Electronic Global Networking & the NGO Movement [Preston]

Electronic Global Networking & the NGO Movement [Preston]

                   vol.3, no.2, Spring, 1994

                         ISSN 1063-133x

        Copyright 1994, The Graduate Student Council of
             the School of International Service
                   The American University,
                        Washington, D.C.


SWORDS & PLOUGHSHARES is the first U.S.-based scholarly journal of international affairs to publish a full-text version on the Internet. The journal is published bi- annually by the Graduate Student Council of the School of International Service at The American University. Issues from Fall, 1993, to the present can be found on The American University's Gopher, "EagleInfo," The menu path to follow is: About Academic Departments --> School of International Service --> Swords & Ploughshares.

SWORDS & PLOUGHSHARES welcomes your comments and suggestions. Please send them to our E-mail address, You can also contact us via snailmail: Editor, Swords & Ploughshares, c/o Graduate Student Council, School of International Service, The American University, 4400 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W., Washington, DC 20016-8071

                   THE 1992 RIO SUMMIT AND BEYOND

                         by Shelley Preston

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development was unprecedented in bringing together people from all walks of life, cultures, political systems, and environment-development experiences. Because the gathering cemented relationships and forged new alliances, international networking and mutual understanding of common problems or national predicaments are bound to flourish. As electronic communication becomes more available, a basis of international consolidation and reciprocal respect also will become more firmly established. Without that basis, there cannot be an effective transition from unsustainable to sustainable development.(1)

This article explores the communication dynamics of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in June 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. With the advent of electronic information as a medium for communication among NGOs, citizens from around the world were able to access and share information related to the planning and substance of UNCED. The article also examines the right to access information, the concept of "information sovereignty," and illustrates some of the ways in which citizens from all localities can participate in efforts to shape a sustainable future for the world through global communication.

_The Rio Summit_

The purpose of the UN Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the Earth Summit, 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."(2) The conference was unprecedented in scope and content. It was the largest gathering of heads of state in history approximately 100 in total attended by representatives from 178 nations. UNCED was the first such international conference since the end of the Cold War, its agenda reflecting the North-South dimension of contemporary international relations.

Because of the absence of "superpower conflict," the Summit focused more on cooperation than on competition. It addressed "problems that are planetary in scope, that cannot be resolved by traditional diplomacy that pits one region against the others."(3) The conference also suggested a new notion of global security one with less emphasis on the military and more on the world's environment and economy. This shift is reflected in the term "sustainable development," defined as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."(4) A 1987 report by the Bruntland Commission a body of delegates commissioned by the United Nations first promoted the concept of sustainable development, and it now serves as the umbrella phrase encompassing the variety of issues discussed at UNCED.

The key issues addressed at the Rio Summit are articulated in five documents: The Conventions on Climate Change and Biological Diversity, The Statement of Forest Principles, the Rio Declaration, and Agenda 21. The two conventions are "binding," meaning that nations are expected to fulfill the obligations outlined in the treaties without legal enforcement. The statement on forests is an intensely controversial set of principles on forest conservation practices. The Rio Declaration is a list of guidelines for global sustainable development. Agenda 21, an 800-page proclamation, is a blueprint for implementing the Rio Declaration, outlining the actions that nations must take from now until the year 2000 to ensure the planet's future. All of these documents evolved during the four separate negotiating sessions of the Preparatory Committee, also known as PrepCom, which were conducted in Nairobi (1990), Geneva (twice in 1991), and New York (March-April 1992). Only the Rio Declaration arrived at the Summit without any "bracketed text," meaning that all delegations had approved the full text of the document. Each of the other documents required further negotiation, making the Rio conference itself a PrepCom/Summit.

The conference was also significant for its inclusive nature. Close to 35,000 people attended, including 8,000 journalists from 111 nations twice as many as any other UN conference. More than 1,000 nongovernmental organizations registered at the conference with approximately one-third of them from the Third World providing the largest face-to-face forum of its kind for NGO representatives from developed and developing nations.(5) The presence of NGOs was largely the result of a less competitive, more streamlined UN accreditation process. Reviews and acceptances were facilitated by a separate section within the United Nations, created specifically for the Rio Summit. In addition, this effort to broaden participation was consciously encouraged by Maurice Strong, UNCED's Secretary-General, and Chairperson Tommy Koh the two most influential figures at the conference.(6) Such vocal support from the highest levels of the conference's leadership was especially helpful in increasing access for NGO representatives.

