Crossroads blog | 31 Jan, 2019

Environmental challenges: too big for government and business to tackle alone

Ecosystems and the services they provide are at risk; their decline could jeopardise the achievement of global goals on climate change and sustainable development. However, governments and business alone cannot effectively tackle growing environmental challenges. Civil society must be included in efforts to halt the continued degradation of the environment and create a more sustainable world, writes Carola van Rijnsoever, Ambassador for Sustainable Development and Director of the Inclusive Green Growth Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands. 

Around the world ecosystems and the services they provide are under pressure. The growing world population and the pursuit of economic growth are increasingly forcing nature to make way for large-scale agriculture, mining, infrastructure and growing cities. We urgently need to find new, sustainable ways to feed a growing population, halt the rise in global temperatures and tackle environmental pollution.

Restoring our natural environment and halting climate change demand a systemic transformation to more sustainable, inclusive and green societies

Fortunately, frameworks for international action are in place: the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement. But we must step up our efforts if we are to achieve these goals. Restoring our natural environment and halting climate change demand a systemic transformation to more sustainable, inclusive and green societies.

The Dutch government believes everyone needs to contribute. All stakeholders need to come together and coordinate their efforts, taking the Sustainable Development Goals and Paris Agreement as their guide – and civil society should definitely be part of the equation.

NGOs as key partners for a sustainable future

In this effort, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are key stakeholders. NGOs can help set the agenda and bring an inclusive perspective to policy making and implementation. The Dutch government actively seeks to collaborate with NGOs because they strengthen our own efforts and can rapidly and effectively alert us to new issues. We’re convinced that inclusive decision making that involves local groups, including women, indigenous peoples and minorities, leads to better, more sustainable decisions that enjoy stronger public support.


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Local and international NGOs, with their experiences and knowledge, often advocate for better policies that benefit all, particularly the most vulnerable.

©Erwin Mascarinas

International NGOs and local NGOs each have their own distinct and complementary roles. International NGOs often have expert knowledge and international networks; local NGOs contribute specific local knowledge on local biological or physical circumstances as well as local nuances, relationships and cultural sensitivity. Local and international NGOs thus complement each other’s skills, experiences and knowledge as they advocate for better policies at both national and international level. Each has their own voice and together they are key partners in tackling the climate challenge. At the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we believe they can build on each other’s efforts and learn from each other.

How do we support civil society?

In 2016, the Netherlands launched strategic partnerships with 25 consortia of NGOs. These partnerships, which aim to develop lobbying and advocacy capacity in various areas including sustainable use of natural resources, are supported through our “Dialogue and Dissent” policy framework. NGOs can create links to government and society by communicating information, and can strengthen the voices of communities and influence policymakers. They can also facilitate cooperation by bringing together and mediating between the various actors. Given the shrinking space for NGOs and civil society as a whole in a number of countries, this support is vitally important. National governments also have a major responsibility in ensuring that NGOs and human rights defenders can make themselves heard. For instance, we worked with NGOs in Paraguay to end illegal deforestation. This has resulted in real impact: through the lobby efforts of NGOs, a decree proposed last year that allowed large areas of Paraguay’s native forest to be deforested has now been withdrawn.

In the long run, business and government can only be effective if they work with local people, preserve the environment and respect environmental and social standards.

Northern organisations in these consortia help enhance the advocacy capacity of NGOs in low- and lower-middle-income countries, helping them to make their voices heard by governments, businesses and other groups in their country. For example, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has supported NGOs in Benin and Togo in engaging with local subsidiaries of the building materials company Heidelberg Cement to better take into account biodiversity and communities in their operations. 

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The government of the Netherlands works with NGOs in Paraguay to end illegal deforestation.

© Mily Corleone

Through the Shared Resources, Joint Solutions initiative, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs has formed a strategic partnership with IUCN National Committee of The Netherlands and WWF Netherlands to strengthen the capacity of NGOs advocating climate resilience and food and water security. It works in 16 low- and middle-income countries to strengthen NGOs so that they can join forces with the public and private sector to protect natural ecosystems that are essential for climate resilience, water supply and food security. Among other activities, Environmental and Social Impact Assessments (ESIA) are performed in several countries. This has proven to be a good tool for direct engagement with the private sector, leading to international exchange and collaboration in areas like mining and finance. The partnership’s efforts are aligned with other IUCN programmes, such as SUSTAIN AFRICA, an initiative which aims to facilitate inclusive and climate-resilient economic growth in African growth corridors.

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Support for NGOs is vital to ensure their voices are heard by governments, businesses and other groups.

©IUCN/Nadine McCormick

We make the case for NGO involvement time and again. We want stakeholders in the private sector and in government to see NGOs as partners in achieving common aims, rather than as adversaries. In the long run, business and government can only be effective if they work with local people, preserve the environment and respect environmental and social standards. It should be clear to everyone that we have only one planet and that we’re all trying to achieve the same goals.

We make this case not only at national level, but also internationally through our climate finance contributions to the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the Green Climate Fund (GCF) and other instruments. We encourage NGOs to be involved in decision-making, and in creating and implementing projects, as laid out in the GEF Policy on Stakeholder Engagement. The Netherlands will continue to contribute to policy development at these international institutions to enable NGOs to be part of the policy-making process.

Stakeholders in the private sector and in government should see NGOs as partners in achieving common aims, rather than as adversaries.

We urge other governments and the private sector to ensure that NGOs retain their important position as a key ally in achieving an inclusive and green future. We believe that by treating them as partners, we create a common ground for fruitful collaboration. It is because of this firm belief that supporting international and local NGOs and helping them to effectively play their roles is a key element of our work.

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