change and biodiversity and a nonbinding statement of forest principles salvaged from the wreckage of a failed earlier attempt to negotiate a treaty on forests. (For more details on these products of UNCED, see page 12.)

New International Institutions

The agreements signed in Rio created several new international institutions.[9] Agenda 21 created a new United Nations body: the Sustainable Development Commission. The conventions on climate change and biodiversity created new bodies for scientific and technical advice relating to the treaties and their implementation. Other new organizations whose creation was motivated by the UNCED process, though not created formally by governments at UNCED, include the Planet Earth Council and the Business Council for Sustainable Development. Worldwide, a number of national NGOs and umbrella NGOs also were formed as citizens organized to participate in UNCED.

Of the formal intergovernmental institutions called for at UNCED, the Sustainable Development Commission is likely to have the greatest impact on global politics. The commission will be responsible for carrying out the objectives in the "Institutions" chapter of Agenda 21. The commission's two broad classes of responsibilities are stated as integrating the United Nations' and other agencies' sector-specific activities relevant to environment and development issues and monitoring progress on UNCED's agenda. Integration and monitoring are vital because of the vast scope of measures in Agenda 21, which will affect activities throughout the entire UN system. The commission, to be convened by 1993, will be a high-level body composed of representatives of the 54 member states of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and will report to ECOSOC just as the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) does. Moreover, its broad mandate is not even limited to the specific programs of Agenda 21. Its list of functions includes monitoring implementation of Agenda 21 and activities related to environmental and developmental goals throughout the UN system; receiving and analyzing information from governments and NGOs; enhancing dialogue with NGOs; and reviewing progress on financial and technology commitments and on the implementation of environmental conventions.[10]

The commission's mandate gives it great potential to raise governmental and public concern for the environment and development agenda by holding regular high-level meetings to monitor progress on Agenda 21. Meetings of the commission, particularly if they include a ministerial session, could focus the attention of the press, public, and activists on global environment and development issues, much as the G-7 summits do for global economic issues or the European environmental summits for environmental issues within Europe. The crucial issue is that such meetings should be conducted at a high enough level to maintain public pressure for compliance. Meetings should be held sufficiently infrequently---perhaps once every three or five years---so that leaders will be able to report new measures and accomplishments and not have to face undue public embarrassment because of a lack of obvious progress.

The commission also could facilitate bargaining aimed at implementing and strengthening Agenda 21 among governments and international organizations. The UNCED agenda presumes that human activities that were once thought unrelated to each other, in fact, have intimate biological, physical, and social connections. Acting on this insight will require both detailed coordination of the agendas of national and international sectorial agencies and political bargains involving linked actions by different nations on environment and development priorities---for example, financial assistance and technology transfer from the North being linked to, or dependent on, increased environmental protection in the South.

Coordination among massive bureaucratic organizations, including major financial and aid institutions, requires high-level clout. Thus, the head of the commission should be a person of sufficient personal stature and should be given high formal status, such as would be conveyed by the title undersecretary-general for sustainable development. Previous coordinating efforts, involving environmental officials reporting to the UN Administrative Committee on Coordination, have lacked the needed leverage and have been unable to include effectively environmental concerns in the activities of such organizations as the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank.

In contrast, crafting the details of manageable, effective political deals typically requires lengthy preparations by lower-level officials with technical expertise, meeting over a period of months. For the Sustainable Development Commission to contribute effectively to this process, it will need a highly competent, technically proficient secretariat to involve officials in the international organizations whose work must be coordinated; to engage experts and local actors with concrete experience in sustainable development; to develop contacts with the international scientific community and provide for regular scientific input into policymaking and monitoring;" and to manage the many diverse working groups, expert commissions, and consultant studies that will be required. Experience suggests that such bodies will be most effective if their mandates focus on specific problems but leave open the questions of causes and solutions.

It is far from certain, however, that the commission will be given the chance to fulfill this potential. Because of political disagreements and time constraints at UNCED, the commission's mandate is vague on several crucial questions. It does not specifically call for national reports to the commission, for example, but, rather, indicates that the commission will "consider information provided by Governments, including for example in the form of periodic communication or national reports."[12] Many important specifics will therefore be decided by the UN General Assembly at its 47th session this fall. The secretary-general is to prepare a series of reports for the General Assembly that recommend the commission's membership, location, and frequency of meetings and the size, location, and budget of the secretariat. A few members of the UNCED secretariat will remain in their positions to prepare these reports. To long-time observers of UN politics, however, the possibility that the commission might be held hostage by petty bureaucratic squabbles or become a venue for patronage and cronyism is all too real.[13] Such an outcome would endanger the effectiveness of the commission at maintaining a high level of concern for Agenda 21's issues in the coming years; at coordinating the various actors involved in these issues; and at fostering creative responses.