_The Role of Nongovernmental Organizations_

Quantitatively, the presence of nongovernmental organizations at Rio was overwhelmingly positive, but qualitatively, their effect was more ambiguous. Mark Valentine, issues director of the U.S. Citizen's Network, explains:

Possibly [the NGOs'] greatest accomplishment was our visibility in the process...More delegations than ever before had NGOs on them. Access to official sessions was expanded significantly. We were everywhere....But our impact? Most NGOs would have to concur that we barely scratched the surface of all of the documents.(7)

A conference like UNCED begins with a plenary session, open to all accredited NGOs, and elects officers and approves the agenda. The substantive issues are discussed in "informal" plenary sessions, which may or may not include NGOs, depending on the subject matter. Working groups are then established to focus on clusters of issues. Smaller working groups or "contact groups" are also formed to "meet in parallel with the larger bodies."(8) These are almost always closed to nongovernmental representatives. As one experienced U.S. delegate described the situation, "The real business of negotiations takes place in the small groups, in *ad hoc* constellations of delegations and in informal contacts among individuals in the corridors or at meals. It is in these behind-the-scenes restricted groups that the hardest (and most interesting) bargaining takes place."(9) This helps explain why NGOs only "scratched the surface" of UNCED's official documents but document input is not the only measurement of nongovernmental influence.

Nongovernmental organizations can influence international negotiations through a variety of initiatives and activities. Before conferences begin, NGOs can mobilize public opinion, in effect influencing government negotiating positions. Through research, publications, symposia, and local efforts such as town meetings, NGOs can also help to inform citizens about the issues to be addressed at the gathering. During the preparatory meetings for the conference, NGOs attend briefings, distribute position papers, and hold press conferences. NGOs are some of the best sources for data on certain policy issues, and delegates use this information to help shape their own opinions. NGOs also serve as informal intermediaries between national delegations, and some have representatives that serve on government delegations. In sum, NGO influence is a direct function of their expertise on the issues. This knowledge, however, must be communicated to be useful to governments. Herein lies one of the greatest challenges to NGOs.

_The Effects of Electronic Communication_

NGO influence on the Rio Summit occurred at the first PrepCom session in Nairobi with the distribution of a guidebook titled "Computer Communications and the 1992 UNCED: Alternative Technology for Communication and Participation by NGOs."(10) The book was a primer on electronic information and its potential significance for the Rio Summit. As a result, the UNCED Information Strategy Project in Rio was born. The project was proposed by the Brazilian Institute for Social and Economic Analyses to

make available at nearly free cost an internationally interconnected electronic information exchange system which would allow NGOs and other users to exchange messages between the official site of events (Riocentro) and the several sites of in Rio. Services included international email exchange, international electronic conferencing, and on-line access to UNCED-related database systems.(11)

These on-site information exchange services were unprecedented at a United Nations conference.

The project was managed by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and its Brazilian member network, AlterNex. The APC was formed in 1990 to coordinate the worldwide NGO-networking effort and is "dedicated to facilitating progressive social change through cooperative local and global computer networking."(12) At the time of UNCED, the APC comprised eleven member networks serving ninety-two countries worldwide.(13) Any individual with access to the necessary hardware (a personal computer, a modem, a telephone line, and communications software) could "participate" in the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. More importantly, these new technologies and information channels enabled NGOs to organize, inform, and activate global citizens.

