Cover Image
close this bookSustaining the Future. Economic, Social, and Environmental Change in Sub-Saharan Africa (UNU, 1996, 365 p.)
close this folderPart 4: Institutional issues
close this folderModes of international and regional research cooperation
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentThe global change programmes
View the documentNetworking
View the documentEnvironmental governance
View the documentOutlook
View the documentReferences


The global change programmes
Environmental governance


Juha I. Uitto and Walther Manshard


The global environmental agenda appears more complex than ever before. There has been a distinct shift in environmental problems from localized disruptions to long-term potentially catastrophic changes at regional and global scales. There is also a growing awareness of the complex interlinkages between the various parts of the physical environment and human actions.

The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1972 showed just the beginnings of a more marked awareness of the emerging environmental problems and led to, for example, the creation of ministries for the environment in many countries. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992 brought to the forefront the challenges of sustainable development and the urgent need for active international cooperation. The responses, as outlined in the Agenda 21 emanating from UNCED and its scientific counterpart, Ascend 21, prepared by the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU), require concerted efforts at national, regional, and global scales. It is no longer enough to "think globally and act locally"; it is also increasingly necessary, while continuing to work at a local level, to begin to "act globally."

The aim of this paper is to outline the responses of the international scientific community to the challenges posed by global environmental change, with particular emphasis on Africa, and to discuss the role and future outlook of such scientific cooperation. The paper focuses on the main global change programmes - the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) and the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change Programme (HDP) -as well as the environmental programme area of the United Nations University (UNU).

The global change programmes

One of the most important points on the international agenda (although at first by no means universally accepted) is the sharing and exchange of scientific data and knowledge about environmental matters. With the assistance of organizations such as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Programme, as well as non-governmental organizations such as the ICSU and the IUCN (the World Conservation Union), this goal has now been reached in most countries. Depending on their respective scientific infrastructure, many countries are now in a position to assess the importance of their national environmental data and research findings for their own development agenda.

However, for the evaluation of global and regional scientific implications there still remain many problems. Even when the data are available, it is in many cases not known how the earth's ecosystems will respond to significant environmental changes, and what the results will be in various parts of the world. To shed further light on some of these questions is the basic goal of the two global change programmes under discussion here.

The International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme

Established in 1986 by the ICSU, the IGBP has now reached its implementation phase. The aim of IGBP is stated as:

To describe and understand the interactive physical, chemical and biological processes that regulate the total Earth system, the unique environment that it provides for life, the changes that are occurring in this system, and the manner in which they are influenced by human activities. (IGBP 1992: 5)

The present programme is organized to tackle a number of key questions. Core projects have been established or proposed to answer each question, and potential projects are being considered.

Question 1: How is the chemistry of the global atmosphere regulated, and what is the role of biological processes in producing and consuming trace gases?
Core project: International Global Atmospheric Chemistry (IGAC).

Question 2: How will global changes affect terrestrial ecosystems?
Core projects: Global Change and Terrestrial Ecosystems (GCTE); Land Use/Land Cover project.

Question 3: How does vegetation interact with the physical processes of the hydrological cycle?
Core project: Biospheric Aspects of the Hydrological Cycle (BAHC),

Question 4: How will changes in land use, sealevel, and climate alter coastal ecosystems, and what are the wider consequences?
Core project: Land-Ocean Interactions in the Coastal Zone (LOICZ).

Question 5: How do ocean biogeochemical processes influence and respond to climate change?
Core projects: Joint Global Ocean Flux Study (JCOFS); Global Ocean Euphotic Zone Study (GOEZS).

Question 6: What significant climatic and environmental changes occurred in the past, and what were their causes?
Core project: Past Global Changes (PAGES).

Within the core projects there is a distinction between core research, regional/national research, and other relevant research. Much of the work is based on a network of national committees. There are currently 66 national IGBP committees all around the world. In SubSaharan Africa, national committees have been established in Benin (1992), Botswana (1993), Cote d'Ivoire (1992), Ghana (1993), Kenya (1990), Niger (1991), Nigeria (1992), Sierra Leone (1993), South Africa (1987), Togo (1992), Uganda (1990), Zambia (1990), and Zimbabwe (1989).