The modest institutions created under the two conventions signed in Rio have less potential to foster dramatic change. Both conventions call for the establishment of "subsidiary bodies" to provide scientific and technical advice to the secretariat and to bodies responsible for administering the conventions. The climate change convention also calls for the monitoring of implementation. These subsidiary bodies are important because they will evaluate the need for regulations and alternative response options. Because, in both conventions, these subsidiary bodies are declared to be open only to "government representatives," each government will decide who may or may not serve from within its borders, and it will be difficult for nongovernmental officials to serve at all. This approach contrasts starkly with the scientific and technical review panels established by the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, which were open to experts without governmental approval. These panels were highly effective at promoting consensus on scientific controversies and at uncovering creative solutions. Because these two conventions give governments more control over choosing the panels, chances are that panel members will be expected to carry specific government briefs and to refrain from the type of open-minded give and take that makes learning and problem-solving possible.[14]

Two other new international institutions were inspired, though not created, by UNCED. The Business Council for Sustainable Development, an international group of 48 companies' chief executive officers, was formed to advise UNCED on business and industry issues and to stimulate involvement by businesses in UNCED. The group sponsored workshops and published a book on how businesses can be more environmentally responsible. Although part of the council's agenda is clearly the traditional one of representing business interests in policymaking---and it was widely attacked by environmentalists as evidence of corporate hijacking of UNCED---its supporters, including Secretary-General Strong, argue that its top goal is to persuade business leaders to recognize the imperative of sustainable development. Whether the council will continue to exist after UNCED is not yet determined. Such a group could serve an invaluable role, raising concern within the business community; coordinating views of environmentally concerned business people as an input to international negotiations and policymaking; gathering information that companies would be less likely to provide to government agencies or international organizations; and acting as a "sustainable development chamber of commerce" to identify opportunities and promote direct transfer of technology, expertise, and experience on commercial or near-commercial terms.[15]

The second such institution, the Planet Earth Council, is a privately financed NGO to be led by Secretary-General Strong and a committee of 28 internationally known scientists that was established in Costa Rica immediately following UNCED.[16] The council's detailed objectives remain to be determined, but, as a high-level independent body with access to information from both governments and NGOs, the council could serve several valuable functions related to building national concern or capacity. It could coordinate the movement of information on environmental monitoring and policy from NGOs and scientists to the Sustainable Development Commission and publicize that information more broadly. It could serve as a sustainable development "trouble shooter" by identifying and making recommendations on matters that intergovernmental bodies are not addressing effectively. It could independently monitor governments' progress toward the goals of Agenda 21, or it could focus on the international dissemination of information about successful sustainable development initiatives or about a specific sector, such as forestry.

A variety of information and training institutions were also created in the flurry of activity surrounding UNCED.[17] These institutions are potentially important avenues for enhancing governmental concern and national capacity. They can develop local infrastructure for research focused on developing-country needs, build local expertise, and support national constituencies for policies fostering sustainable development.

National Reporting

UNCED adopted a number of reporting commitments for national governments. Participating countries were invited to submit national reports on their environment and development as part of their preparations for UNCED. The secretariat produced a series of guidelines that included a "suggestion" that independent sectors of society be involved in the preparation process. Few countries met the submission deadline of July 1991. By November 1991, about 75 reports had been submitted, and 130 were received by mid April (see page 36 to learn how to obtain these reports). Thus, the preparations for UNCED and preparations of sectorial papers for the chapters of Agenda 21 were completed without systematic information about the actual conditions and experiences in many countries. A number of NGOs produced "alternative" reports on conditions in their countries and their countries' experiences with policies to promote sustainable development.[18]

The Climate Change Convention will require governments to report on their efforts to monitor and control anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases, as well as the likely net impact of control policies. Signatory developed countries commit themselves to adopt and implement policies reflecting the best available scientific knowledge and to "communicate, within six months of the entry into force of the Convention...and periodically thereafter" those measures to others.

In the future, governments will have to report to the Sustainable Development Commission about activities they intend to undertake to implement Agenda 21 and about problems they face regarding financial resources and technology transfer and other relevant environment and development issues. A regular schedule of reporting serves many functions. The UNCED secretariat saw the preparation of national reports as a way to increase public participation in decisionmaking. About 80 to 85 governments formed national committees to prepare the reports, "and quite a few involved NGOs, women's groups, industry, the church, and even the Army."[19] Even though the reports varied widely in quality, their preparation may have led governments to recognize new problems. In addition, the preparation of reports led governments to create new institutional channels through which affected groups can pressure and monitor governmental activities in the area of sustainable development. Ongoing reporting to the commission on follow-up activities should maintain governmental concern. Moreover, reasonably frequent reporting by governments and NGOs could lead governments to learn of new problems and solutions and would make information available to other concerned groups that may hold governments accountable. Such reporting can contribute to both government concern and national capacity to identify environmental problems and assess policies.