During the fourth UNCED PrepCom in New York (March 2 to April 4, 1992), three NGO representatives began publishing a daily two-page summary on the status of the negotiations. Each day, highlights of the previous day's plenary sessions, a schedule of official and NGO meetings, and miscellaneous news from "the corridors" were recorded as the _Earth Summit Bulletin_. This _Bulletin_ resumed publication throughout the twelve-day Rio meeting. It served as a vital news source for those who could not attend the conference and for those attendees attempting to keep abreast of the substance of the Summit, which was often complicated and negotiated behind closed doors.(14) Although the _Bulletin_ was written by the NGO community, it was widely read by conference participants. Its popularity resulted from its clear, concise, and responsible coverage of the negotiations and is an excellent example of the kind of role that NGOs can play in the fast-paced and complex international arena. The _Bulletin_ served as a lifeline for thousands of citizens who were following the conference on computer networks. In contrast to the mainstream news they read at home, the _Bulletin_, which was "posted" in an electronic conference under the same name, provided readers with a substantive account of the inner-workings of multilateral negotiations and United Nations processes a first for many citizens.

One of the most visible results of these transcontinental information flows was the Global Forum, a parallel NGO summit that took place simultaneously with the Rio Summit. (The Global Forum was located in Flamengo Park, about 30 miles from Riocentro, where the UN delegates met.) The Forum was the largest gathering of nongovernmental groups in history, attracting approximately 9,000 organizations. More than 500 conferences, meetings, and panels took place at the Forum, including a twelve-day session called the International NGO Forum (INGOF), which produced thirty-nine "Alternative Treaties." These treaties were "originally conceived of as an exercise in direct citizen's diplomacy to produce agreements on actions NGOs themselves would undertake."(15) The treaties were finalized by NGO participants, but were developed by citizens unable to attend the Summit through an electronic conference on EcoNet. Thus, not only could non- attendees access news of the Forum, they could contribute directly to its activities despite their physical absence.

_Communication Rights_

One of the most significant documents to emerge from the Global Forum was the Communication, Information, Media, and Networking Treaty, which declares the right of communication as a basic human right.(16) Moreover, it states that "Access to information is essential for informed decision making at all levels." This issue was particularly relevant to many of the developing world's NGOs that do not have access to the diverse sources of information that are routinely shared by NGOs from industrialized nations. In fact, many of the NGO representatives from the Third World who went to Rio cited access to information and government officials as the greatest benefits of the conference.(17) It is uncertain if this access is continuing now that the Rio Conference is over. This is a problem for all nations, not only for those whose governments impose limitations on information access.

Basic information on the condition of the world's environment and natural resources is out of reach of most analysts in developing countries, whether in government or not. How are these countries going to design the policies and strategies needed to participate on an equal footing with the industrialized nations if they do not have access to such data? How will we build consensus and negotiate legitimate treaties unless all citizens have representation in discussions on global issues?(18)

Communication rights were listed in the Rio Declaration and also addressed in Chapter 40 of Agenda 21 "Information for decision making." The chapter was divided into two sections: "Bridging the data gap" and "Improving information availability." At PrepCom IV, where negotiations on this chapter took place, one of the major controversies was the issue of national sovereignty over information. The term "information sovereignty" means that "nations enjoy the full rights of sovereignty and territorial integrity in the areas of communication and information."(19) Yet many emerging information technologies are challenging the concept of national sovereignty. For example, many nongovernmental organizations in developing countries are obtaining information about their own governments through electronic computer networks. No single nation-state controls the exchange of this information. These new technologies have, in effect, "made national boundaries meaningless."(20)

_The Aftermath of Rio_

By including nearly every nation in its decision-making process, the Rio Summit marked a turning point in multilateral negotiations. It was, according to one U.S. NGO delegate, "an enormous experiment in decision-making for the future."(21) Still, Rio is merely a starting point for the work that is needed to achieve its mandate of global sustainable development. Much of the work that will follow UNCED will be carried out by many of the NGOs that participated in both the Global Forum and the Riocentro negotiations. As one representative from the U.S. Citizen's Network on UNCED explained:

[NGOs] may not have had much of a direct impact on this round of negotiations, but the challenges, and the potential promise, from follow-up is immense....We have to define the appropriate context within which a diverse array of organizations can work together to define a sustainable future.(22)

