United Nations System-Wide
Economic and Social Council


24 March 1995

Third session
11-28 April 1995


Information for decision-making and Earthwatch
Report of the Secretary-General 

 INTRODUCTION - Paragraphs 1 - 13
 A. Stages of decision-making - Paragraphs 4 - 11
 B. The users of information - Paragraphs 12 - 13


 A. Indicators for sustainable development - Paragraphs 19 - 32
 B. Data collection and use - Paragraphs 33 - 49
 - 1. United Nations system-wide Earthwatch - Paragraphs 37 - 42
 - 2. Development Watch - Paragraphs 43 - 49
 C. Improvement of methods of data assessment and analysis - Paragraphs 50 - 59
 D. Establishment of a comprehensive information framework - Paragraphs 60 - 62
 E. Strengthening the capacity for traditional information - Paragraphs 63 - 66

 A. Production of information usable for decision-making - Paragraphs 67 - 77
 B. Standards and methods for handling information - Paragraphs 78 - 81
 C. Development of documentation about information - Paragraphs 82 - 84
 D. Establishment and strengthening of electronic networking capabilities - Paragraphs 85 - 91
 E. Making use of commercial information sources - Paragraphs 92 - 94



 I. Programme of work on indicators for sustainable development
 II. United Nations system-wide Earthwatch 


Chapter 40 of Agenda 21 1/ is concerned with improving the content, format and accessibility of information for decision makers at all levels, from the national and international levels to the grass-roots and individual ones. This, in turn, requires a continuing emphasis on developing the capabilities to collect, analyse, apply and disseminate data at national and local levels. A number of important issues surrounding information strategies are discussed in the present report, from improving data assessment and analysis, and standards and meta-information, to networking.

Among the issues addressed are four regarding which specific proposals are made for further and immediate action. These include a programme of work for indicators for sustainable development; the United Nations system-wide Earthwatch; the establishment of a complementary Development Watch; and development of a common or compatible system of access to United Nations system-wide databases. Proposals for action are contained in paragraphs 95-98


1. Chapter 40 of Agenda 21, 1/ entitled "Information for decision-making", addresses the subject over a broad range of activities. One of these activities is the United Nations system-wide Earthwatch, itself a complex and comprehensive information system for the environment. The task managers for chapter 40 and Earthwatch, the Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development of the United Nations Secretariat and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) respectively, agreed to combine their efforts and produce a single report covering both information for decision- making and Earthwatch. This decision was endorsed by an Inter-agency Earthwatch Working Party in June 1994.

2. The discussion contained in the present report results from inputs provided by national Governments, the relevant organizations of the United Nations system, and a number of non-governmental organizations. In addition, the Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development expresses its gratitude to the organizers of six workshops that helped to elucidate some of the issues addressed in chapter 40 of Agenda 21, namely (a) the Earthwatch Working Party, organized by UNEP (Geneva, 1 and 2 June 1994); (b) the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Consultative Forum on the Application of Information Systems and Technology to Sustainable Human Development (New York, 24 and 25 May 1994); (c) the Informal Consultation on Environment, Development and Information, organized by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada (Ottawa, Canada, 11 and 12 April 1994); (d) the Workshop on Indicators, organized by the World Bank (Washington, D.C., 22 and 23 September 1994); (e) the Expert Group Meeting on Development Watch, organized jointly by the Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development and UNDP (New York, 15 and 16 December 1994); and (f) the Workshop on Indicators organized by the Governments of Belgium and Costa Rica, UNEP and the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) (Ghent, Belgium, 9-11 January 1995). The Expert Group Meeting on Indicators for Sustainable Development, organized by the Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development of the Secretariat on 14 and 15 February 1995, also contributed to the discussions and proposals contained in this report.

3. In reviewing this report, it is also important to keep in mind that the collection, handling and dissemination of information together constitute an important part of all of the chapters of Agenda 21. Consequently, attention is drawn to all of the thematic reports to the Commission providing additional treatment of these issues.

A. Stages of decision-making

4. Chapter 40 of Agenda 21 acknowledges that "everyone is a user and provider of information considered in the broad sense". Moreover, it notes that decision makers exist at all levels, from "the national and international levels to the grass-roots and individual levels". It stresses the need to bridge the "data gap" and to improve the availability of information through several activities designed to improve each step of the decision-making process (para. 40.1).

5. Decision-making is a cyclical process, with decisions engendering certain actions, the results of which feed back into new decisions. In general, this process is considered to involve five steps: (a) problem identification; (b) policy formulation; (c) implementation; (d) performance monitoring; and (e) evaluation. One does not move "up" from one step to the other, with a finite destination. The process is a loop, and each function may be viewed as an entry point.

6. The information required will vary with the nature of the decisions to be taken. Needs for each step may differ in some other respects as well. Problem identification requires scientific and technical data and the methodologies for their collection and interpretation. Those data will be drawn from performance monitoring and evaluation activities, as well as from other sources. For this purpose, performance monitoring evaluation, and problem identification may be viewed in tandem.

7. Policy formulation is likely to require additional data, related, for example, to the social, economic, technological and cultural conditions in a country. Technology assessment for potential solutions and other methodologies for assessment and forecasting are important here. Above all, policy formulation presupposes the existence of a strategy with objectives towards which the policies are directed.

8. Implementation depends upon information about local site conditions, including the actors who will assist in the implementation. Representation of major groups is particularly important as ensuring channels of information both from and to people at the grass-roots level.

9. Continuing performance monitoring and evaluation will show whether the policy and its implementation are effective and suggest where further problem identification and policy formulation are required.

10. Capacity-building efforts are crucial to all stages of decision-making. These include training in the collection, handling and use of data, as well as in assessment and other analytical techniques; establishing internal databases and information systems and linking them with external systems, as relevant; designing mechanisms for involving all major groups both as providers and as users of information; and creating the institutional support to sustain all of these functions.

