THE worldwide march toward democratic forms of sustainable development, spurred by citizens' groups the United Nations insists on calling Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), took a giant leap forward at the Earth Summit. Some 13,000 of these "NGOs" made their presence felt at the parallel Global Forum in Rio.
Ever since the 1972 UN Conference on Environment in Stockholm, the influence of NGOs has been quietly growing. In Stockholm, NGO representatives were often ignored. They were housed at a meeting site a tedious bus ride away from the main UN event. Official delegations to Stockholm seemed hand-picked for their lack of knowledge of environmental issues, yet the NGOs managed to lobby their countries' delegations and provide intellectual leadership and action strategies.
The concept of NGOs as a creative "third force" that could press their own governments to adopt a new global agenda began to catch on after Stockholm. At subsequent UN conferences on population, food, and habitat during the 1970s, the influence of NGOs increased. The 1981 UN Conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy in Nairobi, Kenya, fully recognized NGOs, which were accorded headquarters adjacent to the main conference.
At Rio's Earth Summit, Secretary-General Maurice Strong fostered the participation of NGOs from the outset. He said they had a key role, both in pushing governments and businesses toward "sustainable development" and in implementing such development.
Mr. Strong and his Danish wife, Hanne, played host during the summit to dozens of NGO leaders, elders of indigenous peoples, and assorted writers and artists at a ranch in the hills above the Rio Centro Convention Center. Hanne Strong has launched a new NGO effort herself: the Earth Restoration Corps, to function similarly to the Peace Corps.
NGO initiatives in Rio were covered avidly by many of the 9,000 journalists present. Reporters often noted that NGOs were again providing most of the intellectual horsepower and action plans. NGOs produced their own model treaties, earth charters, declarations of ethical principles, as well as symposia, rock concerts, marches, books, and pamphlets.
The Parliamentarians Earth Summit was an interesting hybrid, drawing legislators from around the world for discussions with NGO representatives, spiritual leaders of all faiths, writers, and artists. Many US legislators attended the two-day gathering chaired by Japanese businessman, Akio Matsumura, at the Palacio Tiradentes House of Deputies in downtown Rio.
SEN. Albert Gore (D) of Tennessee, Congressman George Miller (D) of California, and others lamented the lack of US leadership at Rio. Few, however, cited a recent series of bipartisan public opinion surveys conducted by the Americans Talk Issues Foundation of Washington, D.C. The surveys supported their argument, since they showed that Americans generally are way out ahead of their political leaders on such Rio-related issues as economy, environment, energy, and international security.
The NGOs' longstanding model of sustainable development emerged at last in Rio. The economists' old "trickle-down" formulas for economic growth are widely recognized as failures, allowing the grass-roots "trickle-up" models to enter the debate. NGOs called for alternatives to current World Bank and conventional financing for development, such as a Global Resource Bank modeled on the charter of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The new bank, however, would extend credit more equitably to the grass ro ots and local enterprises.
Other NGO proposals: replace the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade with a more equitable International Trade Organization; democratize all international financial institutions, as well as the UN itself.
The new goal of sustainable, ecologically sound, and equitable human development will require broad, interdisciplinary policy tools and new score cards of "progress," such as the UN's Human Development Index (HDI). Accordingly, many NGOs support retraining of economists to broaden their knowledge of ecology, social indicators, and systems theory. Some propose new accreditation exams to license policy analysts to practice sustainable development.
Another NGO thrust toward democratization was in the area of mass media. A steering committee of NGO representatives is preparing a plan for a global NGO TV satellite channel, where videos illustrating successful grass-roots projects and innovations can be shared.
The Beach Boys rock group will donate several thousand video cameras to this effort, together with training in production techniques. As good systems theorists know, as societies become more complex hierarchies break down and democracy - i.e., more and better forms of feedback from the grassroots to decisionmakers - becomes essential.