It will be difficult for international NGOs to maintain the momentum from UNCED, but electronic communication will help. "As of mid-1993," writes WorldWatch Institute researcher, John E. Young, "thousands of environmental activists and organizations around the world are using commercial and nonprofit computer networks to coordinate campaigns, exchange news, and get details on the proposals of governments and international organizations."(23)

During the next two years alone there will be numerous opportunities for NGOs and interested citizens to participate locally or via computer networks in global negotiations related to sustainable development. The International Conference on Population and Development will take place in Cairo, Egypt in September 1994; the World Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen, Denmark in March 1995; and the World Conference on Women in Beijing, China in September 1995. Currently, many nongovernmental groups are working together to help shape summit agendas, arrange for on-site telecommunications services, influence government positions on issues, and lobby for NGO representation on official delegations. In addition, concerned citizens are establishing channels of communication through computer networks to participate in the process. For information on the Population conference, there is icpd.general; for news on the Summit on Social Development,; and for updates on the Women's Conference, women.unwcw.(24)

Often, several different conferences are set up for one summit to help separate the information the news items, the PrepCom documents, the network logistics, and so on. Though frequently chaotic, their greatest strength lies in the ability to decentralize and democratize access to information, exemplified by the conferences established during the Persian Gulf War and those that are currently devoted to the war in the Balkans.(25) "What is clear," writes Sheldon Annis, a senior research associate at the Overseas Development Council, "is that communication technology is emboldening [people] in ways that have profound implications for the process of democratization."(26)

_Domestic Sustainable Development_

The inherent links among information access, democracy, human rights, environmental protection, and sustainable development are infrequently articulated by national governments, and it is hoped that the lessons from UNCED will change this practice. In June 1993, one year after the Summit, President Clinton announced the formation of the President's Council on Sustainable Development, a fifty-person body, including five Cabinet members, whose mission is to "develop policy recommendations for a national strategy for sustainable development that can be implemented by the public and private sectors."(27) The President's Council has met several times with representatives from the U.S. Citizen's Network on Sustainable Development (PCSD), which aims to act as a liaison between the President's Council and the general public. The Citizen's Network has established an electronic conference, citnet.pcsd, that serves as a forum for the exchange of information about the PCSD.

More recently, the United States has finally demonstrated support for sustainable development through its intention to overhaul its foreign assistance organization, the Agency for International Development (AID). A November 1993 front-page _Washington Post_ article read, "The work of the Agency for International Development would aim at enhancing `sustainable development' and `promoting peace' rather than supporting individual nations. Additionally, all foreign aid programs would emphasize population control, environmental protection and improvements in the status of women in developing countries."(28) In addition, the Clinton Administration hopes to incorporate the work of NGOs in its new approach to foreign aid. "`Nongovernmental organizations would participate in the policy and program planning process,' as well as AID-funded fieldwork, in an effort to bring their years of expertise into aid planning."(29) This statement reflects the successful efforts of NGOs at UNCED, at the UN Conference on Human Rights (June 1993), and at numerous other global forums, to prove their expertise on international policy issues.

While these shifts in US foreign aid policy are important first steps, it is equally important that other governments around the world adopt national policies that promote environmental protection, democracy, and sustainable development. To augment these efforts, global communication is essential and electronic networks will undoubtedly become the primary medium. Yet for nations to participate in an electronic global dialogue, they must have a certain level of connectivity a problem for many developing nation users. Currently, about three-fourths of the nations in the world have "poor or nonexistent [telecommunications] services,"(30) making the gap between wealthy, technologically sophisticated nations and poorer, less developed countries even wider. But nongovernmental organizations can help bridge this gap through efforts to share technologies, train people, and provide management support. As Botswanan President Ketumile Masire said at a December 1993 conference at The American University, "NGO participation in international affairs buttresses democracy....NGOs can achieve an impact beyond that of governments."(31)


This article examined the advent of NGOs as powerful new players in international negotiations, the emergence of electronic communication as a democratizing medium, and its implications for future citizen activism. Unfortunately, a much more collaborative effort is required. NGOs are still only able to "scratch the surface" of many policy issues; electronic communication is still unavailable to many people round the world, and many nations do not support the right to communicate and to access information. To move beyond this state requires that individuals at the international, national, and local levels work cooperatively to support human rights, peace and democracy, protection of natural resources, and sustainable development. Without policies built around these tenets, we may find ourselves without a planet left to sustain us.