11. All of the producers of information are also potential users. Decision makers at local and national levels, major groups and international organizations all communicate across levels as well as within them, for different purposes. Inputs may differ as outputs or targets vary, but this is not necessarily the case. The fact that in the past information supply, and not demand, has been emphasized highlights the present need for both information brokers and demand-driven information.

B. The users of information

12. The concept of "users" of information is a broader one than that of "decision makers", although all users generally seek information in order to make decisions. Chapter 40 of Agenda 21 addresses itself primarily to decision makers at the national political level, but other users are also important. Within a country, users may include the following:

(a) Economic planners within the central Government, who rely primarily on macroeconomic information that is provided by other government ministries and the national bureau of statistics;

(b) Sectoral ministries, public enterprises, and public agencies that usually rely on information collected nationally, through ministerial networks, and on data from international sources. Integration of the data may be difficult because of a lack of standardization and assessment methodologies;

(c) Researchers and analysts in universities, research institutions and similar non-governmental organizations, who represent an important source of analysis and modelling, and can function as technical information brokers for political decision makers;

(d) Private sector institutions and enterprises, which need very specific information and usually seek it through private means;

(e) Local-level data users, including major groups and their representative organizations, whose needs vary from data on weather and land use to microeconomic trends;

(f) Bilateral and multilateral institutions, which have needs for national-level-related information ranging from macroeconomic data to project- specific information.

13. Bilateral and multilateral institutions, including both intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, also have a need to exchange information among themselves, in order to increase harmonization and standardization and to profit from each other's experience with project design and implementation. This issue is addressed below under "Networks".


14. Based on an analysis of the work done since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development on information for decision-making, particularly in the context of the in-depth study of Earthwatch, it appears that many of the elements for an effective information system for decision-making on environment and sustainable development are in place or are being developed at the international level. Considerable progress has also been made at the national level, through the efforts of Governments, the private sector, non-governmental organizations and the United Nations system. This work needs, however, to be expanded and strengthened, and, in general, better linked at all levels.

15. Continuing emphasis must be placed not only on access to data, but also on developing the capabilities to collect, analyse, apply and disseminate data at the national and local levels. The national reports indicate that one of the more comprehensive ways in which countries are trying to address these issues is by developing national strategies or policies for sustainable development information, often within the context of national sustainable development strategies.

16. What also needs to be completed is the assembling of the various elements in a coherent process that moves information quickly from initial data collection (generally by Governments), through compilation and assessment, to delivery in forms decision makers can use. The mechanisms that have been established to do this - including the efforts by Pakistan, Switzerland, Turkey and Uganda to create comprehensive information frameworks at the national level, and the use of indicators by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America, for example, to help define a framework - are discussed in this report.

17. The "information revolution" in new technologies such as electronic networks and computer imagery will make possible flows and uses of information that would have been inconceivable even a few years ago. There is in fact a danger of information overload, as the ability to collect and communicate information exceeds the ability to absorb and understand it.

18. Decision makers may not have the technical training to allow them to use information from scientific, technical or statistical sources in the most productive manner. They are likely to rely on an adviser who interprets the information for them. This requires a careful reconsideration of the information-supply process, as regards producing the critical elements from the assessment process in forms that can be understood and utilized. Indicators are one approach to this problem. Another is the use of "information brokers", to help interpret, manage, filter and add value to the flood of available information. The information broker is a facilitator who can raise awareness about what is available, and at what costs and for what purpose.


A. Indicators for sustainable development

19. Decision makers need concise information, put forward in a clear and unambiguous fashion and disembarrassed of minor details. The purpose is to illuminate certain phenomena or trends, through simplification, quantification and communication. 2/ In such form, indicators may not only be useful in improving information for decision-making, but may simplify reporting requirements as well through the replacing of extensive data or descriptive text by commonly agreed measures.

20. Agenda 21 recommends that countries at the national level and international governmental and non-governmental organizations at the international level should develop the concept of indicators of sustainable development in order to identify such indicators (para. 40.6) The value of indicators as policy instruments is enhanced when they are used in combination with targets that have been set as part of national policies.

21. A number of countries are developing their own indicators, for the environment or for sustainable development. These include, inter alia, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Cuba, Denmark, Finland, Germany, India, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States. Other countries, including Turkey and Uganda, have indicated their intention to start work in this area.

22. In addition, the United Nations system, in coordination with other relevant organizations, is asked by Agenda 21 to provide recommendations for harmonizing the development of indicators at the national, regional and global levels, and for incorporating a suitable set of these indicators in common, regularly updated, and widely accessible reports and databases, for use at the international level, subject to national sovereignty considerations (para. 40.7).

23. Numerous organizations, both within and outside the United Nations system, have been working on the development of indicators related to sustainable development. The Economic Commission for Europe (ECE) is developing indicators within the context of its work on environment statistics and accounting. The Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) is conducting a study on the development of environmentally sound and sustainable development indicators through the Inter-agency Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development in Asia and the Pacific that would complement the global initiative. The Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) is investigating the relevance of its work on social and economic indicators to sustainable development indicators. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) also has a programme to assist countries of the region in this area. Other examples within the United Nations system include the work of the Statistical Division of the United Nations Secretariat (UNSTAT) on environmental indicators and accounting; UNDP in the area of assessment of sustainable human development, as laid out in the Human Development Report, including the aggregate human development index (HDI); UNDP/United Nations Sudano-Sahelian Office (UNSO) on desertification indicators; UNEP on environment indicators and in its work on the global environment outlook; the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat) on urban shelter indicators for local and national Governments; the World Bank on sustainable development indicators; the United Nations University (UNU), with the World Bank, on indicators for environmental monitoring; the World Health Organization (WHO) on 12 global health indicators; UNEP and WHO on local indicators linking environment and health data; the International Labour Organization (ILO) in the area of rapid poverty assessment; the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) on climate change detection indicators; the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in the area of low-cost indicators for monitoring sustainable agriculture and rural development and, with the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), on the development of a framework for sustainable forest conservation and management for use at the national level; the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) on the significance for sustainable development of its work on industrial statistics and related indicators; and the Committee for Development Planning on indicators for identifying the least developed among the developing countries and evaluating their economic and social progress.

