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Theory Explained

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Local Agenda 21s: Theory Explained

Agenda 21: overview

For humans and our societies to achieve any degree of sustainable development (SD), it becomes necessary for all parts of our societies to be participating in the practice of balancing each of SD’s social, environmental and economic elements. This includes from the level of us as individuals and right over to our created human institutions such as government structures, industrial activities, business enterprises, NGOs, community groups and all.

It would be impossible for humans to achieve any real degree of SD if everyone but, say, governments tried to balance sustainable development’s three components. Or if everyone did so except for industry and business. Or everyone did so except for each of us as individuals. And you can easily see where this can carry on ad infinitum. It is we human beings, along with those of us involved with any of our countless created institutional structures, who need join together to achieve some semblance of a balance between SD’s three constituent parts.

Yet human beings come from all walks of life and with a variety of individual interests: from janitors to jewelers, prostitutes to presidents and prime ministers, fisherwomen to forensic scientists, mothers to medical doctors, lithographers to lawyers, agriculturalists to airline pilots, and so very much more. So in order for human societies to collectively journey toward SD, the practice cannot simply be forced on us by governments and done so in ways against our human will and contrary to our personal interests. Generally we all need to be willing participants in the practice of SD. Consequently, a requirement then becomes that creative ways be found to actively engage the wonderful diversity of human life in the very practice called sustainable development.

Agenda 21: In the main

Simply stated

  • Agenda 21 is a framework, high-level (macro) plan of action and tool (some might say “process”) for practicing sustainable development.
  • LA21s are the application of Agenda 21 at any local level.
  • Sustainability Strategies are the outcome documents from an LA21 process. They outline a sustainable development “plan of action” at a lower (micro) level as identified by interested stakeholders through their involvement in an LA21 process.

I personally see Agenda 21 centred on empowerment as the means for encouraging the practice of SD. It empowers “average people” by proactively seeking our involvement in a decision-making process. It further empowers people by seeking their direct involvement in deciding the specific SD actions to be agreed to and followed by themselves and all other affected stakeholders.

Agenda 21 encourages the development of creative ways to engage the eclectic diversity of humanity in SD’s very practice. At the same time, it enhances the practice of SD by drawing on the varied lives, learned knowledge and expertise of these very same people.

Implicit within Agenda 21 is the understanding that, to encourage the breadth and depth of humanity and human institutions to be actively involved in sustainable development practices, people need be engaged in SD on terms and in ways that they feel are most comfortable to them.

Agenda 21 also expresses the realisation that the knowledge and expertise needed to help humans understand how they can journey to SD will come from varied sources and, surprisingly often, it will come from people who are not book-learned but life-educated. Then by drawing on people’s local, traditional, and book knowledge, as well as on their general life experiences, new collective understandings will be developed and creative ways explored for helping any human society or institution further the practice of SD.

Thus, Agenda 21 has focuses on finding ways for:

  • Section III: Strengthening the role of major groups.
    The major groups identified are: women, children and youth, indigenous peoples and their communities, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), local authorities / governments, workers and trade unions, business and industry, the scientific and technological community, and farmers.

For our collective journey to SD to realise any real degree of success, it will also need to ensure that sustainable development practices permeate throughout human societies and our institutions (i.e. governments, businesses, industry, NGOs, etc.). For this reason, Agenda 21 also has focuses on:

  • Section I: Social and Economic Dimensions.
    These are identified as including: international cooperation and developing countries, combating poverty, changing consumption patterns, human health, human settlements, and integrating environment and development inn decision-making.

As the health and well-being our shared earthly home and its natural environment is an integral part of SD, Agenda 21 additionally focuses on:

  • Section II: Conservation and Management of Resources for Development.
    These include: the atmosphere, land, forests, mountains, agriculture and rural development, biodiversity, biotechnology, oceans, seas, freshwater, toxic chemicals, hazardous wastes, solid wastes and sewage, and radioactive wastes.

Education and shared knowledge at the local, national and international levels is essential to raising awareness and understandings about SD. Thus, Agenda 21 has as a final section:

  • Section IV: Means of Implementation.
    Within this section are matters related to: science, technology, education, public awareness, and training, national mechanism, international cooperation, international institutional arrangements, and information for decision-making.

Local Agenda 21s or LA21s explained

Local Agenda 21s or LA21s refers to the application of the Agenda 21 process at any local level. This includes at any level of government (national, state or provincial, regional or local), and for businesses, industry, and NGOs.

Participation by the largest number of interested people as possible is an essential focus of LA21s, no matter the institution preparing the LA21 process. Thus LA21s involve developing a bottom-up, two-way, process for involving the variety and diversity of people (stakeholders) who have an expressed interest (stake) in the LA21 being developed.

All possible stakeholders in an LA21 process should be identified - both friend and foe - so that they can be invited to be involved to some meaningful extent. The point of people’s two-way participation is twofold: to share ideas for achieving SD, while also personally learning about ways to apply sustainable development practices in their own lives or in the life of the institution / community.

