Governance, the missing link in sustainable development

Gouvernance, le chaînon manquantdu développement durable
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More than fifteen years after the Rio Conference, effective sustainable development governance remains sorely lacking. Despite a host of multinational agreements promoting sustainable development and supporting declarations by many non-governmental actors, at every level—local, national, regional and international— implementation smacks up against a multitude of problems.
The technical, legal, economic, operational and social governance tools already exist. But what is
lacking is effective management of these policy measures once put in place. This was the shared
conclusion from two prior Regards sur la Terre,a the 2007 edition on energy issues and climate change,
and the 2008 edition on the relationships between biodiversity, nature and development. And this
conclusion holds true for analysis of other major issues, including desertification, reduction in fish
stocks, chemical waste and ozone depletion. The key question is as much what should be implemented as how efforts should be organized or managed.

These crises threatening humanity have multiple and complex causes, which include world population
growth, economic expansion, the rise of consumerism, the negative effects of certain technologies,
inadequate knowledge, and the lack of political will, to mention only a few. This multiplicity of causes
demands a multiplicity of responses, as well as effective management by a system of world governance, adapted to the new environmental and social needs formulated since 1992 and summarized in the
Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The “established” actors, governments and international organizations have undertaken a series of
reforms of financial and UN international institutions (see Focus 2). But very aware that they cannot
respond alone to the great planetary challenges, they are urging private actors to mobilize in support
of sustainable development.

Progress by government is at best mixed to negative. Trade negotiations intended to tackle sustainable
development challenges are bogged down. Talks on climate change are dragging on even though it is
ever more urgent to have an international framework for intervention.b Little or no progress has been
made in reforming international financial institutions or the UN Security Council. And the debate over
reforming global governance of the environment has led virtually nowhere.

By contrast, the activism of non-governmental actors, whether they are foundations, companies, NGOs or individuals, is greatly increasing the number of initiatives and measures taken. Despite the best of intentions, the rising influence of non-governmental groups is fragmenting governance, and is complicated by a lack of consultation among all those involved in the process. Whether they are working on a national or global ecological issue or simply focusing on a river basin, they can make it difficult to establish a coordinated and homogeneous system of governance. As a result, the question of how governance is working is crucial to the capacity to implement the sustainable development policies.

A Planet for Life 2009 seeks to contribute to current thinking on governance systems and how to make
them better. It has three sections. The first analyzes the extent to which the institutional system, originally created to deal with post-war issues, is ill-suited to face the challenges of sustainable development. The second, supported by case analyses and studies, highlights current trends and possible responses to
sustainable development issues. The studies show both the variety of actors and ways of re-assessing a
system that is becoming ever less credible. They also include fresh thinking, new proposals and lessons
learned all with the aim of devising a system of sustainable governance equal to the challenges of the 21st Century. Finally, the third section examines some of the challenges and their implications for this new system. Without attempting to outline a complete framework, it does sketch out new governance lines that could be followed.

On this point, see the Stern Report and the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).


In Chapter 1, Philipp Pattberg classifies the various  assumptions about global sustainable development governance. As well as showing the conceptual confusion surrounding “governance” and “sustainable development”, he also demonstrates how the increasing role of non-governmental actors
parallels the segmentation and fragmentation of sustainable development policies. This trend has led to a “privatization” of governance, which de facto escapes government control. Pattberg therefore pleads for the return of political initiative to strengthen the institutional core of sustainability at the UN.

In Chapter 2, François Lerin and Laurence Tubiana analyze the change in the sovereignty of the State, a corollary of the increased power of non-governmental actors. They show how the slow concentration of power into the hands of the State over more than three centuries is now being called into question, notably by the emergence of global environmental issues. Yet the authors dissociate themselves from the conventional idea that this change erodes state sovereignty: They see it as more a matter of increased complexity, since environmental issues are both the cause of decreasing state influence and a source of legitimacy. This does not preclude the need for redefining the traditional concept of state sovereignty to enable a system of governance adapted to sustainable development on a global scale.

In Chapter 3, Adil Najam shows how, in the sphere of environment, the international system has changed through an increase in the number of actors, sources of funding and international agreements. This proliferation has led to the system’s fragmentation and inefficiency, along with a marked predilection for negotiation rather than the implementation of existing agreements. Najam also stresses
that only powerful political will can overcome the many vested interests that until now have blocked
all attempts at reform.


New trends have surfaced to respond to the complex, systemic problems of the environment and of sustainable development. While the State is still present, non-governmental organizations, companies,
foundations, associations, and panels of experts have appeared. Faced with new challenges, these actors are trying new forms of governance involving a variety of participants such as central or local government, companies and associations or village communities. Multi-layered, they can include countries, regions or states as well as urban groups or municipalities.