24. Other intergovernmental organizations, such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the European Union and the World Conservation Union, as well as such non-governmental organizations as the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), World Wide Fund for Nature, the New Economics Foundation, the Worldwatch Institute, the World Resources Institute and the Wuppertal Institute are all active in this area. The current role of the Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development of the United Nations Secretariat, as task manager of this issue, is to bring together the many actors in this field, to build on their work and to propose a cooperative programme for indicators for sustainable development that may directly serve the needs of the Commission on Sustainable Development, as well as all Member States. This programme of work is contained in Annex I.

25. In chapter 40 of Agenda 21, the Statistical Division of the United Nations Secretariat (UNSTAT) is requested to pursue the development of indicators for sustainable development at the national level. In 1993, a UNEP/UNSTAT Consultative Expert Group on Environment and Sustainable Development Indicators was created to begin addressing this issue. A (draft) framework for indicators of sustainable development was introduced by UNSTAT at the meeting of the Group.

26. As the next step in the consensus-building process, the Division for Sustainable Development of the Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development, in a joint task force with UNSTAT, developed a framework of indicators for the proposed programme of work. This "Driving force-State-Response" framework is discussed in Annex I.

27. The objective of this work is primarily to make the indicators for sustainable development accessible to decision makers at the national level by defining those indicators, elucidating their methodologies and providing training and other capacity-building activities, as relevant. Indicators, as used in national policies, may also be used in the national reports to the Commission on Sustainable Development and other intergovernmental bodies.

28. The draft framework was presented at a workshop on indicators hosted by the World Bank in Washington, D.C., on 22 and 23 September 1994. The workshop was attended by a large number of organizations working in the field of indicators for sustainable development as well as representatives of some Governments. The participants recognized that there are many organizations working on developing indicators for sustainable development, and that it would be useful to harmonize these efforts towards producing a menu of indicators for use in monitoring progress towards sustainable development at the national level. It was also recognized that such a menu should be used in a flexible manner, as priorities and problems differ between countries and regions.

29. Participants in the SCOPE project on indicators of sustainable development agreed that the SCOPE project should use the same menu of indicators as that being developed on behalf of the Commission on Sustainable Development. The project aims to develop a limited set of highly aggregated indicators for policy-making at the national and international levels. The meeting organized by Belgium, Costa Rica, the Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development of the United Nations Secretariat, UNEP and SCOPE provided a forum for both experts and users from Governments, international organizations and non-governmental organizations to discuss the scientific validity, technical feasibility and political acceptability of various approaches to the development of indicators for the Commission.

30. Work on developing highly aggregated indicators for sustainable development may proceed concurrently with further development of the menu. Although this represents a longer-term effort, it is important for three reasons: it explores the relationship among the variables, which lies at the heart of the linkages intrinsic to sustainable development; it concentrates information collection and analysis and facilitates presentation to decision makers; and it may serve as the basis of an early warning system, if desired.

31. The proposed common framework for the indicators, criteria for choosing indicators, a programme of work and a menu of indicators for sustainable development for consideration by the Commission on Sustainable Development are contained in Annex I. It is proposed that the Commission agree that work will proceed on this basis, with the understanding that this is a flexible, working menu of indicators that will be fine-tuned by countries according to their own specific needs, after further methodological work, testing and training.

32. It is also proposed that the Commission on Sustainable Development encourage continued cooperation with the work under way on environment indicators under the auspices of the Statistical Commission.

B. Data collection and use

33. Countries and international organizations are requested in Agenda 21 to carry out inventories of environmental, resource and developmental data, based on national/global priorities. Of the countries that provided national reports for chapter 40, half indicated that they had undertaken such inventories within the previous two years. The objectives are primarily three: improved management of sustainable development; identification of gaps; and organization of activities to fill those gaps.

34. Particular reference is made in this context to the strengthening of the United Nations system-wide Earthwatch and the suggested creation of a Development Watch. In the context of chapter 40, including the study for Earthwatch, an inventory was undertaken of United Nations system data and activities in these areas. 3/ This inventory demonstrates the wealth of activities across the United Nations system generating information useful for decision-making and the potential for assembling that information more effectively in support of national policy-making and environmental management and in implementation of Agenda 21.

35. The material provided in the inventory, as well as additional information submitted by national Governments, the United Nations system, and non-governmental organizations, also identifies some of the significant gaps to be filled. Among these gaps is the weakness in data collection and assessment particularly with respect to the following (the references in parentheses are to programme areas of Agenda 21, for example, "5c" denotes programme area C of chapter 5):

(a) Local population programmes (5C);

(b) Health risks from pollution and hazards; data on environmental accidents (6E);

(c) Energy and transport in the context of human settlements (7E);

(d) Comparative evaluation of energy sources (9B);

(e) Global isotope monitoring of atmospheric trace gases and river run-off as a part of global change research; impact of aircraft engine emissions in the upper atmosphere (9D);

(f) Mountains: strengthening knowledge and integrated watershed development (13 A and B);

(g) People's participation in agricultural policy (14B);

(h) Land conservation and rehabilitation; monitoring of land resources (14E);

(i) Plant nutrition (14J);

(j) Rural energy (14K);

(k) Application of biotechnology to food and raw materials (16A);

(l) Application of biotechnology to improving human health (16B);

(m) Oceans: establishment of global marine databases supported by geographical information systems (GIS) as well as a network of marine laboratories for emergency situations; better-quality fishery data at the national level (17);

(n) Classification and labelling of toxic chemicals; preparation of a priority list for chemicals and accelerating risk assessment for priority chemicals (19B);

(o) Prevention and management of hazardous wastes (20 A and B);

(p) Disposal and treatment of wastes (21 C and D);

(q) Information on the role, activities and participation of major groups (23-32), and especially of non-governmental organizations (27), local authorities (28), entrepreneurs (30) and farmers (32);

(r) Availability of environmentally sound technologies (34);

(s) Promotion of the local production and use of sustainable development information (including traditional information) and community-based initiatives.

