Civil Society, Refuse to be Abused

Soon after I posted my previous blog on observer participation in the Green Climate Fund (GCF), this arrived in my mailbox via the Earth Negotiations Bulletin:…stakeholders felt let down by IPBES. Some said that whereas the platform seemed to acknowledge their potential valuable input, their participation was underemphasized at this meeting…. the inability to resolve the issue of the admission of observers left some wondering whether “observers should go on strike.”

The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is a new panel that is meant to do for biodiversity what the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change does for climate change, by becoming the leading scientific body for assessing the state of the planet’s biodiversity, its ecosystems and the essential services they provide to society.

It seems to me that the IPBES observers have the right idea when they talk of going on strike. Why does civil society allow itself to be used in this way? Why does it provide legitimacy to processes where civil society engagement is considered at best a necessary evil?

The time is ripe to protest this half-hearted arrangement. We are at a stage where people are starting to lose faith in the ability of global policy making to address global environmental crises, which are steadily getting worse. As a result, we are in a critical situation and need all hands on deck to deal with the impacts. Meaningful civil society engagement is perhaps the shot in the arm that can root global environmental policy making in reality and hence make it more effective.

Civil society has contributed a great deal to the global environmental governance agenda, bringing new perspectives and solutions along with technical and analytical skills; improving transparency and accountability; and contributing to public education. It has demonstrated its ability to implement projects and activities, sometimes with greater innovation and at lower costs than governments; reached out to wider target audiences; promoted better synergies; and served as a conduit of information and exchange between the global and national/local. When not highjacked by realpolitik, it can serve as a conscience by standing up for environmental justice.

Most of all, though, civil society participation provides legitimacy to the shaky riggings of global environmental governance. Without this participation, global environmental governance would be relegated to even more of a “democratic vacuum”. In other words, global institutions and processes need us – but we must ensure certain minimum conditions are in place before agreeing to participate.

A key pre-condition should be a commitment to improve the depth and quality of civil society participation (one might even say the depth of democracy) by finding ways to engage with sub-national/ local civil society, particularly in developing countries. This will require investments in involving and empowering these sections of civil society, no doubt, but the pay-offs (in terms of local ownership, implementation and monitoring of global goals) will make it worth it.

The eventual aim must be to achieve a formalized system of civil society engagement in all UN processes. Coordination between processes such as the GCF and IPBES, which are fighting the same battle on different fronts, could help pave the way for such fundamental change.

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2 Responses to Civil Society, Refuse to be Abused

  1. Tristan says:

    It’s interesting to see how people expect IPBES to be fully operational immediately, with a clear structure for both its functioning and entry point for the contributions from ALL stakeholders (including member and non-member countries, CSOs, etc.). Let’s not forget that IPBES is an INTERGOVERNMENTAL platform, and therefore can only be made operational once the governments have clarified what they want and how much they are willing to pay for it.

    At the meeting in Bonn, there were clamours from all sides for IPBES to ‘fast-track’ the process so that assessments could get under way quickly, for regional structures to be set up that would allow for emphasised capacity building in many parts of the world, and for the procedure for CSOs to engage.

    The challenge to all this though is, how does all this happen without a clear idea of what assessments are wanted by the policy makers? The coming months will hopefully see greater clarity on this as the MEP, Bureau and Secretariat of the Panel do their work, and the comments come in from ALL stakeholders, including CSOs.

    You raise valid points here, and no-one is arguing against the role of civil society in this, but the point is that governments – as the ones who set policy – must be allowed guide the process first, and civil society will fill the knowledge gaps. Let’s also not forget that the funds for the assessments themselves are also more likely to come from governmental and intergovernmental coffers.

    Of course, governments could get it wrong and miss the key issues, but then that’s the role for CSOs to take on in guiding them – perhaps in a bilateral way rather than in IPBES plenaries. So why go on strike now when the opportunities are there, just have yet to be more clearly defined? Furthermore, IUCN and ICSU have been tasked to develop the Stakeholder Engagement Strategy for IPBES, so CSOs need to work together to ensure that it meets their needs, as well as those of IPBES itself.


    • Benito says:

      Tristan reminds us “that the funds for the assessments themselves are also more likely to come from governmental and intergovernmental coffers”, which is why Civil Society should be relegated to “fill the knowledge gaps”. However, one may be tempted to ask a follow-on question: Who actually fills these coffers?


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