Randy Kritkausky (rkritkausky@ecologia.org)
Founder of ECOLOGIA and the Virtual Foundation
Middlebury, Vermont
October 2002


The 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa was too large to immediately grasp for those of us who participated. However, in the weeks that have followed, the significance of the Summit has slowly emerged. This perspective, from the viewpoint of civil society development, focuses on a positive aspect of the Johannesburg event.

The Summit actually consisted of two gatherings. One was composed of thousands of official representatives from over 100 nations. This meeting convened at the official Sandton Summit convention site, a hermetically sealed suburban Johannesburg up-scale mega-mall and conference center complex. It was here that the highly publicized "main event" occurred. It was in Sandton that the Summit's official agreements were finalized and signed. The value of these agreements is still being debated, but the consensus is that most fell far short of the expectations of those in the environment and development communities.

The second gathering of the Earth Summit was a Civil Society Forum that attracted tens of thousands of non-state representatives sent by organizations and communities from around the globe. Many of the Civil Society, or People's Forum, participants were from countries wracked by extreme poverty related to resource depletion. They attended the Summit bearing a desperate message concerning the urgent need for real sustainable development.

Our organization, ECOLOGIA, registered for both gatherings, expecting to participate equally in the official Summit and the Civil Society Forum. However, the majority of non-governmental organizations, like us, were virtually locked out of the official Sandton meetings due to "security concerns", a lack of seating space, and a cumbersome "pass system" that imposed a virtual organizational apartheid on the Summit. As a consequence, we were forced to spend the majority of our time in our temporary "homeland" at the Civil Society Forum venue. Commuting to and from this remote site became the core activity of every day.

A representative of one international training organization who sat next to me on one of too many bus rides to the Civil Society Forum commented embarrassedly, "I feel like a fly on an elephant, and I don't have any idea where the elephant is going".


Our delegation's message to the Summit

ECOLOGIA's delegation, composed of three Russians, a Lithuanian and an American, traveled to the Summit with the objective of sharing two stories:

First was the story of international environmental cooperation in an emerging global civil society. ECOLOGIA's delegation was composed of representatives from countries who had been mortal Cold War enemies a little over a decade earlier. Now we were working together in a spirit of environmental cooperation.

Our second story concerned our experiences with implementing Local Agenda 21, a mechanism for promoting public participation in sustainable development planning. Local Agenda 21 was one of the outcomes of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. The Johannesburg Earth Summit was supposed to report on and evaluate Agenda 21. We hoped to find people from other countries who utilized Local Agenda 21, to learn from them, and to take home new ideas.

ECOLOGIA has introduced Local Agenda 21 to people in several former Soviet cities so that they might imagine, design, and implement alternative scenarios for their economic development. We have focused on a special category of city undergoing an unusually difficult transition - Soviet style "nuclear communities" entirely dependent on a single nuclear facility, such as a nuclear power or nuclear weapons production plant. In most cases the nuclear facilities are scheduled to close and will leave thousands jobless.

In order to implement Local Agenda 21, we convene community meetings including a cross section of society: nuclear power plant control room operators, mayors, regional planners, business managers and local citizens' groups. They sit together and map out a diversified economy that can use their skills, that will not devour its resource base, and that will not leave a legacy of contamination for future generations. Such a future would be a radical departure from the Soviet past that still haunts nuclear cities.


Civil society triumphs over logistics

The setting for the Civil Society Forum was symbolic - a remote location, 40 minutes from the Sandton convention site, next to a two-mile long, two hundred foot tall, flat top, man-made mountain, composed of earth excavated from a diamond pit. The earth on which the ordinary people's representatives gathered had been torturously mined, and its wealth meticulously extracted. What was left behind was a waste pile of sand and dust that cast an afternoon shadow towards their forum.

During the first two days of the Summit, we were overwhelmed with a sense of chaos and frustration resulting from miserable logistical arrangements. Registration consumed our time and energy and involved endless rides on buses that barely pretended to respect their schedules. Armed policemen rode on each bus so that we would not be "car jacked", a common event in Johannesburg.

One of the hundreds of craftspeople assembled to sell wares to Summit participants provided me with the most appropriate visual metaphor for our experience. He was a woodworker who made kaleidoscopes. Kaleidoscopes are tubes containing fragments of some material, such as broken glass or seeds. When held up to the light and viewed through a prismatic lens that can be revolved, kaleidoscopes produce beautiful patterns. But, if you are one of the pieces inside a kaleidoscope, you see only the other disassociated fragments. You need to stand on the outside and look in through a lens with a new perspective to see a pattern. And if you do not look upwards toward the light, you see only darkness.