The full elaboration of reporting obligations will be one of the early tasks of the commission. UNCED negotiators were divided over how often and in what form these reports ought to be submitted. Third World representatives originally feared that they would be forced to reveal proprietary information (although the nature of this information was never clear), that they may lack the necessary administrative capabilities to gather information and complete such reports, and that such information could be used to require a new form of conditionality in loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The Sustainable Development Commission may have to offer both training and funds for governments to learn how to report. The excessive use of consultants should be avoided, however, as it precludes the long-term benefits of involving government officials in the process. Further information could be generated by making governments solicit reports from their own multinational corporations on their international activities. Follow-up reports---perhaps for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations in 1995---would consolidate the influence of the administrative structures developed for the Rio conference and generate time series data on environmental quality and government policies so that an assessment of changing environmental conditions---largely illusive to date---would be possible.

In addition to national reporting, UNCED called for the establishment of a number of monitoring networks. Such networks, if they are fully developed, could reinforce national reporting by providing a nonpartisan counterpart to national reports, as well as another constituency demanding national reporting. Agenda 21 detailed a variety of specific monitoring activities, which are outlined in the article beginning on page 12.

Financial Measures

UNCED failed to muster sufficient financial commitments to support all of Agenda 21. After a lengthy North-South deadlock, broken by extremely contentious negotiations by heads of state, UNCED adopted the following text:

Developed countries reaffirm their commitments to reach the accepted UN target of 0.7% of GNP for ODA and, to the extent that they have not yet achieved that target, agree to augment their aid programmes in order to reach that target as soon as possible and to ensure a prompt and effective implementation of Agenda 21.[20]

The less developed countries were disappointed with the looseness of this resolution. They saw official development assistance (ODA), consisting of grants and concessionary loans, as a major source of financing activities under Agenda 21. The secretariat initially estimated that the full cost of implementing Agenda 21 in developing countries would be roughly $600 billion per year, of which about $125 billion annually would come from industrial-country sources and the balance from developing-country resources. A major question at the conference was the source of the $125 billion. Present concessionary funding from member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) totals only $60 billion annually.[21] Third World representatives had hoped to obtain increased OECD unilateral commitments, subsidized technology transfer, debt relief, and an increase in ODA to 0.7 percent of the OECD countries' gross domestic product.[22]

The phrasing accepted at Rio, however, frees countries of any real new financing commitments. Several industrialized countries, including the United States and Switzerland, have not made any commitments to increase ODA levels to 0.7 percent, and many that have made such commitments have not shown signs of fulfilling them. Furthermore, the deadline year of 2000, which had been sought by the group of Third World countries known as G-77, was listed as a suggestion, not a firm target. The OECD countries refused to grant any debt relief.

The mechanisms for financing Agenda 21 remain, therefore, as they were before the Earth Summit: existing aid agencies and ad-hoc unilateral pledges. Unilateral pledges of additional aid for Agenda 21 are unlikely ever to amount to more than a minor percentage of what is required. In Rio, at a time when wealthy governments were under perhaps the greatest pressure to offer significant contributions, the most optimistic estimates tallied only from $6 billion to $7 billion in new commitments. Actual totals may be even lower. Many public commitments during the final days of the conference were oblique; it remains difficult to determine whether leaders were reiterating existing commitments, whether new sums of money were being offered, or whether development assistance was being redirected from other areas to the environment. Japan, for instance, offered $7.7 billion in environmental assistance over the next five years, but, upon closer inspection, that sum included an increase over existing levels of about $500 million per year. Many observers were disappointed that the G-7 economic summit in Munich, held in early July, failed to clarify some of these commitments.

Discussions of using existing aid agencies to finance Agenda 21 focus on the World Bank. The centerpiece of the bank's environmental activity is the Global Environment Facility (GEF), which the bank administers along with UNDP and UNEP. GEF was created in 1990 as a three-year pilot program and given the mandate of allocating $1.3 billion for projects related to global warming, biodiversity, international waters, and ozone depletion.

A G-77 initiative to establish an independent "green fund" in lieu of GEF was dismissed by the industrialized countries. G-77 countries distrust the World Bank because they perceive it as intrusive in domestic policymaking and dominated by developed countries (voting at the bank is weighted according to the size of a country's contribution). Instead of scrapping GEF, UNCED reaffirmed an April agreement on restructuring it to address some of the developing countries' concerns. The agreement provides for an extension of the activities that GEF finances to include land degradation issues and for universal membership to GEF, which would reach decisions by consensus if possible and through a weighted voting scheme where consensus proved impossible. Thus, GEF decisionmaking procedures would be more transparent to member countries and recipients. The reforms further called for involvement of the NGO community in GEF project development and administration.[23]

GEF has a tortuous path to follow if it is to play more than its currently nominal role in helping to finance Agenda 21. The facility is under pressure from two conflicting sources. On one hand, the G-77 countries are demanding greater openness in GEF governance and greater decisionmaking power for fund recipients. The April reforms addressed some of these concerns. On the other hand, however, donor countries are insisting that any significant increase in funds be accompanied by strict screening procedures and reliable oversight mechanisms. Running through much of the donor-country opposition to higher aid levels is the view that such aid is likely to be wasted by inefficient economic policies or, worse, corrupt public officials. General-Secretary Strong concluded the conference with a plea to developing countries to eliminate subsidies and ensure that pricing schemes reflected true environmental costs. He also argued that this would help free up some of the necessary funds.[24] Resolving the essential contradiction between open governance and tighter oversight remains a major piece of unfinished business that was not addressed rigorously at UNCED.