In addition to the core projects, there are three other IGBP activities with overarching and integrative goals: the Task Force on Global

Analysis, Interpretation, and Modelling (GAIM); the Data and Information System (IGBP-DIS); and the System for Analysis, Research, and Training (START).

The START programme (the somewhat halting abbreviation stands for SysTem for Analysis, Research and Training) is a new initiative responding to the need to ensure global coverage of the global change research programmes in both developed and developing countries and regions (Eddy et al. 1991). START is organized under the joint auspices of the IGBP, the World Climate Programme, and HDP, with the aim of providing the necessary structure of networks, centres, and sites to address the regional origins and impacts of global change. Its major objective is to strengthen the participation of developing countries in IGBP research through the research networks as well as training.

For the purposes of START, the world has been divided into 14 ecological regions, each with networking functions. Africa is divided into two regions: North Africa (NAF), with headquarters in Ghana, and South and East Africa (SAF), with headquarters in Malawi.

The Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change

It is recognized that understanding global environmental change will not be possible without acknowledging the intricate ways in which human activities affect the physical environment. Themes such as land degradation and society, population pressure and carrying capacity, land use and resource management, marginality and criticality, resilience and sustainability of social groups have increasingly come to the attention of research in various disciplines.

The Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change Programme (HDP) was set up as a complement to the IGBP to bring together social and natural scientists, as well as those involved in the management of human activities, to carry out research and related activities in key areas of human interactions with the earth (Jacobson and Price 1990). It was initiated at a symposium in 1988 jointly by the UNU, the International Social Science Council (ISSC), the International Federation of Institutes for Advanced Studies (IFIAS), and UNESCO. The broad objectives of the programme were defined as (HDP 1989):

1. to foster a global network of scientists and other concerned parties, and to encourage this network - in collaboration with other relevant research initiatives - to engage in research directed towards the dynamics of human interactions with the global ecosystem;

2. to understand selected core projects central to the purposes of the programme;

3. to develop appropriate information systems and methodologies that will enable the execution of a research programme of this scope;

4. to explore the ethical, cultural, and legal traditions and frame works that underlie and shape the human aspects of global change;

5. to propose procedures and techniques for assisting in the translation of research findings into policy-relevant terms; and

6. to promote educational efforts devoted to human activities having significant effects on the global environment.

One of the important projects is the one on global risk assessment. Risk assessment has emerged as a tool for exploring the potential impacts of proposed technological innovations and large-scale industrial activities. This working group is exploring various aspects of risk assessment theory and practice at the level of global risks. Other themes covered in the context of global risks are uncertainty, critical regions, technology, and corporations. Special attention is given to high-risk regions and potential sealevel rise.

The project on Critical Zones in Global Environmental Change is carried out as a collaboration between the UNU and the International Geographical Union (IGU). Nine regions around the world are explored, where large-scale environmental degradation threatens current or future human occupance and well-being (Kasperson et al. 1995). One of these case-studies is concerned with the dry hill region of Kenya, the Ukambani Mountains.

A closely related activity co-sponsored by the IGU and the UNU is an initiative on Famine Vulnerability and Most Critical Zones and Regions (Bohle et al. 1993).

Since the UNU's 1988 Tokyo symposium, HDP has been continuously evolving, changing, and attracting new partners and scholars. It is to be hoped that it will continue to adapt itself to the actual needs perceived worldwide and will be designed to address global environmental issues with a long-term perspective.

The UNU environmental programmes

UNU environmental research programmes, other than those directly related to HDP, emphasize the importance of local and regional ecological sustainability through appropriate environmental and resource management (Manshard and Uitto 1993).

