PCDForum Column #38 Release Date July 20, 1992

by Nola Kate Seymoar, Ph.D.

While the official delegates deliberating at the Earth Summit in Rio Centro argued over the placement of commas in their documents, something substantial was happening across town in the Gloria Hotel and the tents at Flamingo Park. Ordinary people from all around the world were forging a global social movement to challenge the foundations and institutions of development orthodoxy.

Alberto Melucci, an Italian sociologist, defines a social movement as having these dimensions:

  • It engages in collective action involving a mutual sense of solidarity.
  • It is engaged in conflict with an adversary who lays claim to the same goods or values.
  • Its actions push the established system beyond the range of variation it can tolerate without altering its structure.
  • It has an identity characterized by a common cognitive framework, an interactive network and the emotional involvement of its participants.

Each of these elements began to come together in the processes of Global Forum '92, the independent sector events parallel to the official negotiations in Rio Centro, as diverse international networks of women, youth, religious leaders, indigenous peoples, and others grew in solidarity and found common cause with one another.

The centerpiece of this process was the International Forum of NGOs and Social Movements. When some one thousand NGO representatives met in Paris in December 1991 to plan inputs to UNCED, it was already evident that the official UNCED conventions were going to fall far short of resolving the planet's ecological and social crises. It was thus decided that the NGOs would organize their own treaty negotiation process. The intended outcome was to be a series of conventions defining the commitments of the NGO signatories to act in solidarity with one another on behalf of the planet and its people.

Attempting to carry out a substantive dialogue in search of consensus among several thousand people who do not share the same organizational history, culture, or language and with no legal chain of command is a gutsy undertaking. The Rio process was a difficult, and for many, a frustrating experience. The discussions were frequently dominated by the Brazilian participants, who were by far the majority. Some treaty groups were shanghaied by Marxist Leninists whose single minded determination outwitted the well intentioned democratic style of the group leaders. The treaties themselves varied in the quality of their prose, depth of analysis, and breadth of vision. Yet though often repetitive and full of rhetoric, the resulting documents revealed a newly forming consensus, best summarized at the end of the deliberations in "The People's Earth Declaration."

Seldom in human history have people from such diverse backgrounds and special interests found they shared a common analysis and commitment to a set of assumptions and principles regarding the planet and the poor. Peace activists, environmentalists, religious leaders, development NGOs, alternative economists, and others from both North and South found common cause with leaders of indigenous peoples, youth, and women's movements in their commitment to develop just, sustainable and participatory societies.

Their consensus placed them in direct, conscious, and informed opposition to powerful establishment institutions that claim leadership on the sustainable development agenda. While embracing the need for change to sustainability, group after group rejected the orthodox development models and policies of the World Bank and IMF based on the premise that undifferentiated economic growth, free trade, and foreign investment are the answer. Given evidence that human economic activity already exceeds the ecology's limits, the need to redistribute the use of ecological resources was seen to be inescapable, as was the need to decentralize economic power to increase accountability to the community interest.

By calling on citizens to assert their basic right to determine the directions of their own development, citizen groups in Rio seriously challenged the limits of tolerance of the government-to-government system. They called for change through a peaceful people power revolution of the kind that restored democracy in the Philippines and brought down the communist empire in Eastern Europe. It is significant that the citizens who issued such calls in Rio were mostly middle-aged, middle-ground, articulate and concerned members of mainstream citizen organizations.

Most all of the elements of a powerful social movement are in place save one, a name that affirms the movement's collective identity. I have no doubt the movement will soon find its name.

When such forces coalesce within civil society they are not easily denied. Decision makers in business and government will be well advised to take them seriously and attempt to anticipate their consequences.


Nola Kate Seymoar is Executive Director of the World Congress for Education & Communication on Environment & Development (ECO-ED), 110 Eglinton Avenue West, Toronto, Ontario M4R 1A3, Canada. This column was prepared and distributed by the People-Centered Development Forum based on a report prepared by the author.

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