Closely related to the discussions about finance was the subject of the transfer of environmentally sound technology because of the significant amount of public funds that might be involved to subsidize the acquisition of technology. Developing countries attempted to obtain commitments that technology would be provided on terms that were preferential and below market prices. Industrialized countries were wary of acceding to a norm that might oblige them to require their firms to turn over technology at a loss. On technology transfer issues, therefore, Agenda 21 uses terms such as "mutually agreed on" measures, or market transactions. Chapter 34 of Agenda 21 affirms the need to promote, facilitate, and finance "as appropriate" access to proprietary technologies through commercial channels. The chapter also states that nations should undertake measures to prevent abuse of intellectual property rights as they are defined under existing international conventions and accepted rules of commerce. The Biological Diversity Treaty further provides that

access to and transfer of developing countries shall be provided and/or facilitated under fair and most favorable terms, including on concessional and preferential terms where mutually agreed.... In the case of technology subject to patents and other intellectual property rights, such access and transfer shall be provided on terms which recognize and are consistent with the adequate and effective protection of intellectual property rights.[25]

On the questions of financial assistance and technology transfer, then, UNCED moved no further than reiterating prior international norms. The next chance for the issue to be addressed seriously may be during subsequent negotiations for the Climate Change Convention. Many negotiators hope to establish concrete mechanisms for transferring financial resources and energy-efficient technology to developing countries in exchange for greenhouse-gas reduction policies there.

Public and NGO Involvement

The amount and variety of involvement by NGOs at UNCED were striking. Thousands of them participated in the official conference at RioCentro and in parallel events at the Global Forum. Although NGOs have participated in UN conferences for more than 20 years, the scale, variety, and sophistication of NGO involvement at UNCED were unprecedented.

UNCED organizers supported NGO involvement from the outset and accredited NGOs with any substantive claim to being involved in activities related to the environment and development. An extremely broad set of NGOs participated in all formal and some informal UNCED sessions: academic groups, trade unions, business associations, associations of legislators and local authorities, religious groups, and groups representing women, youth, and indigenous peoples, as well as environmental and developmental groups.

NGOs were granted similar standing in the parallel negotiations for the climate and biodiversity treaties, and they used the opportunity effectively. Environmental NGOs at the climate sessions published a sophisticated, irreverent daily newsletter that gained a reputation as the best (and liveliest) source of information on the negotiations. They also developed effective networks, such as the five regional Climate Action Networks, which lobbied national delegations in their regions and coordinated an international strategy in the negotiations. At the New York PrepCom, NGOs formed issue-oriented task forces to coordinate their lobbying, which had substantial success in terms of getting draft proposals to be discussed by delegations and influencing the final content of documents. One British NGO, the Center for International Environmental Law, provided legal and strategic support to the group of tiny nations making up the Association of Small Island States and helped these nations play a role in the climate negotiations that was far greater than their previous international influence.

In Rio, NGO activity split onto two tracks. At the official conference, there were more than 1,400 NGOs accredited, including NGO observers on 15 national delegations. Environmental NGOs (mostly sophisticated and well-funded North American and European ones) lobbied delegations, talked to the press, and operated a full-time office with daily press briefings.[26] The other main NGO events in Rio were held at the separate Global Forum. The complex relationships among the many groups at the forum were not always clear, and much public and media attention was focused on the financial problems of the forum itself. Many people did not understand that the Global Forum had no programmatic responsibility for the events taking place on its site. The two most significant activities taking place under the forum umbrella were a series of technical, scientific, and policy meetings held at 50 sites around the city and an ambitious exercise in parallel treaty writing conducted by an international network of NGOs called the International Forum of NGOs and Social Movements.

The treaty-writing exercise was organized because of NGO frustration with the lack of progress in the early PrepComs, and it was originally conceived of as an exercise in direct citizen's diplomacy to produce agreements on actions NGOs themselves would undertake. The treaty process and the treaties produced are outlined in the accompanying article on page 12. The project was intended to create, in addition to the treaties, an institutional mechanism for coordinating NGO follow-up activity internationally. Although late completion of the treaties left little time to discuss follow-up coordinating mechanisms, NGOs are trying to maintain and solidify the transnational links they built up through the forum. Participants in the forum decided not to form a permanent organization, but the original steering committee had its mandate extended to promote further regional networking and to seek to bring the treaty process to the point where it is self-organizing. A meeting is planned in Manila.