Major initiatives include the long-term collaborative research project on People, Land Management, and Environmental Change (PLEC) launched in 1992. PLEC emphasizes the consequences for land management, and hence for the environment, of population and production pressure in the smallholder agricultural areas of developing countries. On the basis of field research clusters in various parts of the world, PLEC seeks to obtain data-based, policy-related propositions concerning the adaptation of farming systems to population growth and demographic change, to changing socio-economic conditions, and to environmental deterioration. Strong emphasis is placed on: (i) the study of adaptive agro-diversity and its relations to biodiversity; (ii) identification of what is sustainable and what is unsustainable; (iii) the provision of researched options for the better management of land, its waters and biota, under societal, demographic, and environmental change in different big-geophysical settings, and evaluation of capacity to adopt these options; and (iv) the creation or enhancement of baseline data that could form the basis of longperiod ecological monitoring research, incorporating human use and socio-economic elements (Brookfield 1993).

Five clusters have been established. Two of them are in Africa -one based in Ghana with extension into Guinea, the other covering East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda).

A major effort has been made by the University to develop the Institute for Natural Resources in Africa (INRA) headquartered in Ghana. UNU/INRA's objectives emphasize human resource development and institutional capacity-building related to the strategies and priorities of Agenda 21 through collaboration with African universities and networking within a "college of research associates." The programme focuses on three key areas: (i) soil and water conservation and management; (ii) indigenous African food and other useful plants - conservation of biodiversity, improvement, production, and utilization; and (iii) mineral resources management, development, and the environment. The activities focus on research and capacity-building in the field of environmentally sustainable development, including surveys, research meetings/workshops, and training courses related to soil and water management, indigenous African food and other useful plants, and home gardens, as well as environmental monitoring.

Following UNCED and the ratification of the Convention on Biological Diversity, questions relating to sustainable production and to genetic and ecological biodiversity are receiving significant attention in the international community in terms of improved regional economic cooperation. All of the above topics have a direct bearing on the preservation and management of biological diversity in Africa.


One thing in common between all the above and other similar efforts is that they are based on a networking principle. International networks of research and training institutions as well as individual scholars are set up in order to agree on a joint research agenda, to focus efforts, and to benefit from economies of scale. The networks also have the central function of capacity-building in developing countries.

To demonstrate this point, consider international cooperation in agricultural research. One of the questions is whether our present concepts of international and national resources research as related to African farmers are still capable of meeting the challenges of the more systemic approach that is now required.

Much of the research is based on cooperation between the centres within the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), national research bodies, and actors at the "grass-roots" level. The main function of international centres such as the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) or the International Livestock Centre for Africa (ILCA) and their related networks seems to be to provide technologies that in a second step could be adapted to national and local conditions. This strategy has been largely successful, and some national administrations have been able to adopt the right research topics at the user level.

In many national research systems, however, this does not work because of the lack of trained professional staff, limited funding, and other administrative and fiscal obstacles. It has also been difficult to introduce priority problems from the farmers' and resource users' level into the research agendas of the international bodies. Investigations have shown time and again that, particularly as regards the small traditional peasant farmer, there still exist great problems of acceptance (Hatch 1976; Chambers 1983; Jazairy et al. 1992). The technological application gap seems to be as wide as ever, and much of the extension work of past decades has not been very successful (Merrill-Sands 1986).

From the farmers' point of view, the world looks very different compared with an international expert's view. Innovations may be refused because too much risk is involved or because they do not fit within the socio-economic reality of the farmers' environment. Risk minimization is of central importance to smallholders, who by processes of trial and error have generally acquired long experience in resource management, which they will not easily give up for something unknown, however promising.

What is needed is an even stronger reorientation of at least some of the international research towards the level of smallholders' problems, including a better appraisal of their traditional knowledge. Several of the new initiatives, including UNU/INRA and PLEC, are designed with this in mind.

This approach, which has been accepted for some time, also calls for increased interdisciplinary cooperation, including social scientists. A number of new concepts have been tried out during the past 10-20 years. The work on farming systems research (Shaner et al. 1982), on on-farm research (Byerlee and Collinson 1980), on the "farmer-firstand-last" model (Chambers and Ghildyal 1985), and on on-farm clientoriented research (Merrill-Sands and McAllister 1989) may serve as examples.