So it was for our delegation at the Summit, fragments of American, Lithuanian, and Russian society jumbled together with people of all colors and cultures. We struggled to see a pattern and found it in the perspective of global civil society creating itself.

In the midst of our growing frustration at being locked out of the official meetings, and despite the mismanagement of many Civil Society Forum planned events, our serendipitous contacts and conversations began to slowly unearth a wealth of knowledge and shared experience about sustainable development, and the even more important underlying principles such as the work of creating civil societies at home. We began to create the people-to-people connections that are the foundation of emerging global civil society. This process of forging global connections between local community-based organizations is referred to as "glocalization".


The origins of global civil society

Civil society is born when international gatherings, like the Earth Summit, lift us out of the constraints of narrow national thinking. I was reminded of this through a random encounter at the Summit with a journalist from India. The journalist told me that she was in South Africa, in part, "to write about September 11". She then asked if I knew about September 11. I answered, "Of course, I know about this; I am an American". "No, no," she patiently replied, "September 11, 1906, here in South Africa." I was then treated to a history of Mohandas Gandhi's lengthy residence as a member of South Africa's "colored community" at the turn of the 20th century.

As a young lawyer Gandhi was beaten and thrown off a South African train for riding in a "whites only" compartment. When the South African government later announced its intention to fingerprint and register all "coloreds", Gandhi called a gathering of thousands at a theatre in Johannesburg. At this event, on September 11, 1906, he formulated and announced his doctrine of "satyagraha" or truth force, a non-violent means of resisting injustice and accomplishing social change. September 11 was the birth of a doctrine that would liberate India and inspire the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Gandhi had struggled to come to terms with his anger and outrage, his desire for justice and change. He transcended the cycles of hurt and revenge, by implementing non-violence as a force for justice.

My encounter with the journalist reminded me how narrow our historical focus can become. It also challenged me by its stark contrast to the culture of "9-11" that is emerging in America. I was left wondering which legacy of "September 11" would be the enduring one and what I might do as both an American and a member of an emerging global civil society to promote a positive and creative response to oppression, as Gandhi had done.

Participation in a global civil society is the key to social change because it transforms not only surface structures, it sinks its roots into the souls of the individuals involved.

This point, the emergence of civil society through professional and personal growth, and indeed my whole perspective on the Summit, is illustrated by two Chinese colleagues with whom our ECOLOGIA delegation met at the Earth Summit. Jin Jiaman and Wang Yongchen live in Beijing. They spent the years of their youth toiling in the countryside or in factories during China's Cultural Revolution. When China returned to normal life in the mid seventies, Jiaman trained as an environmental scientist and Yongchen became a journalist.

Jiaman and Yongchen had first encountered global civil society in 1995 when they attended their first global gathering, the United Nations NGO Forum on Women in Beijing. At that meeting, Jiaman and Yongchen discovered that they were not alone in their quest to change society. They met thousands of women from around the world who were working on a variety of issues and forming something called "NGOs", or non-governmental organizations. The very idea of NGOs and organizing from the bottom-up, rather than from the top down, was transformative for these two women.

Within a year of stepping across the threshold of global involvement, Jiaman and Yongchen were linked up with an American foundation that allowed them to visit the United States to study NGO development.

As a participant in this Sino-American exchange, Jin Jiaman visited our ECOLOGIA office in the summer of 1996. It was at the very moment when we were launching our Virtual Foundation online philanthropy initiative. The Virtual Foundation uses the internet (www.virtualfoundation.org) to match donors with community projects around the world. With only minimal English, a part time translator, and less than a week in our office, Jiaman managed to take away from us an understanding of how and why ECOLOGIA was using small grants to support the development of emerging NGOs and civil society in countries in transition. Within a few months, she sent us two very brief and compelling proposals for funding the work of Chinese citizens addressing environmental problems. We had no intention of working in China at the time. China did not even have any NGOs to support! But the Chinese proposals for tree-planting projects were simple, compelling, and very low cost. We put these proposals on the Virtual Foundation website and they were among the first to be funded by American donors.