The connection between the forum and UNCED was much less direct than rhetoric suggested. The two venues were each so intense and consuming and so far apart that few organizations participated significantly in both events. Participants in the forum did not get a chance to present their treaties to the summit and settled instead for a thinly attended press conference at the RioCentro site with, in fact, many more NGO representatives than journalists in attendance. Indeed, there was some suspicion among NGOs that the NGO forum was intentionally hobbled, despite rhetorical support, by a late organizational start and meager funding.

Nevertheless, the forum served three major functions that NGO involvement at the summit did not. First, it helped NGOs to appreciate their different perspectives and agendas and to confront the difficulties of collaboration across lines of language, culture, and wealth. For many organizations, the rationale for their involvement was the edification of their staffs and members. One NGO commentator noted that UNCED may have been "the most expensive adult-education exercise ever undertaken."[27] Preliminary results of a survey of NGOs confirm that many regarded their networking and educational activities in Rio as more important than their lobbying.[28] Many developed-country NGO members said that they would seek to expand their own future agendas to take closer account of the concerns of developing-country NGOs. Although this learning process generated some anger and frustration, it is surely an essential step for developing effective international NGO coordination.

Second, the forum provided an international platform and stature for many organizations that are ignored, starved of resources, or actively oppressed in their countries. Third, it established a set of follow-up measures and nascent international coordinating institutions for NGOs. Such institutions could serve to transfer organizational capacity among NGOs---particularly through such concrete measures as the treaty on NGO sharing of resources---and to promote more effective transnational coordination of NGO activities to raise concern about sustainable development issues in their own countries.

If NGO alliances persist beyond UNCED with some degree of institutionalization, the effect on future global politics could be significant. Institutional links would make it easier for NGOs to share information and expertise, to exchange and coordinate political strategies, and to teach each other about the most pressing problems in their home countries. The immediate products of the forum---the treaties---may be less significant than the learning and capacity-building that occurred through the process of drafting them.

The international environmental NGO community's level of sophistication and its involvement in international policymaking are clearly on the rise, posing several major challenges to the community. First, NGOs must determine how to contribute effectively to formal intergovernmental processes while remaining true to their constituencies and goals. In his address to the UNCED plenary, Martin W. Holdgate, director-general of the World Conservation Union (IUCN), posed the requirements for effective NGO participation as follows: a constituency, to grant legitimacy; credible expertise, so NGO statements will withstand scrutiny; democracy, so it is not torn apart by internal dissent; and effective communication skills, to avoid both excessive deference in the corridors of power and the understandable desire to harangue government officials.[29] NGOs will have a public opportunity to discuss these questions at a conference on NGO involvement to be hosted by the United Kingdom next year.

One job for which the independence of NGOs is a particularly strong asset is independent fact-finding and reporting on national policies and their effectiveness. Some drafters of the NGO passages in chapter 38 of Agenda 21 on international institutional arrangements envisaged the establishment of an institution parallel to the UN Human Rights Commission, which relies on NGOs such as Amnesty International to collect information on human rights abuses in countries that withhold information or lie.[30] Amnesty International's success in this arena depends on its impeccable reputation for impartiality and reliability, cultivated with great effort over many years. It will be difficult, however, though not impossible, for environmental NGOs to attain a comparable reputation.[31] Unlike Amnesty International, many environmental NGOs have evolved in environments that value other assets above impartiality, such as the ability to generate public outrage and mobilize electoral pressure. It may be that the Planet Earth Council will emerge as an analogue to Amnesty International, producing impartial reports on national efforts for sustainable development. Alternatively, IUCN or some new organization could play that role.

NGOs have the potential to provide unique contributions to international efforts for sustainable development. Some national NGOs possess a command of local lore that may be critical for the design of development projects that are truly sustainable. For example, the World Bank is increasingly relying on local NGOs to provide an understanding of local conditions and experiences in the development and implementation of projects. Of course, different NGOs are experienced at different kinds of political work, as was clearly seen in Rio, where a division of labor led individual NGOs to lobby their governments, grandstand to the media, build coalitions, and circulate information. It would be a shame if the increased level of inter-NGO communication or their increasing involvement in intergovernmental processes resulted in a homogenization of NGOs; they should remain diverse yet be able to communicate.

There are, of course, valuable functions for NGOs to serve apart from all formal governmental and intergovernmental processes, as well. Although few people claim that a network of citizen's groups could ever supplant broad areas of governmental activity, many more acknowledge that, where there is a governmental vacuum concerning sustainability, NGOs can sometimes act directly to develop alternative local programs and development strategies.