*Shelley Preston is a first-year M.A. student in the International Communication program at the School of International Service, The American University.*


1. Gilbert F. White et al, "Taking Stock of UNCED," _Environment_, v. 34, no. 8, October 1992.

2. Peter M. Haas, Marc A. Levy, and Edward A. Parson, "Appraising the Earth Summit: How Should We Judge UNCED's Success?" _Environment_, v. 34, no. 8, October 1992, 8.

3. Anthony Giffard, "News Agency Coverage of the Rio Summit," paper presented at the IAMCR, Dublin,, Ireland, 1993.

4. Hal Kane, _Time for Change: A New Approach to Environment and Development_, ed. Linda Starke (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1992), 125.

5. Haas, Levy, and Parson, op. cit., 32.

6. Fran Spivy-Weber, private communication, November 21, 1993.

7. Mark Valentine, "Twelve Days of UNCED," in citnet (archives).

8. Richard E. Benedick, "Inner Workings of the New Global Negotiations," _The Columbia Journal of World Business_, v. 27, (Fall/Winter 1992), 56.

9. Ibid, 57.

10. In en.unced.general (archives).

11. Carlos A. Alfonso, "UNCED Information Strategy Project in Rio: A Final Report," September 7, 1992. In en.unced.general.

12. Edie Farwell. "History of Association for Progressive Communications." Oct. 4, 1992. In apc.documents.

13. Edie Farwell. Private communication, January 14, 1992.

14. Johannah Bernstein, Pamela Chasek, and Langston James Goree VI, "Earth Summit Bulletin," Daily issues from Mar. 2-Apr. 4 and Jun. 1-15, 1992. (Island Press: Washington, DC, 1992) Or:

15. Haas, Levy, and Parson, op. cit., 30.

16. Hal Kane, 40.

17. Fran Spivy-Weber, private communication, November 21, 1993.

18. Jessica T. Mathews and Daniel B. Tunstall, "Moving Toward Eco-Development: Generating Environmental Information for Decisionmakers," _WRI Issues and Ideas_, August 1991, 7.

19. Howard H. Frederick, _Global Communication and International Relations_, (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co. 1993), 121.

20. Ibid, 125.

21. Fran Spivy-Weber, private communication, November 21, 1993.

22. Mark Valentine, "Twelve Days at Rio," in citnet (archives).

23. John E. Young, "Global Network: Computers in a Sustainable Society," (Washington, DC: WorldWatch Institute), 1993, 21.

24. For information on how to access these conferences and others, contact the Institute for Global Communications (IGC) at 18 De Boom Street, San Francisco, California 94107; (415) 442-0220. The IGC is the umbrella organization for PeaceNet, EcoNet, ConflictNet, and LaborNet and publishes a bimonthly newsletter called _Netnews for all IGC members_.

25. See "Electronic Activism" by Harel Barzilai on PeaceNet and "Electronic communications in exyugoslavia" by Boris Horvat (

26. Sheldon Annis, "Giving Voice to the Poor," _Foreign Policy_, (Fall, 1991), 93.

27. In citnet.pcsd.

28. John M. Goshko and Thomas W. Lippman, "Foreign Aid Shift Sought By Clinton," _The Washington Post_, November 27, 1993, A1.

29. Ibid, A6.

30. Stephen R. Ruth and R.R. Ronkin, "Aiming for the Elusive Payoff of User Networks: An NGO Perspective," paper presented to the International Society for the Systems Sciences, Denver, Colorado, July 1992.

31. His Excellency Sir Ketumile Masire, "Overcoming Global Hunger," Speech at World Bank conference, The American University, 1 December, 1993.

*The author wishes to thank Howard Frederick and Fran Spivy-Weber for their assistance.*


ISSN 1063-133x.

Copyright 1994, The Graduate Student Council of the School of International Service, The American University, Washington, D.C.


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