Those two Virtual Foundation grants that we made to China, totaling less than $1300, went to support a loosely affiliated group of volunteers that Jiaman and Yongchen had assembled to plant trees and watch birds. Unbeknownst to us at the time, these two foreign funded projects stimulated the formalization and founding of "Green Earth Volunteers", China's first, and to this day largest totally independent environmental NGO. Green Earth Volunteers now has 30, 000 members. Thus within three years of attending their first global summit, Jiaman and Yongchen had become at least partly integrated into a global network of people working together to solve problems at the local level.

Jin Jiaman and Wang Yongchen were brought to this year's Earth Summit in Johannesburg by Ford Foundation China. As the Ford program officer told me, it was his intention to further connect China's environmental NGOs to a global network. Toward that end, ECOLOGIA arranged a first time meeting between our Russian, Lithuanian and Chinese colleagues.

We met on a sidewalk bench outside the Civil Society Forum grounds. Jiaman and Yongchen heard the story of ECOLOGIA's sustainable development work in Russia and Lithuania. The idea that an NGO could initiate such work fell on fertile ground. Jiaman and Yongchen asked questions about the practical details of beginning such a project and about moving local sustainable development planning through the implementation stage. Most important, they saw standing before them two women who had actually taught themselves how to implement sustainable development. Two more threads of global civil society were spun across racial and cultural divides, linking China and Russia, and China and Lithuania.

Two weeks after that Earth Summit sidewalk meeting, I met with Jiaman and Yongchen in their office in Beijing. They had been thinking very seriously about the possibility of having Green Earth Volunteers adapt and replicate ECOLOGIA's Local Agenda 21 project within China. I showed them an official publication on Local Agenda 21 that I had picked up in China's official exhibition at the Earth Summit. The book reported on several dozen "success stories" implementing Local Agenda 21 in China. Jiaman and Yongchen pointed out that, in fact, the success stories were largely planning success stories. China's national government had mandated that some towns and villages create sustainable development plans, but much needed to be done in order to fully implement the plans. China's government understands the importance of sustainable development and knows how to plan from the top down. But it lacks the ability to fully inform, motivate, and engage the local population. Many of its reform efforts have foundered over this divide.

In contrast, Jiaman's and Yongchen's organization, Green Earth Volunteers, had been developing the skills needed to work locally and to introduce Local Agenda 21. On the village level Green Earth Volunteers have already begun to establish elements of civil society such as trust, information sharing networks, voluntarism, and an ethic of community self-help. This outcome was an unintended consequence of Green Earth Volunteers' tree planting activity. To illustrate these points Yongchen told me the story of Green Earth Volunteers' work in Hokou Village.

Hokou village is in Shanxi province, bordering on Inner Mongolia. It is extremely poor. Hokou's residents live in caves. The soil in their village has been damaged by drought and decades, if not centuries, of unsustainable farming practices. Between 1997 and 2001 the villagers harvested 13 kilograms of food from 14 kilograms of seed. They survive on government food subsidies.

In 1999, 250 Green Earth Volunteers, including individuals from 15 foreign countries, went to Hokou village to plant trees with the expectation of preventing erosion. The outside volunteers were watched by the villagers "as if it were a movie and not real". Only 30 percent of the trees survived drought and insect infestation during the first year. Later, Green Earth Volunteers returned with botanists and experts in protecting trees against insect infestation. They enlisted the involvement of the villagers and the following year, despite continued drought, 80 percent of the trees survived.

The villagers of Hokou embraced the Green Earth volunteers upon their return. The villagers bought fresh vegetables, which they only purchase for themselves at New Years. But the Green Earth volunteers arrived a week late. The villagers had then served the withered and spoiled vegetables, dissolving into tears when shock was visible on the faces of the visitors. As the awkward story came out, the villagers' act of kindness deeply moved the visitors. Social boundaries dissolved in the tears, and understanding between the two worlds grew. In response, Green Earth volunteers engaged in non-systematic small and individual acts of philanthropy such as assisting a child with school tuition and providing funds for the purchase of a water pump for the village.

Green Earth Volunteers leaders were poised to make an organizational shift to more conscious sustainable development planning, because of the person-to-person linkages they had already forged.
When Jiaman, Yongchen and I met in Beijing to discuss implementing Local Agenda 21 in China, they saw this as an organizational opportunity to systematically assist villages such as Hokou. "Our organization has matured," they told me. In fact the organization and its members had all "matured" together by becoming actively involved in a global civil society whose principles and benefits were being extended to the most local roots in China.

