Basic Course 3
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Basic Course 3: How Does a Local Agenda 21 Function?

Agenda 21 was called into life at the Rio Conference, the World Conference on Environment and Development. It takes the form of a global action programme for sustainable development in which all levels participate and are interlinked. From "Global Agenda 21" to the infinite number of projects all over the world within the bounds of "Local Agenda 21".

The action programme in all its fundamental characteristics will be presented in this section. The core emphasis here is placed on the question of what a Local Agenda 21 looks like and what needs to be taken into consideration for a successful initiative.

Think Globally - Act Locally

"Not many papers have achieved such fame. Agenda 21... has succeeded where many other documents would have liked to succeeded. Instead of being filed away it is handed from one person to another, is seen and read by many and affects activity all around the world.

A proclamation has gone out to all the towns and communities of the world with it to initiate a dialogue with citizens and jointly draft suitable strategies for stable future development.

The leading concept behind it: sustainable development has to take place there where people live, where they buy products, and where jobs are created, schools opened and construction zones planned. that means in the towns and the communities. The vision and task of a Local Agenda 21 has been born out of this."

[Source: Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz und Reaktorsicherheit" (German Federal Ministry for the Protection of Nature and Reactor Safety). (Publisher) "Lokale Agenda 21 und nachhaltige Entwicklung in deutschen Kommunen" (Local Agenda 21 and Sustainable Development in German Communes). 10 Jahre nach Rio: Bilanz und Perspektiven, (10 years after RIo: Balances and Perspectives) Berlin 2002, p. 24]

The Path is the Goal

There is no ideal process for a Local Agenda 21, in the sense of a finished concept, that simply has to be utilised. Each town and municipality is different and has to find its own way in a broad process of discussion.

Despite this, several fundamental elements and approaches can be presented. The following count as typical characteristics of an (ideal) process for a Local Agenda 21:
bulletParticipation of the community administration:
bulletParticipation of the population, particularly women and young people, NGO's and the business community;
bulletA long-term planning and discussion process, which pursues an integrative approach, i.e. that comprises ecological, economic and social aspects;
bulletThe aim is a action programme which the participants agree on (consensus) and is oriented towards the model of sustainable development.
bulletIt concerns a reciprocal learning process for all participants;
bulletA new political understanding (cooperation and consensus) finds expression;
bulletThe achievement of aims must be continuously checked against indicators that are as clear as possible.

A process of this kind does not just simply mean the continuation of communal environment policy with other means. In successful cases it goes far beyond this as the following text excerpt suggests:

"The main differences lies in the colour of the long-term approach and in the integrative treatment of all political fields. Of course, elements of communal policy to-date can be shown to be sustainable without this aim having been explicitly pursued in the past.

The participation of the population is of particular importance. Citizens are seen as equal negotiation partners within the community dialogue, which requires a real readiness towards dialogue and cooperation from the local political force and administration."

[Source: Eick von Ruschkowski, "Lokale Agenda 21 in Deutschland - eine Bilanz" (Local Agenda 21 in Germany - A Balance; in: "Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte" (From Politics and Contemporary History) 31-32/2002, p. 19, Online Version]


The preamble to Agenda 21 states that:

"Humanity stands at a defining point in history We are confronted with a perpetuation of disparities between and within nations, a worsening of poverty, hunger, ill health and illiteracy, and the continuing deterioration of the ecosystems on which we depend for our well-being.

However, integration of environment and development concerns and greater attention to them will lead to the fulfilment of basic needs, improved living standards for all, better protected and managed ecosystems and a safer, more prosperous future.

No nation can achieve this on its own; but together we can - in a global partnership for sustainable development. in a global partnership that is oriented towards sustainable development."

[The full text is available on the United Nations website in a variety of languages: AGENDA 21]


Chapter 28 of Agenda 21 address the role of communities:

"Since many of the problems and solutions addressed in Agenda 21 are attributable to activities at a local level, the participation and cooperation of communities form a decisive factor in the achievement of the aims contained in the Agenda.

Communities set-up, administer and maintain the social and ecological infrastructure, monitor the planning process, decide on community environmental policy and community environment regulations and cooperate in implementing national and regional environmental policy besides. As the political and administrative level that is closest to the local population, they play a decisive role in informing and mobilising the public and making them aware of sustainable development compatible to the environment. (...).

Each community administration should enter into a dialogue with its citizens, local organisations and private business and resolve a 'Local Agenda 21'. By consulting and creating a consensus, the communities can learn from their citizens and from local organisations, and citizen's, municipal, business and trade organisations and obtain the information required for the formulation of the most suitable strategy. The awareness of individual households in matters concerning sustainable development is made more sensitive through the consultation process."