The impact of NGOs on post-UNCED world politics is still emergent, at best. The notion of a concerted NGO movement in the area of environment and development dates only to the start of the PrepCom process in 1990, and the extent of common NGO positions and attitudes toward dealing with governments remains to be seen.[32] Although NGOs can improve the effectiveness of international decisions made in Rio by holding governments accountable, through public education, and by providing additional sources of information to the public policy process, a cautionary note is warranted: Unrestricted universal NGO participation can hamper the adoption of reasonable development policies. Such a scenario is already manifested at the national level in the "NIMBY" (not in my back yard) effect, as a consequence of the growing political influence of environmental NGOs in a number of industrialized countries. International partnerships could foreclose some valid development choices by exercising concerted local pressure in different countries, as well as at the international level.

UNCED's Legacy

With 20 years of hindsight, we have some idea of how the 1972 Stockholm conference affected the political process surrounding environment and development issues. It served to boost concern among governments and other social actors; it spawned a number of institutional innovations, especially UNEP; and it set in motion or added momentum to negotiating processes that, by the decade's end, resulted in numerous measures to reduce marine pollution, control acid rain, protect the atmosphere, and preserve wetlands.

A comparison of the two conferences suggests that UNCED could play an even more influential role over the next 20 years. The media attention, the level of participation, and the involvement of NGOs were all much greater in Rio than in Stockholm, indicating that the issue has become more firmly grounded on the international agenda. UNCED accredited more than 8,000 journalists from 111 countries and received 6 front-page articles in the New York Times, as opposed to 3 for the Stockholm conference. More than 100 heads of state attended UNCED, while only 2 went to Stockholm. Of the more than 1,400 NGOs accredited by UNCED, about one-third were from the developing world, whereas at Stockholm, only 134 NGOs attended, about 10 percent of which came from developing countries.[33]

Substantively, UNCED shows more promise as well. Agenda 21 reflects a far more sophisticated appreciation of the ecological links that must be addressed to achieve sustainable development than did the Stockholm Action Plan, which was only 21 pages long. Although Stockholm focused largely on industrial pollution of air and water, the UNCED agenda was designed to be more sensitive to the sectorial interconnections necessary for effective environmental management.[34] The Stockholm conferees also paid more attention to the concerns of the developed countries about industrial pollution, whereas UNCED accorded much more attention to the developing countries' agenda of environmental degradation caused by poverty. Some notable developing-country successes included focusing attention on freshwater resources and obtaining a commitment for a future conference on combating desertification. Although at Stockholm only lip service was given to the notion that economic development was the solution to environmental degradation in the Third World, this idea was the bedrock of the Rio conference both in name and as enunciated in principle 3 of the Rio Declaration (despite U.S. resistance) asserting "the right to development."

These comparisons augur well for UNCED's success. If historians in the 21st century have the fortunate task of explaining how global society was capable of solving the intertwined problems of environment and development, UNCED will undoubtedly figure prominently in their accounts. The conference has laid a foundation with which governments and other social actors will be able to pressure each other to maintain a high level of commitment to environmental protection and development; it established institutions and informal networks that will facilitate the striking of effective agreements; and it added momentum to the building of national capacity in weak governments. Moreover, it endorsed a tightly linked policy agenda that reflects the complex ecological and sociopolitical links among various human activities and between human activities and the environment. As governments are swayed by the array of international pressures that UNCED helped to reinforce, more comprehensive and holistic public policies for sustainable development will follow.

But this potential does not constitute grounds for complacency. As Maurice Strong said at his final press conference in Rio, "I am hopeful, but we cannot rest with hope." To realize the potential that UNCED created requires active and ongoing human intervention. To assure UNCED's long-term prospects for success, the Sustainable Development Commission will have to balance participation at high levels, where political embarrassment can be both generated and experienced, and at lower levels, where expertise and creativity can better flourish. And new mechanisms must be developed for transferring financial and technological resources to developing countries---mechanisms that satisfy both industrial countries' legitimate needs for accountability and respect for property rights and developing countries' legitimate demands for democratic decisionmaking.


The authors are grateful to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund for providing support to attend UNCED.

PETER M. HAAS is an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. MARC A. LEVY is an assistant professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey. EDWARD A. PARSON is an assistant professor of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


1. These figures and those used in the rest of the article are from UNCED Secretariat, "Facts and Figures on UNCED RIOCENTRO," UNCED/DPI/RIOCENTRO LSF/ICD (press release, 12 June 1992); UNCED Secretariat, NGO Unit, In Our Hands (Geneva: UNCED Secretariat, June 1992).

2. For studies documenting the increasing sophistication of international efforts for environmental protection, see P. M. Haas, Saving the Mediterranean: The Politics of International Environmental Cooperation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990); P. M. Haas, R. O. Keohane, and M. A. Levy, eds., Institutions for the Earth: Sources of Effective International Environmental Protection (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, forthcoming); and N. Choucri, ed., Global Accords: Environmental Challenges and International Responses (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, forthcoming). For an approach that applies a similar process-based analysis to the study of progress in international relations, see E. Adler and B. Crawford, eds., Progress in International Relations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991).

