Twenty years ago, at the Rio Earth Summit, 178 governments committed to a series of legally non-binding principles that were designed to commit governments to balance development and environment in a way that would bring a more sustainable future. Principle 10, the first international declaration that recognizes the rights of people to hold governments accountable for their policies regarding the environment, was one key result of the summit. It provides a means for people to engage in the decisions made by political leaders and government agencies about environmental issues that affect livelihoods and long term wellbeing.
“Environmental issues are best handled with participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided.”
Since 2011, key stakeholders have been submitting ideas for the Zero Draft of the Rio+20 outcome document, to be discussed at the Rio+20 Conference in June 2012.
Like Principle 10, the Zero Draft recognizes the need for broad public participation in decision making, linked to a strengthened right to access information and to better civil society capacity to exercise that right. It notes that technology can make it easier for governments “to share information with the public and for the public to hold decision makers accountable” and that it is critical to work towards universal access to information and communications technologies. (Clauses 17 and 18). A recent analysis showed that participation, accountability, transparency, Principle 10/access to information and social inclusion/ equity are among the terms that share an ‘excellent’ level of interest among governments, UN agencies, civil society groups and other stakeholders.
Along with public participation, the Zero Draft also calls for “increased aid effectiveness, taking into account the Paris Declaration, the Accra Action Agenda and the Busan Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation in ensuring that aid is effective, accountable and responsive to the needs and priorities of developing countries.” Greater coherence at international and national levels is urged, including “effective oversight of resources to ensure that developing countries have steady and predictable access to adequate financing, including by the private sector, to promote sustainable development.’
ICTs can play a role in supporting Principle 10 and Zero Draft, and pushing for appropriate mechanisms for response and redress.
Mass media campaigns and communication for development (C4D) approaches have long been used to disseminate information and encourage environmental awareness and behavior change. New media has improved access to information and allows multi-channel communication rather than one-way broadcasts. Greater access to mobile phones and to new media channels mean that a broader population than ever before can be engaged in and/or participate proactively in defining and acting on Rio+20 and its outcomes.
In addition to information sharing and behavior change, ICTs have the potential to play a strong role in helping civil society organize and push for greater transparency, openness and accountability around Rio+20. As Chantal Line Carpintier suggests, “Rio+20 should also agree on an effective accountability process for all actors – governments, business and industry, local authorities, NGOs and other major groups and stakeholders. Accountability and ownership by all actors would favour implementation. There is growing support, for instance, for public reporting on sustainability performance. A registry of commitments is one of the tools that have been suggested to follow up on commitments made at Rio+20 and avoid previous lack of implementation.”
An effort similar to the open government partnership and the International Aid Transparency Initiative or integration of sustainable development goals and Rio+20 commitments into these two efforts could be something to consider, along with a mandate for corporations to also open their activities to public scrutiny.
On-line organizing combined with both online and offline actions (in places that have ready access to social media) can help the world prepare for Rio and also to push for its outcomes to be implemented.
Despite the great potential for ICTs in communication, change and accountability efforts, however; lack of access to ICTs and potentially low capacity to interpret data that might be presented on-line in such a registry is of concern in less accessible rural communities and among some marginalized groups.
Education levels, literacy, and other excluding factors such as poverty and gender discrimination can severely limit ICT and social media access for a large number of people. In addition, information produced in dominant cultures or languages can exclude or override those with less power. As Angelica Ospina notes in her post Knowledge Brokers, ICTs, and Climate Change: Hybrid Approaches to Reach the Vulnerable, “There are many misconceptions about what ‘reaching out’ implies, as in practice it requires much more than making climate change information and knowledge publicly available through Internet-based tools such as Web portals and online databases.”
Therefore, there needs to be, “a more holistic understanding of the information cycle, including the creation, acquisition, assimilation, management, dissemination and ultimately the USE of climate change information, particularly within vulnerable contexts. Beyond the provision of climate change information, it’s necessary to consider if/how the information is being integrated -or not- into decision-making processes at the local, regional or national levels,” she says.
The Children in a Changing Climate project uses a variety of participatory development and media tools for children and adolescents to explore and document climate change in their communities, and to share their findings and suggestions to adults and other decision makers.
There is also a need “to identify, adapt and adopt innovative approaches for the effective delivery and the local appropriation of climate change messages, and most importantly, for the translation of information and knowledge -both new and traditional- into climate change practice.” This will require strong efforts as well as resources to create an inclusive environment that fosters greater participation, as mandated by Principle 10, and local ownership of sustainable practices.
“Working with knowledge brokers, also called “human infomediaries” who can help bring people together, identify local needs and transfer information and knowledge more effectively is one such approach to improve information and communication flows,” Ospina advises. “Human infomediaries support an active process that involves exchanges between people, facilitating the development of climate change strategies, adoption of adaptation and mitigation practices, and processes of local change and innovation.”
Building on Ospina’s observations on how to bring information to the “last mile,” meaningful ways to bring community knowledge and information into higher level discussions need to be found. Local communities have vast knowledge on resilience, climate patterns, local environments and local situations and histories that can be documented and shared using ICTs both to benefit themselves and to share at broader levels, improving South-South cooperation and innovation. Multi-media curricula such as the Children in a Changing Climate website bring together young people’s voices and opinions around climate change and environment.
Post Rio+20, digital tools are one of many information and communication mechanisms that local communities and their citizens can use to confirm, validate, contest and dispute information related to compliance with commitments being put forward by those responsible for upholding them. Participatory media approaches can be effective in bringing community members as well as duty bearers at local, district, national and global levels into discussions about climate change and sustainable development.
Why are you killing me? Girls in Kenya use poetry to engage adults in discussion on climate change.
In summary, ICTs can play a strong role in education, participation and accountability processes if their integration is well thought through, appropriate to the context, and taking into consideration good participatory practices. Hybrid approaches that use a variety of online and offline tools can be effective for reaching populations and decisions-makers at different levels of responsibility, for ensuring that ICTs are not widening existing information and participation gaps and for upholding the goals set forth in Principle 10. Children and youth can and should play an instrumental role in bringing about awareness and accountability, especially since they will be the ones who reap the long-term results of the agreements sown at Rio+20.
The Notes on ICTs, Climate Change and Development blog provides a wide range of research, commentary, and research on these areas.