Criticism of the Agenda 21:
Only a Paper Tiger?

"The all-encompassing term of 'sustainable development'... comprises an formula for a compromise between the (legitimate) demands of the countries of the Third World for more technical-infrasturtural development and for more prosperity compared to the environment protection groups mostly dominated from the north. Protection of species and preservation of resources.

This line of conflict relating to resources use and social balance contains a theoretical solution that lies very close: The highly industrialised world needs to rapidly reduce its consumption of resources and the less and later industrialised part needs to increase this so that, in total... a depletion in the use of resources can be introduced.

At the world conference in Rio, however, a contract was not signed envisaging future resource rights in terms of an outline and determines simplified trade conditions for the economically weak nations, but instead a new stage was setup with Agenda 21: emphasis is placed here on planning through negotiation, i.e. on voluntary consensus for a more sustainable (environmental) development, whereby diffuse contextualities and many administrative and process-technical suggestions in process management are named, but where absolutely no dimensions for limitations are set (...).

The government delegations from the many countries present have signed it readily, because nothing was fixed which could enforce be in any way. The non-governmental organisations involved were happy, because they were recognized for the first time and had a right of co-determination at a conference of this nature (...).

Those with any knowledge of the international scene must have been able to forecast that international proclamations of this nature would dissipate into nothing at the United Nations which is weak anyway.

[Source: Heino Apel, "Lokale Agenda 21 und Partizipation" (Local Agenda 21 and Participation); in: "Ausserschulische Bildung" 2/1999, p. 137]

Proposal for the Commitment of Citizens

"The basis for an agenda process that promises success is formed by the broad and committed participation of as many protagonists as possible from politics, administration, commerce, unions, churches, associations, environmental and north-south groups and above all 'non-organised' citizens. As such the local Agenda 21 represents an interesting proposal for the commitment of citizens. The activation of civil commitment, voluntary work and the participation of the population in city planning projects are exactly the elements that could delivery essential impulses to the Local Agenda 21 process."

[Source: Klaus Hermanns, "Die Lokale Agenda 21" (The Local Agenda 21). Herausforderung für die Kommunalpolitik (Challenges for Communal Politics) ; in: "Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte" (From Politics and Contemporary History) 10-11/2000, p. 3 ,Online Version]

Phases of the Local Agenda 21 Process

The following diagram shows the four phases of an ideally running agenda process. What is important to realise is that the process does not end after the evolution phase. It concerns a continuous process of learning, searching and discussion, in which the knowledge won and experiences made are looped into the next cycle.

What has been achieved until now?

The following text excerpt provides a balance for the situation 10 years after Rio and on the evening before the conference following Rio in Johannesburg in 2002.

"Compared with the benchmarks laid out by the Agenda 21, the balance for... the world Local Agenda 21 process is rather sobering. Neither a spirit of departure, a mobilisation of the masses nor a partially adequate time aim were achieved. However the call for action from Chapter 28 of Agenda 21 could not be introduced as a realistic measure. At the point in time of the Local Agenda 21 being resolved, it was no more than a theoretical concept on paper, on which no experience existed. No-one could forecast how long it would take to convey the concept of sustainability into society.

A differentiated view is recommended as a conclusion, which recognises what has been achieved, but at the same time confirms that there is still much to do. Although, in relation to its range and successes, the Local Agenda 21 has fallen far behind original expectations in total, in the meantime, the agenda movement has found resonance throughout the world. The critical mass has still not been reached until now. Local Agenda 21 processes are still rather more a cure than an obligation and in many places real topics of conflict (e.g. communal finances, long-term town development, integration or giving voice to minorities etc.) are not dealt with in the agenda processes.

The approach of implementing the concept of sustainable development at community level hides enormous potential, but this has to be tapped into and implemented by the local communities. As before short-term, sectoral political action programmes dominate."

[Source: Eick von Ruschkowski, "Lokale Agenda 21 in Deutschland - eine Bilanz" (Local Agenda 21 in Germany - A Balance; in: "Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte" (From Politics and Contemporary History) 31-32/2002, p. 24, Online Version]

Further information on the topic on the Internet

ICLEI stands for International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. The organisation with headquarters in Toronto was founded by local governments at the UN headquarters in New York.

The organisation pursues aims closely relating to the Local Agenda 21: "ICLEI's mission is to build and serve a worldwide movement of local governments to achieve tangible improvements in global sustainability with special focus on environmental conditions through cumulative local actions" (Mission Statement;

The website from ICLEI offers a fill of examples, reports and information on the setup and state of the Local Agenda 21 worldwide in terms of its implementation . It is easier to find the information by starting on the following page:

... continue to Basic Course 4: How Can We Protect the Climate?

[Author: Ragnar Müller]

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