Green Earth Volunteers and ECOLOGIA hope to begin working together to implement Local Agenda 21 in China. Jiaman is planning to visit, in the very near future, an ECOLOGIA Local Agenda 21 workshop in Lithuania or Russia to "see how it is done". Green Earth Volunteers plans to focus on a few sites where they already work, such as Hokou village, and also to become involved with a village listed in the official Chinese report on Local Agenda 21. By focusing on one of the official "success stories" Green Earth Volunteers will be able to support an official government program. As a result, we hope that this will help the government to see the potential benefits of supporting and cooperating with China's emerging NGO sector.

I am certain that the example of ECOLOGIA's Chinese-Russian-Lithuanian-American partnership was replicated thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of times at the Earth Summit. Such partnerships will contribute the economic equivalent of billions of dollars in social capital to societies around the world. The social capital consists of volunteer time, education, information and trust which few societies will ever have the resources to develop with government funding alone.


Formal summit outcomes

In dramatic contrast to the un-penned partnerships formed at and around the Civil Society Forum, dozens of Summit agreements produced formal written outcomes. These have attracted media attention and considerable post-Summit analysis. For example, there were agreements to:

  • cut in half the number of people not having access to proper sanitation, by 2015;
  • restore the world's fish stocks by 2015;
  • significantly reduce the rate of extinction of the plants and animals.
However, the general consensus is that there were very few meaningful binding agreements. Agreements on such critical issues as global warming, funding sustainable development, and alternative energy were diluted to the point of being little more than expressions of good intentions.

In place of binding agreements (known in UN parlance as "Type One Outcomes"), the World Summit on Sustainable Development placed a new and increased emphasis on "Type Two Outcomes" or "non-negotiated partnerships and voluntary initiatives". These non-binding agreements have attracted increasing attention from policy makers who believe that they can harness market forces as an additional tool to help solve environmental problems and to alleviate poverty. Many in business and government argue that command and control approaches get in the way of effective problem solving. Critics of the emphasis on Type Two Outcomes warn that there is a growing trend among some in business and government to replace negotiated agreements, laws, and regulations with voluntary agreements, rather than viewing them as a supplementary tool. The Bush Administration's announcement that it intended to replace the Kyoto Protocol with voluntary programs contributed enormously to these fears. In fact, the United States isolated itself at the World Summit by its consistent opposition to binding agreements, targets, and deadlines and by its single-minded emphasis on Type Two Outcomes. The September 1, 2002 headline of Johannesburg's Sunday Times read, "Summit leaves USA standing alone".

The consensus of Summit participants from developing countries was that the United States expected the world's barefoot poor to lift themselves by their bootstraps. The tattered and torn T-shirt - "Sustainable People" - worn by a homeless street person in front of my temporary Johannesburg residence summed up the under-addressed issue of the summit: poverty alleviation.


Earth Summit Visions

I left the Summit hopeful about the partnerships we had formed, and the potential of developing global civil society through international NGO connections. But I also departed with a sense of foreboding. After spending ten days in a society that still exhibits many aspects of apartheid, I had a dismal vision of a world where apartheid was globalized. It would be a world where the wealthy industrial nations had refused to commit to any binding agreements, and had left climate change and poverty to be addressed primarily by the efforts of under-funded NGOs and impersonal market forces. It is a world where the wealthy never come to terms with the implications of consumerism. In such a world, hundreds of millions of the world's poor would be dislocated by advancing desertification or by rising oceans caused by global warming. They would be driven by a downward spiral of poverty and desperation into the arms of violent extremists who would not have to promise "paradise" for martyrs; they could simply suggest that the necessities of water and food can only be appropriated by force. Those of us fortunate enough to be born into the developed world would increasingly arm and barricade ourselves against crimes of anger and desperation, fencing out the threat and in so doing put ourselves in a jail of our own creation. As I looked out of the steel barred windows in my suburban Johannesburg apartment, across the barbed wire fence surrounding the garden, onto the heavily police patrolled neighborhood where I stayed, I wondered if I were seeing a glimpse of the past or of the future.

What was achieved at the Summit? The handwriting concerning our future was clearly engraved on the wall for all to see. It provided us with hope, warnings, and clear moral and practical choices about our common future.


Originally presented to the Illinois Society for International Development, Chicago, October 8, 2002