The Challenges Ahead


A personal view by the outgoing Director General, Dr. Martin Holdgate

How can the World Conservation Union "influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the world to conserve the integrity and diversity of nature and ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable"?

Clearly, by providing knowledge, since we cannot conserve the integrity and diversity of nature without knowing how natural systems work and how they respond to the many factors that influence them. And we cannot help societies to ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable without understanding how people's demands, needs and cultures affect nature.

IUCN has to remain a body that brings together the best knowledge we can gather from the natural and the social sciences, so as to illuminate the relationship between humanity and the other components of the natural world and so as to work out practical ways of achieving conservation and sustainable development.

But equally clearly, we can only succeed if we communicate. For that is the way we "influence, encourage and assist" societies. And that communication has to be two-way. The Union has to learn what its members and the other users of the knowledge it can provide want. And it has to shape its programme and activities to respond to those needs.

The Secretariat of the Union can only do this if it is driven by our members, and if they are also involved as actors in the whole process. Regional Forums and National Committees bring our members together to define their priorities. But the Secretariat, Commissions and Council have to listen and respond to the messages generated. They have to design a programme of activities that addresses those priorities. And they have to involve the members, and the members' members, in the execution of that programme.

That is why the decentralization of the Secretariat and the Commissions is important. That is why the Commissions must be open to the participation of specialists from our member organizations in all parts of the world, and address the priorities of the membership in both "South" and "North." That is also why we need to strengthen the role of Regional Councillors and to ensure that the Regional and Country Offices support, facilitate and help the membership, as well as execute programmes and projects.

There is a saying that "form should follow function." The 19th Session of the General Assembly accepted the need for a far-reaching review of many aspects of the Union. It strongly endorsed the value of the Commissions as distinctive voluntary networks, harnessing the enthusiasm and knowledge of thousands of leading conservationists. No other organization in the world has such a resource, and they give the Union unique expertise, especially in the conservation of biological diversity. These networks need to be integrated within the overall programme, and used as the principal generators of the knowledge the Union has to supply.

The General Assembly also agreed that the governance mechanisms and the Statutes of IUCN will be reviewed. The General Assembly itself needs scrutiny as it changes from a medium-sized meeting to a World Conservation Congress. In Costa Rica in 1988, 925 people participated but in 1994 that had risen to over 1300. The number of draft resolutions and recommendations submitted has also escalated, reaching 159 at Buenos Aires. Negotiating so many texts, some on delicate political issues, places an immense burden on delegates and Secretariat. A guiding policy is needed to make sure that the members' priorities are addressed. We cannot do everything.

Balance is crucial. I said in Buenos Aires that if ever IUCN becomes predominantly a governmental body--or predominantly an NGO body--it will be time to order the coffin. The Union is unique because the intergovernmental and non-governmental worlds can meet to share knowledge and discuss priorities. But they can only do so on a basis of equality, with neither group seeking to dominate or score debating points off the other, and with the emphasis on the construction of common insights and shared actions. Some members have yet to learn that lesson.

The way ahead will be difficult. So far, the world's institutions are lagging behind the world's needs for conservation and sustainable development. The information revolution is not producing action, but instead is confirming our apparent inability to resolve the basic issues. In the developed world, over-consumption, wastage of resources, and excessive pollution are marching hand in hand with northern dominance of the world's economic and trading systems, locking many developing countries into poverty. In the South, some governance systems deny local communities control over their environments, fail to assign them an equitable share in the benefits when local resources are used, and deter the internal and external investment essential for development.

IUCN is uniquely placed to help resolve these enormous problems facing the world. The World Conservation Strategy and Caring for the Earth state the problems and set out the action that has to be taken. The Union can and should hit the campaign trail, promote the need for social change--North and South--and provide the knowledge to guide societies in that change.

If we see IUCN not as the Secretariat, not as the Commissions, but as a true World Conservation Union of its members, and the members of those members, its potential as a force to change the world is clearly immense. The central challenge for the next decade is to realize that potential and to "influence, encourage and assist" the world to change course.