Now take a deep breath. There is no need to fear that, just because you identify and invite a large number of stakeholders to participate in your LA21 process, everyone invited will participate. It is often enough for the vast, vast, majority of people to simply know that they have been thought of and that their potential ideas were considered important enough by you for them to have been invited to participate in the process. Most often, a simple invitation to participate seems to suffice for people over their actually becoming actively involved in the process. So unless your process is entwined with controversy, single digit percentile participation rates can be expected. (See the “Practice from my Experience” web-page in this site, particularly its section on the CBT, for details on my experiences with participation rates.)

If an LA21 is for a government body or community, it need try and engage interested persons from the full spectrum of its community. Whether powerless or powerful, rich or poor, young or old, women or men, straight or gay, educated or life-learned, all cultures and races and creeds... all identified members of the community who might have an interest in the process. A community and its efforts to practice SD are enhanced when every interested person in a community is invited to participate in an LA21 and in a manner and setting most comfortable to them.

A community or government body LA21 is intent on having its community members identify and agree upon its own unique SD needs, ideas and solutions for both the short and long-terms. How agreement (decision-making) is to be determined during the LA21 process can become part of the process itself, whether agreement is to be under the more traditional majority vote process or by a weighted voting system or by any number of types of Consensus Decision-making processes. (For some information on Consensus Decision-making, see: Buttler, C.T. (1987). On Conflict and Consensus: a handbook on Formal Consensus decision-making [online]. Food Not Bombs Publishing. Available from: . [Accessed: 01 May 2008].)

If the LA21 is for business, industry or an NGO, it need identify and involve all interested stakeholders, again both friend or foe.

For all LA21s, traditional as well as innovative and dynamic opportunities need be created as a means to appeal to people’s diverse interests. This will help the LA21 achieve both a depth and breadth of involvement in its process. This can include public meetings and forums, community dinners, radio phone-in programmes, television shows, school curriculum development, home workbooks, mail-in response cards, facilitated group sessions, focus groups, polling, one-on-one meetings and more.

Be aware that these LA21 processes are time intensive. They require day, evening and weekend work. They also excitingly require ingenuity, for one must both do their best to identify every possible SD stakeholder of a community or institution and to find creative ways to engage them. Overall, an LA21 process can take anywhere from 6 months (if expedited, with an appropriate staff compliment) to 1 year or more to complete from start to finish.

Also be aware that LA21s need be an ongoing process, with regular (i.e. quarterly, semi-annually, and annually) feed-back loops (also called information exchange) occurring between the institution (government / industry / NGO) and their stakeholders.

The LA21 outcomes agreed to by a community or an institution are then reflected in a Sustainability Strategy, which serves as a community’s or institution’s personalised SD “plan of action”.

Sustainability Strategies

The outcomes of an LA21 process, that being: the specific ways identified and agreed to by stakeholders for balancing each of SD’s social, environmental and economic components, are then produced in a Sustainability Strategy.

A Sustainability Strategy is a document similar in structure to business strategic plans. However the essential and key difference in the LA21 outcome document - that being, in the actual Sustainability Strategy - is who was involved in its development and what is in its actual content.

On involvement, as has already been noted, the focus of a community LA21 process is involving the greatest number and diversity of people as possible in its efforts to develop a local plan of action for SD. For industry, business or NGOs, the participation focus of an LA21 is to involve all identified stakeholders, whether friend or foe.

As for the outcome document, a Sustainability Strategy is broader in scope than a traditional strategic plan in that it intends on achieving a balance between all of sustainable development’s environmental, social and economic elements.

Sustainability Strategies are to be developed and used by any institution in human societies, whether industry, NGOs, business, government, or community group. They are intended to replace traditional, more narrowly-focussed, business strategic plans which have tended to emphasise economic (business) considerations as the essential element. In a variant of traditional business strategic plans, Sustainability Strategies have each of a: Sustainability Vision, Sustainability Mission, Sustainability Strategic Goals & Objectives, and Sustainability Benchmarks & Indicators.

Like strategic plans, Sustainability Strategies are not cast in stone but serve as general guidelines to be followed. Just as nature and human societies evolve, so too should Sustainability Strategies. This way regular inputs and new information arising from science, nature itself or our own human societies can then be used to improve and update a community’s or institution’s Sustainability Strategy.

In the documents section of this web-site, you will find an OECD (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development) document on “Core principles of Sustainable Development Strategies”. There you will also find a document I have prepared on “Explanations: Sustainability Visions, Sustainability Missions, Sustainability Strategic Goals & Objectives, and Sustainability Benchmarks & Indicators”. You can learn about strategic planning from the following excellent sources:

(2004). Frequently Asked Questions - Strategic Planning -What should a strategic plan include? [online]. Alliance for Nonprofit Management. Available from: [Accessed 02 May 2008].
(2004). Frequently Asked Questions - Strategic Planning -What are the key concepts and definitions in strategic planning? [online]. Alliance for Nonprofit Management. Available from: [Accessed 02 May 2008].

(To personally ask me questions about Agenda 21, LA21s or Sustainability Strategies, you are invited to contact me through the Contact Tom section of this web-site.)