Local Agenda 21 – Training communities and politicians in sustainable development

12 August 2002
IN JUNE 1999, the Environmental Evaluation Unit (EEU) at the University of Cape Town was appointed by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT) to implement a USAID funded Local Agenda 21 (LA21) training and capacity building programme in South Africa.

Agenda 21 is an international programme of action towards achieving sustainability at a global level. LA21 is the mandate, which was given to local authorities at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. It provides a framework for local authorities, and the communities they represent, to cooperate in planning to achieve sustainable development at the local level. LA21 has two components: training and capacity building, and awareness raising.

What is local agenda 21?

"Local authorities construct, operate and maintain economic, social and environmental infrastructure, oversee planning processes and establish local environmental policies. As the level of governance closest to people, they play a vital role in education, mobilising and responding to the public to promote sustainable development."
(Agenda 21, Chapter 28)
The LA21 Awareness Raising Campaign aimed to target politicians and senior officials at national, provincial and local levels of government and inform them about Local Agenda 21.

The LA21 Training & Capacity Building Programme focused on training senior and middle managers from local and provincial government and from community organizations.

EEU co-director, Merle Sowman, says the massive changes at local government level in South Africa presented an enormous challenge to the EEU team and its partners.

"At the same time, the shakeup of leadership and institutional arrangements offered real possibilities for new strategic directions. The new political dispensation opened up significant space for more participatory, inclusive, decentralised forms and styles of local government."

According to Sowman, at least one training course has been offered in each of the nine provinces in South Africa and, as a result, the EEU has had confirmation in some provinces of the implementation of LA21 principles in community projects.

The EEU team selected four training partners from previously disadvantaged tertiary training institutions to implement the programme with them. These were the University of Durban Westville (which subsequently linked up with the University of Natal's Durban campus), the Peninsula Technikon and the Vista Universities in Port Elizabeth and in Soweto. The University of Venda in the Limpopo Province, came on board when the LA21 programme was extended for a further year.

"Our training team designed a generic LA21 training programme which could be modified by other training institutions to suit the training needs in their area," explains Sowman.

The programme required that each institution would offer four training courses for local authorities and community representatives in their immediate and surrounding area. The courses, of four to five days, consisted of both formal lectures and participatory exercises.

Where possible, a field or site visit formed part of a relevant case study. Trainees were also introduced to key concepts and principles as well as tools for sustainable development and were shown how to apply them. Each trainee received a resource file which was intended to serve as a reference resource back in the workplace.

The training courses covered the following themes:

  • Understanding sustainable development – concepts, principles and project cycle processes.
  • Integrating sustainability principles into planning.
  • Introduction to LA21.
  • LA21 principles and the process.
  • Policy, legislative and institutional arrangements for sustainable development and LA21 in South Africa.
  • Tools for sustainability.
  • Partnerships and community participation in the LA21 process.
  • Facilitation and mediation techniques in the LA21 process.
  • Local indicators for sustainability.
  • Participatory monitoring and evaluation.
Altogether 20 training courses were conducted over a two-year period and approximately 700 trainees participated in the programme.

The final activities of the LA21 programme are still being concluded. It calls for three "follow-up" training courses to be help to provide more detailed information on the issues, which were covered in the original training courses. It also offers an opportunity to respond to the requests and suggestions made by participants during the training. The first of the three courses was held in late June 2002 in Bloemfontein. The participants were drawn from the Free State, North West and Northern Cape Provinces. A preliminary evaluation of the delegates' comment sheets indicates a high level of satisfaction with the training.

Sowman sees the establishment of partnerships between the EEU and other tertiary institutions as an on-going benefit that has resulted from the USAID-funded programme.

"Partner institutions now have well designed courses which they are continuing to offer, using materials developed during the two-year programme. It has also led to the establishment of partnerships between these tertiary institutions and local government officials and communities in their areas."

The awareness raising part of the programme was addressed through presentations by the EEU team on the principles of sustainable development to relevant national, provincial and local government officials and bodies that deal with development issues. Provincial workshops were also held with MECs responsible for environment and development issues.

A national survey was conducted to identify LA21-type activities within Local Authorities and NGOs in South Africa. From this information a national database was compiled and made accessible to the public on the EEU website.

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