From the Red Cross to Fairtrade, NGOs are meeting with UN bodies in Bonn this weekend to discuss ways of making societies more sustainable. It's a message that's been falling flat, but NGOs say time is running out.
NGOs say there's been little progress since the 1992 Earth Summit
Organizations concerned about our waste of natural capital are gathering for a large summit in Bonn this weekend, amid tough times for the sustainability agenda.
This year's focus will be on volunteer's role in shaping sustainable societies.
"NGOs and responsive citizens – the people – act at the heart of societies," said the head of the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) program, Faliva Pansieri. "Sustainability and human well-being are finally coming to center stage."
The UN and NGO representatives are meeting near the Rhine
Bonn, the former German capital, is an appropriate venue for the conference, which is expecting some 2,200 participants.
Although no longer the seat of the German parliament, the city on the Rhine is now home to 18 UN organizations, which work mainly in the field of sustainable development. In addition, about 170 UN-affiliated NGOs are based in Bonn.
"This year, the platform is on the subject of changing our lifestyles, our economic models, our social organization and political life so that we can connect the dots between climate change, water, energy and food," said Maria-Luisa Chavez, the UN's Chief of NGO Relations.
The origins of non-governmental, non-profit organizations go back to the 19th century when the first anti-slavery groups were founded. Since then, the number of NGOs has skyrocketed.
In Rio the gap between rich and poor has widened
They are especially active in the fields of environmental protection, social justice, human rights and humanitarian aid.
But in recent years - between food crises, economic doldrums and a range of conflicts around the world - NGOs concerned about how rapidly we are wasting our natural capital are having a tough time getting their message across.
Problems like climate change, desertification, resource-use and the loss of species have only grown more acute since the 1992 "Earth Summit," which first saw NGOs invited to take part in UN discussions to tackle these problems.
From Rio to Bonn and back
The Earth Summit, which debuted in Rio de Janeiro, will be held for the 20th time next year and preparations for Rio+20 are high on the agenda in Bonn this weekend.
"Sustainable development and environment at the moment are not having a good time," said Felix Dodds, executive director of the Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future, and the conference chairman.
Many NGO's are engaged in the fight against hunger
"I think that may well get worse unless we make sure that Rio in 2012 gives us a new road map to sustainable development."
He said if governments had delivered on the commitments they made in the past then we would already be on a road to sustainable development.
"Those are now broken promises and broken promises have to stop," he added.
Things have changed since 1992, Dodds said, and priorities have shifted.
Today issues like climate change, the connection between the environment and security, and access to food, water and energy have gained new urgency.
In addition, consumer behavior in industrialized countries has widened the gap between the developed and developing world. But the gap between the wealthy and the struggling within the Western world has also grown.
Deeds, not words
Fro Bernward Geier, former director of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), the time for action is now. Today he is the coordinator of the German NGOs at the conference – 20 years ago he was an enthusiastic participant at the Rio summit.
Next year's Earth Summit returns to its roots
He said he's seen "too much rhetoric and too little action" over the years and says Rio 2012 is the last chance to really put a program into action before it is too late.
"When I consider the momentum we have here in Bonn and see how the German NGO community, which is normally pretty critical of the UN, is getting excited, I feel a little flicker of hope," he said.
"We have global problems and we have to find solutions in a global context and then put them into practice on the local and regional level."
Some have been critical of the number of conferences that are held on development and the environment, saying it has led to a sort of meeting fatigue. But Felix Dodd counters that, saying that only conferences that don't bring results result in annoyance and weariness.
"Rio will not be a fatigue conference, it will be a successful one," he said. "And so as we are going to have a successful one, the general public and politicians will see it as an important one."
Author: Irene Quaile (jam)
Editor: Matthias von Hein