36. Even where good data exist, the geographical coverage is in many cases neither consistent nor universal. This highlights the need for georeferencing of data and for coordinating the collection of data across sectors and organizations, at national and regional levels. For many sectors, local-level comparisons, such as intra-urban differences or intra-district differences, may also be critical in illuminating the issues and supporting the solutions.

1. United Nations system-wide Earthwatch

37. Earthwatch has constituted the framework, since the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972, for the efforts of the United Nations system to monitor and assess the global environment. In response to the General Assembly and the UNEP Governing Council, the United Nations system-wide Earthwatch is being redesigned and strengthened as a closely linked collaborative set of international efforts to coordinate, harmonize and integrate observing, assessing and reporting activities.

38. The objective is to provide environmental and appropriate socio-economic information for national and international decision-making on sustainable development and for early warning of emerging problems requiring international action. This should include timely information on the pressures on, status of and trends in key global resources, variables and processes in both natural and human systems and on the response to problems in these areas.

39. The major issues that Earthwatch addresses include the following:

(a) Observing the capacity of land resources and the impacts of processes such as deforestation, soil degradation and desertification;

(b) Loss of natural areas and biodiversity;

(c) Protection of the atmosphere;

(d) Quantity and quality of freshwater resources;

(e) State of the oceans and coastal areas;

(f) Human health conditions and quality of life determined by the environment, including the living and working environment of the poor;

(g) Accumulation of wastes, particularly hazardous wastes, and chemicals;

(h) Risks of biotechnology.

In addition, Earthwatch must be alert to new and emerging issues, and in particular to the inevitable interactions between all these issues and development processes, where threats to development prospects and to human well-being may emerge. Thus the United Nations system-wide Earthwatch cannot be content to assess each problem separately, but must build the capacities to examine them all together and to draw out the key policy issues to be addressed by the international community.

40. Such an effort cannot be undertaken by any United Nations organization alone. It requires the combined efforts of the whole United Nations system and many outside partners, with each of the organizations with major environmental or resource concerns taking a lead in its particular sector, and with UNEP, in its coordinating role for the environment, looking at how all of the parts fit together into an integrated whole.

41. In implementing Earthwatch, the United Nations system will facilitate access to information on environmental activities, and to information held by each part of the system. It will identify possibilities for collaboration and mutual reinforcement in observation and assessment programmes within and outside the United Nations system. It will promote capacity-building for data collection, assessment and reporting, as well as improve the harmonization and quality control of data and the standardization of methodologies. Earthwatch will also facilitate the wider use of information and assessments from each partner in national and international decision-making, and seek to coordinate joint reporting on the global state of the environment and sustainable development. Earthwatch may also identify priorities for international action; give early warnings of emerging environmental problems; and share experience in applying new technologies and in increasing the impact of information. Earthwatch may also contribute to organizing coherent plans for activities responding to United Nations system-wide mandates such as Agenda 21.

42. An Earthwatch Working Party, comprising all the concerned United Nations system organizations, was organized by UNEP to support the continued development of Earthwatch and to facilitate the taking of decisions in common. UNEP has also established a small Earthwatch secretariat to maintain a continuous liaison among the partners and to assist in implementing common activities. Reference is made thereto in annex II of this report.

2. Development Watch

43. A significant gap that was highlighted in chapter 40 and whose existence was reiterated by the Commission on Sustainable Development at its first session, as well as by the United Nations system organizations in their review of Earthwatch, was the lack of a Development Watch. While the environmental perspective of Earthwatch is necessary to identify the environmental limits to sustainability, the lesson of Rio de Janeiro is that environmental protection can no longer be considered in isolation from development.

44. A cooperative effort among the organizations of the United Nations system has now begun with respect to preparing proposals for Development Watch. For example, at an Expert Group Meeting, jointly organized by the Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development and UNDP in New York, on 14 and 15 December 1994, it was proposed that a Development Watch should be established to assist decision makers, especially those at the national level, to understand the interaction among physical (environmental), social and economic phenomena and the policy options these interactions suggest. It could also facilitate coordination of data collection and presentation by United Nations system organizations in the area of sustainable development.

45. Whereas Earthwatch is primarily a global information system, Development Watch could be based on national information systems. While they may not be fully analogous, they would be complementary. Earthwatch would serve as a feeder of information into Development Watch and the two systems would be coordinated.

46. Development Watch would use existing data and would be linked to the ongoing work on indicators for sustainable development, including efforts to define highly aggregated indicators. Since it is intended to be operational at the national level, it would be linked to targets established by the concerned countries themselves. Where targets do not already exist, key issues for a country could be identified, and targets promoted, based on these issues.

47. The precise outputs of Development Watch need further definition, but they might include tables of data on those indicators monitored at the national level and presentations of the results of analyses of emerging issues. Whenever appropriate, outputs could be produced in cooperation with Earthwatch and linked to capacity-building and training activities.

48. To become operational, Development Watch would require an organizational focal point at the national level and agreements on cooperation among the participating organizations. The UNDP country offices could serve as national focal points.