3. M. F. Strong, UNCED secretary-general, statement at opening of UN Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 3 June 1992. Texts that offer specific outcomes as criteria for UNCED's success include M. Khor, "Nine Key Tests for UNCED's Success," Earth Island Journal, June 1992, 4; and World Commission on Environment and Development, "Reconvened World Commission on Environment and Development" (London, 22-24 1992).

4. M. A. Levy, P. M. Haas, and R. O. Keohane, "Institutions for the Earth: Promoting International Environmental Protection, Environment, May 1992, 12; and Haas, Keohane, and Levy, note 2 above.

5. There is not yet a systematic and comprehensive review of environmental policymaking in the industrialized countries. Useful, though incomplete, reviews include C. C. Park, ed., Environmental Policies: An International Review (London: Croom Helm, 1986); D. Vogel, National Styles of Regulation: Environmental Policy in Great Britain and the United States (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1986), D. Vogel, "Environmental Policy in Europe and Japan," in N. J. Vig and M. E. Kraft, eds., Environmental Policy in the 1990s (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1990), 257-78; R. Brickman, S. Jasanoff, and T. Ilgen, Controlling Chemicals: The Politics of Regulation in Europe and the United States (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985); and World Resources Institute, "Industrial Countries," World Resources 1992-93 (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1992), chapt. 2. See, also, J. Parker and C. Hope, "The State of the Environment: A Survey of Reports from Around the World," Environment, January/February 1992, 18.

6. World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1987), 3. For reviews of environmental policymaking in developing countries, see World Resources Institute, chapters 3 and 4, note 5 above; and H. J. Leonard, ed., Divesting Nature's Capital: The Political Economy of Environmental Abuse in the Third World (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1985).

7. UN Resolution 44/228, part 1.3, New York, 22 December 1989.

8. See UNCED Preparatory Committee, "Charting the Course for '92," Environment, January/February 1991, 16; M. F. Strong, "International---Preparing for the UN Conference on Environment and Development," Environment, June 1991, 5; and S. Collett, "International--PrepCom 3: Preparing for UNCED," Environment, January/February 1992, 3.

9. Here, the authors focus on new institutions narrowly construed as international organizations and constellations of international organizations. A broader definition of institutions would include any persistent and connected set of rules and practices that prescribe behavioral roles, constrain activity, and shape expectations. Of course, organizations may help establish and perpetuate this latter type of institution.

10. UN doc. A/CONF. 151/L.3/Add. 38, "Report of the Main Committee Addendum---Chapter 38: International Institutional Arrangements," 11 June 1992.

11. The scientific community involvement in UNCED was surprisingly small. It provided input largely through the November 1991 ASCEND 21 Conference, a number of whose proposals were included in the chapter in Agenda 21 on Science for Sustainable Development. See "International---Recommendations from Sigma Xi and ASCEND 21," Environment, April 1992, 5.

12. See note 10 above.

13. Some critics have pointed out that Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's first action on the commission---appointing Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Director-General Edouard Saouma as head of a UN task force to give advice on UNCED to the secretary-general over the next six months---is an omen of what might go wrong. Saouma has had a controversial career as head of FAO, having twice engineered six-year extensions of his 1976 appointment to a constitutionally mandated single term. Amid charges of inefficiency waste, and mismanagement, a number of countries, including the United States began withholding FAO budget contributions following Saouma's third re-election in 1987. One long-time academic observer summarized the FAO situation as an "appointment of cronies, use of technical cooperation and other discretionary funds to pay off individuals and countnes to support Saouma, and the general politicization of the FAO in its staffing and its taking of stands on major issues has indeed created dissatisfaction." R. F. Hopkins, "Shooting Yourself in the Foot," Society 25 (September/October 1988):23-26. For other critiques, see J. G. Pilon, "Becoming Part of the Problem," Society 25 (September/October 1988):4-11; and the special issue of The Ecologist, "The UN Food and Agriculture Organization: Promoting World Hunger," March/April 1991 For defenses of FAO, see J. M. Cohen and M. Westlake, "Advocacy Journalism and Development Policy," Society 25 (September/October 1988):32-38; and FAO, "Letter to the Editor," The Ecologist 21 (November/December 1991):236 37.

14. The argument that the organization of the Montreal protocol expert panels was essential to the protocol's success is made in E. A. Parson, "Protecting the Ozone Layer: The Evolution and Impact of International Institutions," working paper no. 21-392-3 (Harvard University Center for International Affairs, Cambridge, Mass., 1992).

15. The Business Council for Sustainable Development has published its findings and recommendations, along with numerous success stories of industrial strategies to promote sustainable development, in S. Schmidheiny, Changing Course: A Global Business Perspective on Development and the Environment (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992)

16. Inter Press Service (IPS) wire report, 21 June 1992. The Costa Rican proposal is described in UN docs. A/CONF.151/PC/102 and A/CONF 151/PC/WG.III/L.29. The IPS release says that the council "will be a non-governmental body, financially supported by the private sector. In Rio, Ted Turner, owner of Cable News Network (CNN), affirmed that he would offer it financial support."