A participatory approach will improve the probability that internationally advocated technological innovations will eventually be adopted at the local and national levels. It is to be hoped that UNU/ INRA can also make a substantial contribution here.

Another example of successful research networking for capacitybuilding in developing countries is the UNU-International Mountain Society programme on Mountain Ecology and Sustainable Development. The programme has been operational since 1978 and, in recognition of its contribution in the field, it was selected to prepare the UNCED mountain agenda (Stone 1992). One of the central objectives since its initiation has been institutional support to mountain and highlands research in developing countries. For example, the programme was instrumental in establishing the African Mountain Association, which is now a fairly self-sufficient network of mountain researchers from Africa. The mother programme continues to support the global as well as regional networking activities through the journal Mountain Research and Development and newsletters.

Environmental governance

Effective environmental governance at national, regional, and global levels is vital to the achievement of sustainable development. A better understanding of the interactions between government, governance, and environmental policy is necessary. International agreements and conventions perform functions of governance in the absence of central governments.

On the other hand, the establishment of international regimes and conventions cannot replace effective national decision-making. Some international conventions have been successfully accepted and implemented, while others have been disappointing. More often, the institutional forms of international environmental governance are not yet efficient enough to achieve their objectives. In order to improve our knowledge in this field, further work is necessary.

Besides the more specialized environmental research that goes on in universities and research institutions, further international work is needed in two main fields:

1. well-focused research programmes on governance, policy implementation, and institutional change; and

2. improvements in the field of training and dissemination.

A significant part of the work under the Human Dimensions Programme has been directed towards research into environmental governance and policies and the multilateral action needed to understand and deal with environmental change that may affect the earth as a whole. Recent work under the HDP has focused on, for example, environmental law and institutions, and governance (Young et al. 1991; Brown Weiss 1992).

Another UNU project under the umbrella of the HDP was concerned with the scientific, economic, and political issues pertaining to determining the responsibility for greenhouse gases, calculating the obligations of countries to pay, and measuring the costs of different policies for creating a global regime for coping with greenhouse gas emissions that is just and fair to both the North and South (Hayes and Smith 1993). One of the project's case-studies focused on carbon abatement potential in West Africa (Davidson 1993).


Only a marked acceleration of international cooperation will lead to a better understanding of the global environment as a common and shared resource. All countries must be partners in the solution of the world's problems. In this respect we have come to recognize that in Africa, too, environment and development are closely linked, a fact that has profound implications for the well-being of its inhabitants.

Poverty, which contributes so much to the environmental degradation of Africa, can in the long run be overcome only by improving economic development, for which in turn a strengthening of environmental institutions and of environmental education in Africa will be necessary.

The key concept of "sustainable development" may in the long run also clarify the so far rather vague concept of "carrying capacity" (Davis and Bernstam 1990; UNFPA 1991). Parameters related to demographic characteristics, consumption patterns, and productive technologies must increasingly be based on a more concrete understanding of the ecological, social, and economic trade-offs (Rockwell and Moss 1992).

To sum up, if we have to decide on some basic international modes of action, one could also quote US Vice-President Al Gore in his book Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit (1992). Following the experiences of the Marshall Plan in Europe, he focuses on five strategic goals:

1. stabilization of the world population;

2. the development of ecologically appropriate technologies;

3. changing some of the economic "rules of the game," which would allow the measurement of the consequences of environmental decision-making;

4. negotiating a new generation of international agreements; and

5. the establishment of a cooperative educational plan for the enlightenment of the world population on global environmental matters.


Bohle, H.-G., T. E. Downing, J. O. Field, and F. N. Ibrahim (eds.) 1993. Coping with Vulnerability and Criticality: Case Studies on Food-lnsecure People and Places. Freiburg Studies in Development Geography 1. Saarbrucken and Fort Lauderdale: Verlag Breitenbach.

Brookfield, H. 1993. What is PLEC about? PLEC News and Views, no. 1: 2-8.