49. Additional work is needed to define more precisely the objectives, activities and outputs of Development Watch and its relationship to Earthwatch. This will require further consultations both within and outside the United Nations system; UNDP, with UNEP and the Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development of the United Nations Secretariat, might take the lead in organizing this cooperation and reporting thereon to the Commission at its fourth session.

C. Improvement of methods of data assessment and analysis

50. Work is under way at the national level in many countries, as follows: national and local governments are taking the initiative in establishing data and information inventories. The development both of national frameworks for information and of indicators also represents an attempt by countries to improve data collection, assessment and analysis. In addition, both Earthwatch and Development Watch are attempts by international organizations to develop practical methods for coordinated, harmonized collection and assessment of data at national and international levels. UNSTAT's programme of work will focus on, inter alia, the development of concepts and methods of environmental indicators and integrated environment and economic accounting.

51. Another example has been the joint development by the relevant United Nations bodies and the international scientific community of a Global Climate Observing System, a Global Ocean Observing System and a Global Terrestrial Observing System to organize operational long-term programmes of measurements necessary to understand and model how global systems work and to detect possible signs of predicted global change. These systems aim to bridge the gap between short-term research programmes and operational data collection for management purposes; and if adequately supported by Governments, they should be able to supply globally coordinated and comparable data sets necessary to determine important trends and to provide the bases for early warning systems. Other more specialized systems are being established or strengthened in particular fields, usually within these general frameworks.

52. Many examples are also available from among non-governmental organizations working at the international level. NGONET, for example, operates a global environmental and development network, through a series of regional nodes, with specific concern for the information needs of the South, indigenous peoples, women and grass-roots organizations. The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) is planning to establish an international resource centre for participatory approaches and methods, and it is working on behalf of ITTO to develop a "Forest Resources Accounting System". IIED also produces a series of guides on environmental assessment and natural resource and sustainable development strategies, and it collaborates with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) to provide the International Environmental and Natural Resource Assessment Information Service (INTERAISE). This consists of a computerized database of country environmental and natural resource documents, selected regional directories, a documentation centre, and an information referral service.

53. Work at the national level is being supported in many cases by various organizations within the United Nations system, in their respective areas of activity. One of the most recent initiatives is the Sustainable Development Network Programme (SDNP) being undertaken by UNDP, in cooperation with other organizations within and outside the United Nations system. UNDP is also considering a second and complementary programme at the country level to enhance information flows, whereby electronic and conventional data and information from various parts of the United Nations system and other organizations might be provided, in an open fashion, through the UNDP country office or some other local institution. In both cases, emphasis would be given to assessment of demand at the national level.

54. Most of the agencies that collect data or build national capacities to do so have active programmes to develop standardized methods, harmonize definitions and classifications, and ensure quality control of the data collected. Such activities are essential to any use of information beyond the local area, and the lack of such common approaches in certain fields has prevented the global assessment of some significant problems. One way to build a common understanding of terms is to organize, in a coordinated manner, very detailed information that is location-sensitive.

55. A tool that is becoming increasingly important for the assessment of environment and development trends and their potential consequences is computer modelling. It is such models fed by large quantities of data that have supported the majority consensus of international scientific opinion on the potential for global warming from the greenhouse effect. Models are used routinely by WMO for weather prediction, by FAO to forecast crop yields and to give early warning of potential famines, and by WHO to assess the risks of morbidity and disability from diseases. UNEP in cooperation with various research centres is now exploring the use of models to integrate the many kinds of environmental, social and economic information and to study how they interact. The Department for Economic and Social Information and Policy Analysis of the United Nations Secretariat maintains and is developing further a global input-output model (GIOM) which integrates pollution and pollution- abatement activities and renewable and non-renewable resource use with production and consumption patterns for 16 world regions. The LEADnet Program of the Rockefeller Foundation is developing modelling techniques for presenting various impact scenarios and interactive case-studies to aid in decision-making.

56. Many of these models, and others developed by national-level users, are already being used in some countries to explore policy options and to give guidance for decision-making in sustainable development. At the same time, more work needs to be undertaken to explore the possibilities of enhanced interlinkages among models in their application. This topic is also considered in the report of the Secretary-General on changing consumption and production patterns (E/CN.17/1995/13).

57. It is also possible to programme the judgements and decision processes of experts, and various types of scientific information, into computerized expert systems, which can be adapted to local situations, and to make such expertise more widely available to decision-makers than would otherwise be possible. Some pilot systems for developing countries and regions have already been developed, and further progress in this area can be expected. FAO has made considerable progress with systems for agricultural planning, and WHO is developing systems for local health planning. UNEP is working with IIASA and others to explore the utility of expert systems in national state-of-the- environment analyses and reporting. Expert systems may help to bridge the information gap created by the lack of adequate scientific expertise in many countries and the long time required to build that capacity through educational programmes and practical experience.

58. Information can be provided at various geographical scales ranging from the scale of the local community to that of the planet. Since the issues at each scale are different, specific information mechanisms are required at each level, but the general principles discussed here still apply. Similarly, some issues can be addressed with numerical or statistical data, while others require data referenced to specific geographical locations so that they can be mapped and related spatially to other data.

59. Assessments could be more meaningful in some instances if they could be compiled for agro-ecological zones, ecoregions, river basins, and geographical entities such as coastal areas and mountain regions. An example is the river- basin framework that is being used by UNEP and partners as inputs into the global/comprehensive freshwater assessment. If data are georeferenced with their precise locations when collected (this is now becoming much easier with global positioning systems), they can easily be correlated in space through geographical information systems. Much information is in fact collected at subnational scales, but it is generally combined into national statistics before being reported internationally, thus losing much of its value.

D. Establishment of a comprehensive information framework

60. The strengthening of Earthwatch and the establishment of a closely linked Development Watch should provide a coherent framework for information on sustainable development at the international level. These measures are already strengthening collaboration in the United Nations system, improving efficiency and increasing the value added to information collected.