In Chapter 4, Jayashree Vivekanandaan finds in this multi-level governance a new paradigm for sustainable development. Experience over the last decades has shown the potential of this kind of governance, but the author underlines the fact that this can be easily undone and that its realization depends on the nature of the existing political system. In this respect, there is no ideal institutional mechanism; establishing an adequate governance system will necessarily be complicated and erratic, just like democracy itself.

Global challenges provide certain actors with the opportunity to (re)legitimize their actions and policies as shown in Chapter 5 for China and Chapter 6 for Brazil. In Chapter 5, Ye Qi, Ma Li, Zhang Huanbo, Li Huimin, Cai Qin and Liu Zhilin describe how a goal adopted at a global level—the fight against climate change—has allowed the central Chinese government to set these same objectives for provincial governments by using a system of incentives. By linking the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to an increase in energy efficiency as an element of economic and administrative performance, the provinces have become fully engaged in the fight against climate change. Economic performance remains the primary objective for provincial officials, but they have been successfully motivated as their evaluation and career advancement depends partly on their environmental results. From this limited experience, no doubt more general lessons can be learned for motivating local actors toward global priorities.

The same is true for Brazil, another large federal country. In Chapter 6, Dilip Loundo analyses how
a problem of global importance, the deforestation of the Amazon, has been tackled by the federal and
local governments. Loundo shows the limitations of actions initiated by the federal government, often
taken over by corrupt interests, and the successful results of active decentralization and the mobilization of civil society. Echoing the notion of eroding national sovereignty, the Brazilian experience also
shows the limitations of national action in a country where deforestation can depend as much on the
price of soybeans on the world market as on the efforts of government. 

In Chapter 7, Thierry Hommel and Oliver Godard question the interest companies have in social and environmental responsibility, something which may appear to deviate from their main objectives of making a profit and satisfying shareholders. But, as the authors observe, the commitment of companies to social and environmental responsibility does respond to the pursuit of their interests if it promotes
market stability and assures access to the resources on which they rely. Such a convergence of private
and public interests can make companies essential players in sustainable development, particularly in
poor countries where governments lack financial means and administrative capabilities. However,
while responsible companies can help to implement sustainable development, they cannot replace the
state and their actions must also be directed by the consumer.


Even though some responses to environmental crises emerged over the final decades of the 20th century, these crises have not gone away and some have worsened. The challenges for the new century will require a new governance system for sustainable development, constructed from existing institutions and recent innovations. The greatest of these challenges is undoubtedly developing the countries of the South. Despite many institutional and legal improvements, the idea of sustainable development has not greatly altered the South’s development strategies.

In Chapter 8, Pierre Jacquet and Jacques Loup argue that the convergence of a series of environmental crises now makes it impossible to continue with past practice. In order to respond to systemic threats, new, integrated and global approaches will have to take full account of social and environmental issues. They will require greater scientific knowledge and new policy tools. Science and technology were at the heart of the economic successes and environmental crises of the 20th century, and many experts today expect these disciplines to provide answers to the challenges of the present century. Panels of experts have recently appeared on the governance scene and have seen their reputation strengthened by the granting of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) together with Al Gore.

In Chapter 9, Philippe Le Prestre and Romain Taravella analyze the objectives and actions of these panels and question what makes them pertinent, credible and legitimate. In fact, their influence depends as much, if not more, on the process of creating and disseminating scientific information than on its content. However neutral and objective these panels claim to be, they cannot dissociate themselves from power games and political influence.

Sunita Narain, for her part, places the problem of sustainable development in poor countries at the center of political conflict and social demands. In Chapter 10, she shows how local groups in India have been able to reclaim traditional skills to defend their access to resources in the face of hostile interests, which jeopardized their ownership and know-how. In her opinion, sustainable development strategies for the countries of the South require an effective democratic system supported by credible public institutions, and new and inventive knowledge. A third imperative is that decision-makers in developed nations be made fully aware of local initiatives so that the voices of the South are clearly heard.

On a different note, in Chapter 11, Edith Brown Weiss explains the importance of international law in securing sustainable development policies for future generations. Since the earliest days of sustainable development some three decades ago, there have been significant advances in environmental, economic and human rights law. It should be noted, however, that the importance of tough legal constraints is diminishing, while legal but weaker constraints are becoming ever more important. These new tools are proving as effective because they enable the legal system to deal with a wider range of sustainable development issues. However, Weiss argues that in this context of “soft law”, only an ethos of sustainable development, which is respectful of the planet, its nearly seven billion people and future generations, will adequately guide and enforce our actions.


