The Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe
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Magda Toth Nagy

Magda Toth Nagy

Magda Toth Nagy is an internationally recognised expert on public participation, civil society and good governance and has 25 years of professional experience. Having joined the REC in September 1990 as senior executive associate to the first executive director, she was one of the five-member team that began to build up the organisation. Until July 2012 she was the REC’s key expert on public communication, participation and stakeholder involvement. She was head of the Public Participation Programme between 1999 and 2008, and leader of the Participatory Governance Topic Area between 2008 and 2012. Since her retirement in July 2012 she has worked as a freelance expert and consultant and continues to support the REC with her expertise and experience.

Given the changes that have taken place over the past several years in the CEE region what new roles can the REC play?
While the CEE region is diverse, it has yet to find a united voice on pan-European issues. There have been attempts to make a joint environmental stand, and the REC could perhaps play a greater role in that. More importantly, if the REC aspires to become more of a think-tank institution, then it could get involved in more European and EU issues in an even stronger way to help CEE countries voice their concerns. However, the REC now operates more on a project basis than in the past, and this makes it more difficult to put more effort into such work. Some strategic issues require regular attention over many years, even decades. Some type of real investment will be needed for the REC to carry out some of its more “mission-driven” tasks.

Of course, I see the REC developing into more of a European institution, and not just limited to the CEE region. As the SDGs are just now being shaped, I see more opportunities opening up where climate change, green economy, and a more integrated approach to sustainability and participatory governance are concerned.

Speaking of which, how would you assess the COP outcomes?
From my perspective of working with civil society and public participation, the COP process has not been as open and participatory as, for example, European convention processes. It’s usually the case that NGOs and other stakeholders have to do their negotiating outside of the main venue. The REC as an observer organisation is able to make a few statements, but this role is very limited. There is some discussion about doing things a bit differently at the upcoming COP event in Paris, but as of now it’s really only governments and international organisations that participate directly. Civil society representation is extremely limited.

What first brought you to the REC, and what has kept you here for so long?
When the first director of the REC, Peter Hardi, invited me to come to the REC in 1990, it was a unique opportunity for me to try working in a new area. Up to that point I had worked in international and economic affairs at an international institute where we were already addressing some environmental problems. There was a feeling in 1989/90 that it was very important to build up a democratic society, and this particular mission of the REC was something for me that reflected this goal. And it was exciting from a personal point of view too, because we were starting from zero.

The core activities for the first years were about strengthening civil society, providing support for civil society groups in the CEE region, and building up environmental democracy. Most of our activities were centred around ensuring free access to environmental information, and we were assisting with drafting environmental legislation in the region. Already in 1991 we had the Environmental Legislative Task Force, which was financed from the initial core funds from the EU (ECU 5 million) and the US (USD 5 million), which gave us the freedom to initiate some core activities. The task force involved the participation of not only parliamentarians, government representatives and NGOs from the region, but also Western European and US experts making a pro bono contribution. Here, the main focus was on environmental liability and privatisation, the financing of environmental activities through environmental funds and other types of instruments, and public participation.

In 1993 I became a member of the project staff and was able to develop the Public Participation Programme. Part of what kept me with the organisation for so long was that I had been involved from the very start. It was a very open, innovative, forward-looking and flexible organisation from the beginning, and we all got to contribute our own ideas. We always discussed our future activities in a team setting, and we involved our colleagues and key partners in the process — both inside and outside the organisation.

Please say a little about the Aarhus Convention, a process in which you were deeply involved.
The fact that part of the REC mission was dedicated to promoting free access to environmental information and public participation in decision making gave us an advantage. We were able to create our own initiatives that linked us with other European initiatives early on. The REC was able to participate from the very beginning in the “Environment for Europe” process, from the first conference in 1991 in Dobris, in what was then Czechoslovakia.

First guidelines were developed [Sofia Guidelines on Access to Environmental Information and Public Participation in Environmental Decision-making] related to the “three pillars”, and after their endorsement in 1995 at the Sofia “Environment for Europe” conference, NGOs initiated the drafting of a convention that the REC strongly supported. There was also openness from most of the Western and CEE governments, but there was massive NGO mobilisation behind this as well. The REC already had experience with public participation from a project carried out in 1994–1995, which involved preparing a series of manuals and holding related workshops in 10 CEE countries.