61. At the same time, a number of Governments are moving towards structural integration of environment- and development-related ministries, through national councils, commissions, and other coordinating machinery. These new organizations may serve as the focal points for integrating environmental and developmental information as well. The development of indicators for monitoring progress at the national level towards sustainable development, through the implementation of Agenda 21, should also assist in this process.

62. Efforts at both the international level and the national level rely on the involvement of relevant non-governmental as well as governmental and intergovernmental actors. Major groups, as represented in non-governmental organizations, are essential to the comprehensiveness of an information framework.

E. Strengthening the capacity for traditional information

63. Traditional information about environmental resources and sustainable forms of development needs to be brought into the national and international information systems. Participatory rural appraisal and planning and similar techniques can be encouraged as a part of systematizing traditional information. In the same manner that one may speak of "brokers" to help make a large amount of data accessible and relevant to national-level decision makers, so, too, should one consider the use of brokers to help translate traditional information into a readily usable format at all levels.

64. Several UNU field research projects/programmes address the issue of harnessing traditional and indigenous knowledge on environmental management, particularly in agricultural systems. Systematic efforts to learn from, adapt and utilize indigenous information are made within the collaborative research programme on Population, Land Management and Environmental Change, which is being carried out in key agro-ecological zones of tropical and subtropical environments. A related programme, on Mountain Ecology and Sustainable Development, implemented jointly with the NGO International Mountain Society, has focused on the human-environment interplay in the mountain and highland areas of the world since 1978. A third programme is concerned with indigenous knowledge in Africa for the conservation and utilization of traditional food crops, and medicinal and other useful plants, as well as soil and water conservation techniques.

65. Local Governments, from district through town to village level, should give particular attention to this issue. Non-governmental organizations working at both grass-roots and international levels, including, for example, NGONET, the Association for Progressive Communication and the Earth Council, may provide a valuable service by assisting in identifying, assessing and relating traditional information to national objectives, strategies and plans. UNDP's Sustainable Development Network Programme, which, by the end of 1995, with support from Capacity 21, will have expanded into 27 countries, should also assist in this process, along with work by IUCN in strengthening the role of indigenous peoples, including through the use of traditional knowledge.

66. At the same time, it is important to develop national and even international guidelines concerning the ownership of traditional information. It is well known that some private corporations search, especially, for traditional information of potential use in pharmaceuticals and other commercial areas. One of the most effective means for disseminating information about traditional knowledge may in fact be through the market- place. However, issues of intellectual property rights need to be carefully addressed in this area.


A. Production of information usable for decision-making

67. Information is disseminated, by the international community, through a variety of formats to a wide range of users (see paras. 10 and 11). Annual and biennial reports and yearbooks contain largely textual and analytical information for a user who is likely to be more academic than political. Reports are prepared for intergovernmental and expert bodies; statistical data are made available through both printed and electronic form; and promotional material, such as brochures, bulletins, and newsletters, are regularly provided, primarily in print.

68. All of these are important and often, in fact, mandated. They are relevant to decision-making by popularizing areas related to sustainable development and thus helping to create an informed public; by providing technical data for scientists, engineers and other trained cadres who rely on these inputs for the analysis and recommendations that feed into the political process; and by suggesting broad goals, objectives and policy options for discussion at intergovernmental forums. None the less, most of this information is not available in a format for immediate and direct use by decision makers at national and local levels. The exceptions, including some of the more experimental attempts, are interesting and highlight the direction that information dissemination may take.

69. In general, decision makers may be understood to need information that is succinct, that is representative, and that allows some play for alternative scenarios and customizing for national (or local) conditions. Indicators should assist in this process. There needs to be up-to-date information on the current situation, georeferencing, and some way of anticipating what the future may hold through modelling, projections and scenarios, leading to policy options and their implications. Textual reporting remains important as providing "standalone" analyses and as helping to confer meaning and context on quantitative data.

70. An interesting example of what could serve as a useful tool for decision makers is the Electronic Atlas of Agenda 21, currently being developed by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada. The initial component of this project will develop an Atlas shell as well as an application dedicated to chapter 15 of Agenda 21, entitled "Conservation of biological diversity". This biodiversity volume will include a geographical database on compact disk read-only memory (CD-ROM) for monitoring indicators of biodiversity; two multimedia scenarios on biodiversity; and associated tools to complete the Atlas functionally. The long-term objective of the Electronic Atlas is to cover all 40 chapters of Agenda 21. It would record specific successes (and failures) of models of sustainable development in open computerized forums for use by those involved in the implementation of Agenda 21 programmes.

71. Information is disseminated through print, diskette, and electronic networks. Virtually all United Nations system organizations use all three means, and for the immediate future, this redundancy in delivery is good as well as necessary. The objective may be to move towards electronic "on-line" services for rapid access, capability to handle large amounts of data and relative low cost for service. For example, World Weather Watch is now available via the Internet. Eventually, not only will electronic communication provide two-way communication and downloading of data, but it may also, through electronic seminars and workshops, put groups of experts, advisers and trainers at the disposal of decision makers in a manner that saves both time and money.

72. The Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development has compiled a comprehensive, structured electronic record of Commission on Sustainable Development proceedings, and posted it with the UNDP Internet Gopher Server; Commission documents are also transmitted to the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and the Togethernet networks. The Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development is also promoting the development of an interface to permit direct access to the United Nations electronic archive (optical disk system) of United Nations parliamentary documents via the Internet, and it is using electronic conferences on the APC network to establish a dialogue with non-governmental organizations and other major groups. FAO's Global Forest Resources Assessment is increasingly making data available through electronic means. Country briefs for tropical countries are now available on diskette and Internet. The numerical information for the 1990 assessment for tropical countries will soon be available on diskette.