These readings allow some preliminary conclusions to be drawn. Though, of course, these are not dequate for fully defining a new governance system adapted to 21st century challenges, they do identify some guidelines and avenues for a fairer, more legitimate and more effective governance system to emerge.

All the contributors underline the increased number of actors involved in the promotion, negotiation and implementation of sustainable development— companies, panels of experts and non-governmental organizations—and the urgent need for them to work together. The nation-state was for a long time the only legitimate entity to govern world affairs. But today it shares powers with these new participants.

This leads to a redefinition of the State’s role, as well as that of international organizations and science
and technology. There are now as many distinct interpretations of the concept of sustainable development as there are actors. This is no surprise because after thirty years of often heated debate, many of the central players have no operational responsibility. Confronted with this void, each actor wears the blinkers of their own specific bias and loyalty. These actors then manipulate the rhetoric of sustainable development to protect those interests.

So it might be appropriate to abandon the idea that sustainable development could fit into a neat, federating package and a detailed strategy to be imposed without argument. Any definition is broad, perpetually renegotiated and, in the end, will be what we make of it. It is primarily a social and political reality
borne by groups with different value systems, who argue for their own point of view and negotiate to
defend their interests. The coexistence of heterogeneous value systems and the reality of sustainable development are both being defined within this constant negotiation.

If this is truly the reality, then scientific expertise does not have an absolute legitimacy that can be imposed on all nations. Indeed the contributors to this report stress the diversity of such expertise, the limits of its legitimacy and the inadequacy of its knowledge. Experts definitely have a place at the negotiating table, but they must sit there with other participants who are just as legitimate.

To the saying “global problem, local solution” could be added the formula “local problem, global implications.” Advances in sustainable development are often the result of a process of confrontation and negotiation between different parties, each with separate objectives and instruments. Thus, the fight against deforestation in Brazil will involve the Brazilian provincial and federal authorities, local and international NGOs, and even possibly international conventions such as the Convention on Biological Diversity. The actions of companies in favor of sustainable development will be influenced by the activities of local NGOs, by the policies of their own governments and even by the UN through the Global Compact Initiative. 

The governance of sustainable development is being played out in these multiple, complex interactions, where the balance of power shifts and can solidify into mechanisms that are “favorable to sustainable development.” The formalization of these interactions within a “multilevel” approach can stabilize a negotiation and provide an appropriate framework for governing sustainable development. The definition of this negotiating machinery implies making choices and is bound to be imperfect. For practical reasons, all the actors involved cannot be included. A sustainable approach to development will imply recognition that this machinery is imperfect and that any political arbitration is intrinsically incomplete.

To recognize the imperfection of any process is also to affirm that a priori no point of view or interest should be excluded, that no group of actors can have a monopoly on truth. The emergence of new actors from outside state structures has “privatized” the international governance of sustainable development. By recognizing that they are unable to implement the Rio recommendations on their own, and by calling on NGOs and companies to participate, the states have de facto ratified this trend. It is inescapable: It would
be counter-productive and illusory to return to the days when power was centralized and action left in the hands of the State alone. The failure of that model of the past is self-evident today.

But the limitations and dangers of privatizing governance must also be emphasized at a time when it is the non-governmental actors who are defining the problems, proposing the solutions, implementing the policies and evaluating themselves. These practices are bound to give rise to legitimacy questions. So it seems desirable to encourage any initiative in favor of sustainable development, whether it is public, private or public-private, to be part of a broader and accountable framework. Even though there is no indisputable framework or value system shared by everyone, the need to act, and therefore the need for arbitration, remains.

That is the role of political authority and this raises the question of its legitimacy. Governing sustainable development implies the reaffirmation of the role of political authority legitimized by a democratic base. It is fundamental that the arbitration process be open and transparent so that individual actors cannot channel the decisions that need to be taken to suit their own interests. The implementation of sustainable development will therefore depend on the capacity to deal collectively and in the long term with the affairs of a common, pluralistic and changing world.

Finally, Edith Brown Weiss reminds us of the need for a democratic and transparent decision-making
process that explicitly takes account of the long term, and the welfare of future generations. A democratic and transparent society is a society based on the rule of law, and the rule of law can prove to be a powerful instrument for sustainable development. However, all the instruments at our disposal will certainly be inadequate and a governance system will only be able to achieve its objectives if it relies on a genuine ethos of sustainable development.