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FAQ: ICLEI, the United Nations, and Agenda 21


Setting the Record Straight About ICLEI

In light of conspiracy theories circulated about ICLEI and Agenda 21, read on to get the facts about our organization, its international role, Agenda 21, and the United Nations.


What is ICLEI?

ICLEI–Local Governments for Sustainability is the leading global network devoted to local governments engaged in sustainability, climate protection, and clean energy initiatives. The organization was formerly known as the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives.


What does ICLEI do?

In the United States, ICLEI USA works to help local governments achieve deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and tangible improvements in local sustainability. To help local governments to meet their self-defined goals, we provide software tools, trainings, technical assistance, guidebooks, as well as vibrant peer networks where local government staff can share challenges and best practices. Learn more in the About ICLEI FAQ.

Is ICLEI part of the United Nations?

ICLEI is not a United Nations agency or controlled by the U.N. in any way. We are an independent, 501(c)(3) nonprofit association. In the United States, ICLEI USA is overseen by a Board of Directors consisting of local elected officials—American mayors and county executives from across the country.

What is ICLEI’s international role?

ICLEI is a champion of local governments. Working with elected officials, ICLEI's World Secretariat helps voice local government needs and priorities during international negotiations and agreements that will effect local governments, such as the U.N. climate negotiations and the upcoming Rio+20 summit.

ICLEI is one of many NGOs recognized by the U.N. to provide input into these processes. ICLEI is the "Local Authority Major Group Co-Organizing Partner" for Rio+20 and the "Local Government and Municipal Authority Focal Point" for UNFCCC climate change negotiations. What this means is that ICLEI acts as a bridge between local governments and UN processes: We inform local governments about these processes, and we gather and present local government priorities  and points of view during key meetings and negotiations, such as COP17 in Durban, South Africa.

What is Agenda 21?

Agenda 21 is a voluntary action plan developed by the United Nations and national governments at the "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. At the Summit, governmental leaders around the world agreed on the need to become more sustainable—to meet today’s needs without sacrificing our future. Agenda 21 presents a vision for how all levels of government—especially in the developing world—can take voluntary action to combat poverty and pollution, conserve natural resources and develop in a sustainable manner. One-hundred-seventy-eight nations adopted the agenda, including the United States under the Bush Administration.

Agenda 21 is not a treaty or legally binding document and does not infringe upon the sovereignty of any nation, state, or local government. Agenda 21 does not advocate for abolishing private property or have any bearing on U.S. local and state land-use decisions. In other words, it isn’t being forced on anybody, anywhere, by any organization.

A chapter within Agenda 21 introduces the concept of a "Local Agenda 21," and offers a vision for how local governments can develop their own sustainability initiatives. A key them with Agenda 21 was local self-determination and community engagement: "Each local authority should enter into a dialogue with its citizens, local organizations and private enterprises. Through consultation and consensus-building, local authorities would learn from citizens and from local, civic, community, business and industrial organizations and acquire the information needed for formulating the best strategies. The process of consultation would increase household awareness of sustainable development issues."


Is "sustainable development" the same thing as Agenda 21?

No. Sustainability is a mainstream concept, and sustainability initiatives in government, corporate America, academia, and local communities typically have no connection to Agenda 21. Learn more about why local governments undertake sustainability initiatives.

In other parts of the world, especially the developing world, local governments and other stakeholders have more directly supported the principles of Agenda 21, which inspired their work to define their own sustainability goals based on local priorities. ICLEI has supported these local governments in their efforts.


What is ICLEI's relationship to Agenda 21?

At the Earth Summit, national governments, including the United States under the Bush Administration, negotiated and wrote Agenda 21. Yet every sector of society was invited to give input into the Agenda 21 document, including church/faith organizations, business interest organizations, indigenous peoples’ organizations, scientific associations, trade union organizations, and local government organizations.

In this context, ICLEI served the role of technical representative for a range of local government organizations, including the International Union of Local Authorities, the United Towns Organization, Metropolis, and others. ICLEI took input from these organizations regarding their key positions in areas pertinent to local government, such as urban development, water resources, and waste management, and presented these positions to UN representatives and national government representatives, who included them into the final text.

The State Department representatives of the Bush Administration encouraged local governments and ICLEI to provide input so that Agenda 21 reflected local realities.

ICLEI’s view was that the only way to sensibly pursue more sustainable development was to fully engage the citizens and stakeholders of cities and local communities in defining their own plans for development. ICLEI's philosophy has always been that local democracy is key.


Does ICLEI work behind the scenes in cities and counties to implement or impose a secret agenda?

There is no truth to this conspiracy theory. ICLEI is a nonprofit with no authority over its local government members whatsoever, and we do not work in secret or in any way circumvent public input in decision-making processes. We do not mandate, impose, or enforce any national or international policies or initiatives. All ICLEI programs and projects are voluntary, and local governments decide for themselves which programs they wish to participate in; they define their own goals depending on local circumstances, interests, and abilities.

At ICLEI, we believe in the power of local, bottom-up innovations to solve global problems. We also believe in deep collaboration with our local government members to develop programs and tools to meet their needs.

What are the requirements of ICLEI membership?

The only requirements of ICLEI membership are a self-defined commitment to sustainability and climate protection, and the payment of annual membership dues based on population size. Learn more about what ICLEI members, affiliates, and partners receive.

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