73. The reality for now, however, is that the number of countries as well as of relevant departments, institutes and organizations within countries that have the human, the technological or the telecommunications capacity to take advantage of the new electronic media are insufficient. At the same time, many organizations within the United Nations system, as well as several non-governmental organizations, are increasingly using a combination of print and diskette, and in fact the latter provides a medium-level entry into electronic information. It is less expensive to distribute than volumes of paper; it is easily duplicated and disseminated more widely throughout a country; it permits direct entry of data into an information system; and, through its use, it builds both technological and human capacity.

74. A large number of organizations are involved in the collection and compilation of environment and related information and statistics in countries. Preparation of an inventory of who is doing what on a regular basis would help to avoid duplication of activities and facilitate the establishment of electronic networking, at both national and international levels. In the latter arena, a start has been made by ESCAP, in collaboration with UNEP/Global Resource Information Database (GRID) and the inter-agency task force on environment statistics.

75. Discussions concerning dissemination of information tend to focus on the sender. However, unless the user has the capacity to receive the information, to interpret it, and to incorporate it into the decision-making process, the amount and quality of information provided are irrelevant. Capacity-building programmes therefore need to emphasize support for a local brokering capability and to assist decision makers to make better use of the information available. Capacity-building must also include training for the overall handling of technical data, for the use of information technologies, for the assessment of needs as well as of information and impact, for the collection and monitoring of data, and for the development and use of methodologies. Capacity-building must be directed not only towards human resource development but also towards institutional strengthening, through the provision of information technologies and access to the relevant networks.

76. A major thrust is also needed to ensure that updated information is available in university and other institutional libraries as well as public libraries by the installation of information technology. Such a programme would have important long-term consequences for the training of future decision makers, as well as for the in-service training of present ones. WHO and UNEP have established the Global Environment Library Network (GELNET) for the specific purpose of strengthening the information supply via libraries.

77. All organizations in the United Nations system and many non-governmental organizations, as well as bilateral initiatives, include capacity-building in their information programmes, and most of them target all of these objectives. None the less, the lack of sufficient human and financial resources to accomplish fully all of the capacity-building that is needed is a major constraint. Additional financing should be made available for this purpose. In addition, the United Nations system and other organizations should seek ways to gain efficiencies through cooperative training workshops and courses, through the provision of standardized equipment, and, where appropriate, through on-line instruction. One programme currently under joint development by the United Nations (interim secretariat for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), UNEP, the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) and UNDP is CC:COPE, which has a training component entitled CC:TRAIN. This involves training in the application of environment management guidelines, Capacity 21 and other relevant programmes, and it relies on SDNP to provide the capacity, and the resources, at the national level, to use the systems.

B. Standards and methods for handling information

78. Countries, the United Nations system collectively, and a number of international non-governmental organizations have a wealth of information, but it is largely distributed on a sectoral basis to a specialized constituency. Its value for sustainable development could be greatly increased by cross- linking the data through interdisciplinary analysis, for example, by relating epidemiological data on health conditions with environmental data on pollution problems in the same area. This would require agreement on standard methods and definitions so that such comparisons could be made effectively. The move of several national Governments to establish inter-agency working groups and councils, as well as to develop national indicators for sustainable development, is greatly assisting in the integration of the analysis of relevant data.

79. Within the United Nations system the issue of interlinkage and cross- sectoral standardization is being addressed by Earthwatch. As the Earthwatch System develops, other, non-United Nations system organizations will also be invited to participate.

80. The access to information by decision makers is also influenced by the availability of brokers that assist in the analysis of data and repackaging of information in appropriate formats. Two organizations, the interim secretariat for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and WHO, have indicated that they are using or are planning to use the Consortium for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) for this purpose. UNDP uses the Sustainable Development Networks as brokers. The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) has published a sourcebook on sustainable development that it intends as a "filter" for decision makers of key materials and sources of relevant information. NGONET has as its main role that of an "information broker" among local, regional and international levels.

81. Others use their country-level offices, workshops, experts or consultants in this capacity. Some indicate that they repackage information themselves, into popularized editions of data. However, most of the responding organizations note that no brokers are used. Since this is an issue at the heart of interpreting complex data into policy options, more attention should be devoted to the using of brokers and possibly to the coordinating of brokered information at the national and regional levels.

C. Development of documentation about information

82. One of the outputs of the Advisory Committee for the Coordination of Information Systems (ACCIS) before it was dissolved was a Database of United Nations Databases and Information Services (DUNDIS), which is now being evaluated by a task force of the Information Systems Coordination Committee (ISCC). ACCIS also completed a fifth edition of the Macrothesaurus, and responsibility for the maintenance of this has been delegated to the Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development of the United Nations Secretariat. 4/

83. Other efforts are being undertaken by non-governmental organizations, including the thematic guides produced by CIESIN, and the Commonwealth Agricultural Bureau (CAB) Thesaurus, undertaken in cooperation with FAO, IDRC and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). IUCN is also involved in the development of meta-information, through INTERAISE, a Sourcebook for Conservation and Biodiversity Information, and a Geneva-area Roundtable on Environmental Information and Documentation (an informal network of 29 intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations and Swiss organizations).

84. An organization within each country should be responsible for coordinating meta-information on all programme areas of Agenda 21 at the national level. This organization may vary from country to country; it will preferably be a national unit, although a United Nations system organization, such as UNDP, may serve as the focal point in the initial, capacity-building stages. In so far as a considerable amount of regional information activity is already taking place, such as through regional GRID-compatible centres, the Regional Seas Programmes of UNEP, the regional commissions and other regional organizations, support for regional level organization should be strengthened.

