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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Sept/Oct 2003 : Commentary


Good Governance
Strengthening governance and protecting the environment.

NOTE: The following commentary was written by Mark Malloch Brown, Klaus Toepfer, Ian Johnson and Jonathan Lash and provided courtesy of World Resources Institute’s Features department.

The accelerated loss of species, the contamination of our air, water and soil, the erosion of our climate system and the ozone layer—these are symptoms both of the stress we have placed on the earth’s ecosystems and the weakness of our political institutions. The breakdown of governance—corruption, patronage, backroom deals, land grabs, bribes or dishonest political influence—erodes our civil and economic rights, as well as our natural heritage.

Degraded forests, polluted rivers and dying coral reefs around the world frequently reflect the flawed process of environmental decision-making which lacks transparency, inclusiveness and accountable decision-making over natural resources. Illegal logging, for instance, is flourishing in places like Indonesia and central Africa, where forest managers face little accountability to the public interest.

Plans to exploit natural resources without the input of local inhabitants all too often enrich just a few, but dispossess the larger community and disrupt ecosystems. For example, the Ok Tedi copper mine in Papua New Guinea dumps more than 70 million tons of tailings, rock and waste into local waterways, disrupting the lives of 50,000 people living downstream. The government, which owns a stake in the mine, failed to consult with local people before breaking ground in the 1980s and exempted the mine from environmental controls.

Good governance is almost always a prerequisite for sound environmental decisions. And it is also one of the most important factors in reducing poverty and promoting economic and social development—in part because public and private investors need the stability and transparency that good governance brings.

That is essentially the conclusion endorsed by leaders from around the world when they gathered in Monterrey, Mexico in March 2002. They concluded that money alone doesn’t guarantee sound development. Rather, success depends as much on sound institutions, prudent policies, transparent processes, open access to information and equitable participation in making decisions—all salient features of good governance.

These building blocks of good environmental governance were spelled out in 1992 at the U.N.’s Rio Earth Summit. Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration calls for access to information concerning the environment, the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process, and effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings.

But these principles are only as strong as our implementation of them. A new report from our organizations—the latest in a unique series on the global environment and development that we have worked on jointly since 1988—finds that progress toward increased access to information, decision-making and redress has been uneven around the world. In a poll of more than 32,000 people worldwide, more than 70 percent said they would like more environmental information and greater opportunities to participate in decision-making. Only 40 percent said they were satisfied with their government’s efforts to provide information and include them in decision-making.

We reaffirm our organizations’ commitment to work to improve governance of the environment through our programs, policy advice, project work and funding practices. To increase government accountability at the national level, our organizations formed the Partnership for Principle 10 (PP10) at the Johannesburg Summit in September 2002. The partnership brings together a wide range of organizations that have committed to improving access to information, participation and justice to people around the world.

Of course, access alone is not enough to ensure good environmental outcomes. Indeed, one of the most apparent failures over the last decade since the Rio Earth Summit has been the inability to adequately incorporate environmental thinking into economic, social and development decisions. A responsible development path of growth needs to appropriately value the contribution of ecosystem goods and services to human welfare.

Good environmental governance will succeed in achieving better environmental outcomes only if it is seen as an essential contributor to better and more equitable development. Years of experience show that including affected communities and individuals in decision-making, and insisting on accountability of those ultimately responsible for environmental decisions, can lead to fairer and more effective management of natural resources.

Human development and environmental goals must be integrated—just as people and ecosystems are woven together in the web of life. We cannot alleviate poverty over the long-term without managing ecosystems in a sustainable manner. Nor can we protect ecosystems from abuse without holding those with wealth and power accountable for their actions and recognizing the legitimate needs of the poor and dispossessed. This is the balance we must strike in every decision we make for the Earth.

Mark Malloch Brown is the administrator, United Nations Development Programme; Klaus Toepfer is the executive director, United Nations Environment Programme; Ian Johnson is vice president for sustainable development, World Bank; and Jonathan Lash is president, World Resources Institute. These partner organizations recently published the book, World Resources 2002-2004: Decisions for the Earth. The full report is available on-line at

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