Helen Clark: The power of local action for sustainable development

Jun 20, 2012

Keynote Address by Helen Clark, Administrator, UNDP
The Power of Local Action for Sustainable Development
Rio de Janeiro, Wednesday 20 June at 8pm

I am delighted to welcome everyone to this evening’s Award Ceremony honoring “Communities on the Frontlines of Sustainable Development”.

I offer a special welcome to the senior ministers and other representatives of member states present who are playing a role in addressing the challenges of sustainable development in their countries.

I welcome too, the many guests from the People’s Summit, and extend a very special welcome to our guests of honor this evening: representatives of the local and indigenous communities who are receiving recognition for their outstanding achievements in advancing local sustainable development solutions.

Allow me also to express UNDP’s appreciation to the Governments of Norway, Germany, and Sweden for their support of UNDP’s work at the local level through programmes such as the Equator Initiative, and to the donors to the Global Environment Facility’s Small Grants Programme, which supports so many local initiatives and which UNDP is proud to implement.

Setting the Context

Twenty years ago, the Earth Summit here in Rio challenged nations and communities alike to make progress on sustainable development.

Tonight we focus on the local level where the links between the social, economic, and environmental strands of sustainable development are so visible, and where we see some of the clearest examples of successful sustainable development solutions.

Organizations which win the Equator Prize show through their actions how the sustainable management of ecosystems is not only good for the environment, but empowers local people and increases their capacities and livelihood options.   

Global Challenges, Local Solutions

Supporting people-centered sustainable development solutions is central to UNDP’s work. Our experience of working at the local level helps us to address global challenges too. Local successes can, and do, inform global solutions for sustainable future.

One of the most daunting challenges our world faces is how to provide enough food, water, and energy for all.  By 2030, it is estimated that the world will need at least fifty per cent more food, 45 per cent more energy, and thirty per cent more freshwater. 

Our experience with community-based initiatives is relevant here. There are many stories to tell about watershed management, more efficient irrigation, reforestation, and development of off-grid power sources, where local initiatives tailored to a community’s particular agricultural setting, soils, micro-watersheds, or energy needs, have been successful.

An excellent example on meeting food security needs comes from one of the winners here tonight. 

Sudan’s Zenab for Women in Development has organized local women into a farmers union.  Established in 2005, the union has grown from three hundred women in six communities to three thousand women in 53 communities across the country.  The initiative supports the cultivation of drought-resilient crops and the provision of locally-relevant agricultural tools and technologies. The organization raises awareness about deforestation, distributes cooking gas to curb the felling of trees for firewood, and engages union members in reforestation and tree planting activities.  A share of the union’s revenues is invested in rural primary schools, sanitation infrastructure, and fresh water access – all essential social services which were previously absent in many of the participating communities.     

This is a great example of what we at UNDP describe as “triple win” approaches, where initiatives deliver economic, social, and environmental benefits simultaneously.

With climate change a present and pressing reality – the pressures on food, water, and energy supplies become even more significant, along with other serious impacts. These are being felt most by the world’s poorest and vulnerable people, as they are the ones often least equipped to cope with the consequences of a changing climate.

Action at the local level is critical for effective climate change adaptation and for building resilience to adverse events. An example of how community-based ecosystem management builds resilience and facilitates adaptation can be found in the Elmoudaa community in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains. This community has suffered from frequent flash flooding, often wiping out the village’s water infrastructure, washing away irrigation channels, and destroying water basins. 

Since 2001, Association Amsing, one of tonight’s winners, has led the community in building a water reservoir, a water tower, and a system of subterranean water pipes which protect the irrigation network and bring clean drinking water to every household in the community. These initiatives have greatly strengthened the community’s resilience in the face of an increasingly variable climate.

Another important lesson emerging from the community level is the importance of empowerment, participation, inclusion, equity, and rights in driving sustainable development. By focusing on these processes, community groups often make collective action for sustainable development possible.

Another of this year’s winners: Women and Land from Tajikistan provides an illustration of this. It was founded by women to address the challenges resulting from the civil war in their country. It has worked in partnership with local government to secure and distribute parcels of land to more than 2,000 women farmers, providing economic opportunity and empowering women in a region which was destabilized by conflict and war. It also supports diversified farming methods, through field schools, and promotes the conservation of biodiversity through responsible natural resource management.

The kind of innovation which we are celebrating this evening rarely happens in isolation from the broader context within which these local groups are operating. Where political and legal space to act is opened up, the ability of local groups to innovate increases. 

Here, national authorities can play a critical role by removing obstacles to community-based action.  Ensuring that local people have their land rights, tenure security, and resource entitlements recognized is vital.

Where the enabling conditions are right, scaling-up for transformational change becomes possible.

An excellent example comes from Nicaragua - Centro Humboldt – another winner here tonight.

The Center’s work has involved drilling wells, repairing water provision systems, and establishing ‘community water committees’. By providing them with legal space, legitimacy and authority, the national authorities have put in place the enabling conditions for local innovation and action to thrive.

The initiative now operates in over 75 communities across 10 municipalities.  The water committees are now responsible for managing over 50 per cent of Nicaragua’s rural water supply. 

Towards a New Model for Development

This example from Nicaragua illustrates the emergence of a model of development in which:

  • local communities provide the initiative, the innovation, and the direction; and
  • national authorities provide the enabling conditions, mainstream local concerns into national policies, and encourage the scaling-up of local successes.

The international community can also play an important supportive role, including through financing.


The theme of Rio+20, The Future We Want, is an open-ended call to define a new direction for our world. 

One element of the future we all want is for governments to work with local communities to deliver social, environmental, and economic benefits. This is a key part of the sustainable development equation.

Moving forward from Rio+20, it will be critical to acknowledge the central role of community-based organizations and local initiatives in delivering sustainable development solutions.  It is also vital that civil society groups are heard in the dialogue on the post-2015 development agenda.

Tonight’s event is about honoring the great innovation and leadership which is coming from the world’s local communities. I have mentioned just some of the prize winners, and you will hear of many more in the course of the evening. We can all be inspired by their work to make sustainable development a reality – may many more follow them.

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