As a REC representative I was one of eight experts invited to prepare the first draft text of the convention, and the REC played an active role in negotiations over two years — 1996 and 1998. The final convention text became a unique piece of environmental legislation and is still the only instrument — even globally — that includes legally binding requirements built around these three components. Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan said at the time that it was the most ambitious venture in the area of environmental democracy.

The REC organised several public events about the drafting process, including a series of roundtables in 21 countries on the draft convention text, bringing together responsible officials and civil society to discuss the situation of national legislation. This gave NGOs an opportunity to make their positions heard at national level and influence the positions of environmental authorities. Of course, a piece of international legislation in itself is not impressive if it’s not implemented. So it was really important to be involved afterwards in promoting Aarhus Convention ratification and implementation.

Over the decades we also assisted authorities and NGOs in EU, SEE and EECCA countries through many different projects to comply with Aarhus and align or approximate their own legislation with EU legislation, as well as in building an institutional framework and capacities to implement the requirements of the convention. What came later was how to implement Aarhus principles in specific environmental sectors. One of the challenges has been to try to open up a decision-making process on nuclear waste and energy issues, as these tend to be very sensitive and difficult. Nuclear officials and institutions are still not as open to transparency generally as the environmental authorities.

Lately it’s interesting that Aarhus is taken not as a model but as an example around the globe. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has developed global guidelines for drafting legislation based on the Aarhus Convention’s three pillars, which it is promoting in different regions. In the Latin American and Caribbean region there is an initiative to develop a regional instrument on Principle 10 of the 1992 Rio Declaration. We are now working with the REC on projects to share European and Aarhus experiences with people from this region and supporting them in negotiating their own instrument, which will hopefully be at least as strong as the Aarhus Convention.

What would you identify as some of the REC’s landmark achievements?
Aarhus is obviously a significant one. I would also mention the REC’s role in developing the Protocol on Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) and the Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers (PRTRs), where we were very strongly present in both the negotiations and implementation. The grants programmes that the REC has been involved in over a quarter of a century have been a massive help to different civil society groups in different regions. Our grant mechanism is now confined to SEE, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine, but there are other kinds of assistance, such as organisational viability support, capacity building, trainings and manuals, workshops and the Young Environmental Leaders Programme.

The Junior Fellowship/Young Leaders Programme should also be considered among the REC’s flagship projects. Many hundreds of junior fellows and young CSO leaders have benefited already, and we are lucky that the programme has continued under the recent SECTOR project [Supporting Environmental Civil Society Organisations in Belarus and Moldova].

The Green Pack, and now Green Steps, should also be mentioned, both as a programme and as an approach to educating young people about environmental issues and sustainable development — including participatory governance issues, too, which are incorporated in this context.

What pops into your mind when you hear the name “REC”?
The human factor — REC staff over the years. There have been so many excellent experts that have worked here. This is really important for an organisation. And it isn’t just a question of nurturing these people within the organisation, but of being able to keep them with the organisation for some time. Many of these people, even having left, remain valuable contacts for the REC.

Please can you share one of your favourite REC anecdotes?
Something quite funny, even if a little sad, was the going-away party for former REC executive director Jernej Stritih in July 2001. Staff members had prepared a sort of mock trial as a goodbye present, and it was a collective exercise in writing and acting. We had a judge, a prosecutor and others who were testifying on different issues. This was our way of providing Jernej with an overview of the years we’d spent together and reflecting on his achievements — both positive and negative.

For example, the negative things included “crimes against fashion”. He sometimes dressed in a green cardigan with a quite horrible purple tie decorated with Christmas trees. We also experienced a cash-flow problem for the first time, which meant the elimination of the 13th-month salary and of free coffee and milk for the staff. Another thing was the introduction of the RECtivity project management tool, which was jokingly referred to at the time as “subjecting staff to the bonds of automated slavery”. On the positive side were the REC’s presence at the Aarhus Environment for Europe conference, the REC’s 10th anniversary, and the launch of the REReP programme, which brought numerous projects and success to the REC. In the end we reached a balanced verdict, and Jernej was not found “guilty”. He bore it all with great humour.

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