Brown Weiss, E. (ed.) 1992. Environmental Change and International Law: New Challenges and Dimensions. Tokyo: United Nations University Press.

Byerlee, D. and M. P. Collinson. 1980. Planning Technologies Appropriate to Farmers Concepts and Procedures. Mexico: CIMMYT.

Chambers, R. 1983. Rural Development: Putting the Last First. London: Longman.

Chambers, R. and B. P. Ghildyal. 1985. Agricultural Research for Resource-Poor Farmers: The Farmer-First-and-Last Model. IDS Discussion Paper 302. Sussex: Institute of Development Studies.

Davidson, O. R. 1993. Carbon abatement potential in West Africa. In: P. Hayes and

K. Smith (eds.), The Clobal Greenhouse Regime: Who Pays? London: Earthscan, and Tokyo: United Nations University Press, pp. 210 232.

Davis, K. and M. S. Bernstam (eds.) 1990. Resources, Environment and Population: Present Knowledge, Future Options. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Eddy, J. A., T. F. Malone, J. J. McCarthy, and T. Rosswall (eds.) 1991. Global Change System for Analysis, Research and Training (START). Report of a Meeting in Bellagio. Global Change Report no. 15, Bou]der, Colo.

Gore, A. 1992. Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the lluman Spirit. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Hatch, J. K. 1976. The Corn Farmers of Motupe: A Study of Traditional Farming Practices in Northern Coastal Peru. Land Tenure Center Monographs no. 1, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Hayes, P. and K. Smith (eds.) 1993. The Global Greenhouse Regime: Who Pays? London: Earthscan, and Tokyo: United Nations University Press.

HDP (Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change Programme). 1989. Human Dimensions of Global Change: An International Programme on Human Interaction with the Earth. Report of the Tokyo International Symposium on the Human Response to Global Change, 1988. Toronto: IFIAS/ISSC/UNU.

IGBP (International Geosphere Biosphere Programme). 1992. Global Change: Reducing Uncertainties. Stockholm: IGBP.

Jacobson, H. K. and M. F. Price. 1990. A Framework for Research for the Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change. Paris: ISSC/UNESCO.

Jazairy, 1., M. Alamgir, and T. Panuccio. 1992. The State of World Rural Poverty: An Inquiry into Its Causes and Consequences. international Fund for Agricultural Development. London: IT Publications.

Kasperson, J. X., R. E. Kasperson, and B. L. Turner, II (eds.) 1995. Regions at Risk. Tokyo: United Nations University Press.

Manshard, W. and J. I. Uitto. 1993. Environmental studies in the humid tropics: UNU programmes and future perspectives. In: J. I. Uitto and M. ClusenerGodt (eds.), Environmentally Sound Socio-economic Development in the Humid Tropics: Perspectives from Asia and Africa. Tokyo: United Nations University, pp. 7-29.

Merrill-Sands, D. 1986. The Technology Applications Gap Overcoming Constraints to Small Farmer Development. FAO Research and Technology Paper no. 1. Rome: FAO.

Merrill-Sands, D. and J. McAllister. 1989. Strengthening the Integration of On-Farm Client-Oriented Research and Experiment Station Research in National Agricultural Research Systems. Management Lessons from Nine Country Case Studies. OFCOR Comparative Study no. 1. The Hague: International Service for National Agricultural Research.

Rockwell, R. C. and R. H. Moss. 1992. The view from 1996. Environment 34(1): 12 38.

Shaner, W. W., P. F. Philipp, and W. R. Schmehl. 1982. Farming Systems Research and Development Guidelines for Developing Countries. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

Stone, P. B. (ed.) 1992. The State of the World's Mountains: A Clobal Report. London: Zed Books.

UNFPA. 1991. Population, Resources and the Environment: The Critical Challenges. New York: United Nations Population Fund.

Young, O. R., G. J. Demko, and K. Ramakrishna. 1991. Global Environmental Change and International Governance. Summary and Recommendations of a Conference held at Dartmouth College. United Nations University, Dartmouth College, World Resources Institute, and Woods Hole Research Center, Hanover, New Hampshire.