17. Clearinghouses of information about technology transfer are being developed in a number of countries and international organizations. A host of training programs and efforts to build scientific capacity are interwoven throughout the programmatic proposals of Agenda 21 (particularly in the area of atmospheric observation) for assessing and limiting acid rain, for forestry management, for sustainable agriculture and rural development, for bolstering scientific and technological capacities overall in developing countries (chapter 35), for establishing research centers and expanding endogenous scientific capacity in developing countries (chapter 37), and for international environmental law (chapter 38). New regional initiatives announced in Rio include the Third World Academy of Sciences' Network of International Centers for Science, Technology and the Environment in selected developing countries; the International Council of Scientific Unions' Systems for Analysis Research and Training; and the World Engineering Partnership for Sustainable Development's Regional Engineering Centers. See Consortium for International Earth Science Information Network, "The Road from Rio: Sharing Knowledge for Improved Environment and Development Decision Making" (Paper presented at UNCED on 5 June 1992, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, preliminary copy p. 7). See, also, Levy, Haas, and Keohane, note 4 above.

18. Although NGOs had hoped to present their reports formally to UNCED and make them part of the official conference record, they were unable to do so and thus no central clearinghouse exists for obtaining the reports or even an index of them. Approximately 15 NGO national reports were prepared for UNCED. Those in the authors' possession include "Bangladesh NGO Statement to the Earth Summit: Proceedings of the Workshop on Environment and Development" (Mohammadpur, Bangladesh: Center for Mass Education in Science, undated); "French NGO's Official Report for the Environment and for Development: To Work for an International Democracy" (Paris: Comite de Liaison des Organisations de Solidarite Internationales, undated); Alliantie voor Duurzame Ontwikkeling, "There Is an Alternative: The Netherlands National NGO Report with Regards to UNCED" (Utrecht, the Netherlands, undated); and Public Campaign on Environment and Development, "Citizens' Report on Environment and Development: Sri Lanka" (Sri Lanka, 1992).

19. "National Repons: The Next Step," Network '92, no. 17 (May 1992):1.

20. M. Valentine, "Twelve Days of UNCED," 2 July 1992, unpublished paper; available as "Network Final Report on Rio," Topic 1083, Econet conference en.unced.general.

21. OECD figures, reported in The Economist, 4 July 1992, 91.

22. The estimated need curiously represents both a rough doubling of present ODA and an increase to almost exactly 0.7 percent of OECD GDP. See World Bank, World Development Report 1992 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), table 3.

23. The reforms are described in Global Environment Facility, "The Pilot Phase and Beyond," Working Paper Series no. 1 (Washington, D.C., May 1992).

24. See World Bank, note 22 above, for some measures that have been used.

25. UN Convention on Biological Diversity, art. 16, 5 June 1992.

26. UNCED Secretariat, NGO Unit, note 1 above.

27. Valentine, note 20 above.

28. A. Doherty, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Laxenburg, Austria, personal communication with the authors, 29 July 1992.

29. M. W. Holdgate, address to the plenary of UNCED, Rio de Janeiro, June 11 1992.

30. For discussions of the interaction between human-rights NGOs and international organizations, see H. Thoolen and B. Verstappen, Human Rights Missions: A Study of the Fact-Finding Practice of Non-Governmental Organizations (Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1986).

31. There are examples of environmental NGOs playing such a role. The Earth Island Institute's successful campaign against dolphin killing by tuna fishers rested on painstakingly collected documentation of fishing practices. Greenpeace International has earned a reputation for collecting reliable statistics on international toxic waste shipments. See J. Vallette and H. Spalding, eds., The International Trade in Waste: A Greenpeace Inventory, 5th ed. (Washington, D.C.: Greenpeace USA, 1990).

32. In Rio divisions were noted between developing-country NGOs, which were highly suspicious of working with their governments, and developed-country NGOs, which had had much lengthier, positive experiences in working with their governments.

33. UNCED figures are from the secretariat press conference, 11 June 1992. See UNCED Secretariat, note 1 above. For Stockholm, see UN doc. A/CONF.48/INF.6/Rev.1, 10 November 1972. For slightly different numbers, see A. Thompson Feraru, "Transnational Political Interests and the Global Environment," International Organization 28 (Winter 1974):31-60. Such numbers must be taken with a grain of salt because not all NGOs reported their attendance to the secretariat.

34. For instance, extensive links are drawn between the management of atmospheric and terrestrial ecosystems in the Climate Change Treaty (article 4, paragraph f) and in Agenda 21's chapters on integrating environment and development in decisionmaking and on protection of the atmosphere. See preparatory document UN doc. A/CONF.151/PC/42 for an early structure and organization of Agenda 21. The designers of the Stockholm conference hoped to create a similar matrix of social and ecological interactions for international action, but such a sophisticated design was discarded during preparations for the conference.