Friday, March 02, 2007

Accountability: Possible without consequence?

If you ever get the chance to hear a speech or read an article by UNEP's new executive director Achim Steiner, don't miss the chance. He always leaves you with food for thought - and action (click the title of this blog to find a podcast of Steiner's speech at the GRI conference in October 2006).

Today I read an article he wrote for his former organization's monthly publication called "World Conservation" (January edition, IUCN) where he addresses the topic of accountability.

He first notes that much of the 20th century was spent creating accountabilities - governments alone have passed over 500 trans-national conventions, treaties, and agreements. Standards for financial accounting arose, along with innumerable rules, responsibilities and public committments on everything ranging from quality control to child labor.

So why, in our newly globalized world, do some citizens feel increasingly disempowered? Steiner postulates that it is because we have spent a century creating accountabilities without consequences.

So this begs a question for GRI - will the voluntary approach to sustainability reporting result in a set of Guidelines that no one uses, or a practice of robust reporting that results in better knowledge and change toward a more sustainable future?

Steiner has an answer for this too. He says that we can establish norms and standards as the baseline of accountability which are more legitimate in the modern era by redefining who sits at the table during their creation. "Societies, individuals, and communities are less and less controlled by government so the emergence of the private sector and civil society in shaping public discourse and creating public pressure has to be reflected in the way that norms and standards are developed."

This seems to bode well for GRI since the multi-stakeholder approach lies at the heart of the Guidelines development process. What do you think - is this an accountability mechanism without consequence?

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