D. Establishment and strengthening of electronic networking capabilities

85. By creating mechanisms to search for and collect just the information that is required from many data repositories, electronic networks can eliminate the need to gather all data into one place. This requires what is now called meta-data, that is information as to who holds what kinds of data, where those kinds of data are to be found, and how to access them. The explosion of new electronic information technologies and their spread around the world are rapidly making possible new and more effective approaches to providing information for decision-making. The Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), for example, in cooperation with the Joint Committee on Environment and Development in the Arab Region, is working towards the creation of an integrated Arab environmental network for policy makers in the area.

86. Inputs to this report indicate a very large and diverse set of networks on overlapping topics. Identifying and understanding the purpose of each of these networks are a daunting task for international organizations, but the problem is likely to be more complex at the national level. In order to address this problem, task managers of the Inter-Agency Committee on Sustainable Development might consider the possibility of developing and disseminating meta-information in their respective programme areas of Agenda 21.

87. Task managers could also organize, as appropriate, inter-agency task forces on cross-sectoral meta-information (for example, water/health/agriculture). These task forces could further investigate the possibilities for streamlining existing networks and avoiding the creation of new networks whenever feasible and desirable. Such task forces should include, where relevant, experts from the national level, as well as non-governmental organizations.

88. The Inter-Agency Committee on Sustainable Development may wish to address the issue of "meta-networks", through which all United Nations system organizations might be linked to each other and to other major providers of data.

89. Several organizations involved in research and capacity-building for sustainable development, including some private foundations and bilateral donors have agreed to create BELLANET. This electronic network is expected to assist donors, and others to improve their performance, eventually through concerted efforts and financial collaboration in all areas of sustainable development. During the pilot phase, attention will be focused on biodiversity, forestry, energy; and the system-wide issue of research investment plans, information for decision-making and capacity development in environment, within a country programme focus.

90. The work of NGONET has already been mentioned. Also notable are the three networks fostered by the Earth Council: (a) a network linking environmental and development ombudsmen around the world; (b) a meta-network joining already existing educational, information and training networks; and (c) a network of national councils on sustainable development.

91. In setting up electronic networks of information, efforts should be made to provide the financial and technical support, where needed, to enrol all interested low income countries. This modest expenditure could dramatically expand the information base as well as have a major development impact.

E. Making use of commercial information sources

92. For information to be available for decision-making, there are some barriers to the necessary flow of information that must be overcome. There is an increasing problem with access to information for public purposes, often because of the cost of obtaining it. Non-governmental organizations, and even some government departments, are trying to find ways to cover their costs, and they see data sales as one option. In some countries, public services are being privatized. Since business users of data can usually pass the costs on to their customers, data charges are often set at what the private sector can afford to pay, thereby pricing public services, including organizations of the United Nations system, out of the market.

93. Generally, financial resources are required to purchase information held by private vendors. However, more creative solutions may be found to access this information through a "bartering" system. For example, the Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development of the United Nations Secretariat has begun a programme whereby the documents of the Commission on Sustainable Development and other relevant bodies are sent to major commercial information vendors for coverage in their bibliographic databases. In return, the Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development gains access to privately held information. National centres, by participating in the GRID cooperating centres, get access to technology and data that might not otherwise be accessible. In return, UNEP/United Nations gets improved national data.

94. All projects geared towards sustainable development should contain, parallel to the need to seek innovative approaches to accessing privately held information, funding for information collection, analysis and dissemination. In order to enhance the quality and utility of the data, a marketing strategy would need to be adopted by the relevant agencies.


95. 1. The Commission on Sustainable Development is requested to direct its attention to the proposed programme of work for developing a menu of indicators for sustainable development. It is proposed that the Commission approve the programme of work, including the following: (a) enhanced information exchange among all interested actors; (b) development of methodology sheets, to be made available to Governments; (c) training and capacity-building at regional and national levels; (d) testing of the menu of indicators and monitoring of experiences in three to four countries; (e) evaluation of the menu and adjustment, as necessary.

96. 2. National Governments should ensure, consistent with their institutional coordination for sustainable development, the integration of information for sustainable development at a country level. This should include the development of a comprehensive and coherent information programme, drawing upon public participation in data collection and assessment. In this context, support should be given to such activities as the Sustainable Development Network Programme of UNDP.

97. 3. Through the coordination of UNEP, the United Nations system, with non-governmental organizations, as relevant, should fully support, strengthen and operationalize Earthwatch. UNDP, with UNEP and the Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development of the United Nations Secretariat, and in cooperation with other interested organizations, should further define Development Watch. Earthwatch and Development Watch should evolve as two closely linked support systems for the monitoring and assessment of sustainable development. A programme of work for Development Watch and its linkage to Earthwatch should be provided to the Commission at its session in 1997.

98. 4. The organizations of the United Nations system should work towards developing a common or compatible system of access to their respective databases, in order to share data fully, to streamline the collection and interpretation of data and to identify data gaps.


1/ Report of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro, 3-14 June 1992, vol. I, Resolutions Adopted by the Conference (United Nations publication, Sales No. E.93.I.8 and corrigendum), resolution 1, annex II.

2/ Dr. Albert Adriaanse, Environmental Policy Performance Indicators: A Study on the Development of Indicators for Environmental Policy in the Netherlands (The Hague, SDU Publishers, April 1993), pp. 9-11.

3/ The results of this inventory are contained in a table that is being made available to the Commission as a "back-of-the-room" paper. It is also available through both the secretariat of the Commission and the secretariat for the United Nations system-wide Earthwatch. The reader may also wish to refer to a Synopsis of Programmes and Activities in Environmental Statistics, Indicators and Accounting (11 January 1995) prepared by UNSTAT under the aegis of the Statistical Commission and available from the office of the Director of UNSTAT.

4/ See the report of the Information Systems Coordination Committee (ACC/1994/ISCC/12) of 9 February 1994, para. 78. 

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I. Programme of work on indicators for sustainable development
II. United Nations system-wide Earthwatch

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