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What is the biggest challenge to the institutional governance of the UNCCD?

by Brady Nevins

Welcome to my blog!

Here I will discuss the treaty formation, evolution, and regime complexity of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification—the UNCCD—as they relate to challenges of institutional governance. 


The UNCCD is a legally binding environmental treaty. This treaty came out of the Rio Conference in 1994 to try to combat the issue of desertification, which the international community had seen as a worsening environmental problem since the 1970s. Desertification is the persistent and permanent degradation of arable land in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas. It is caused by climate change and improper land management in areas like agriculture and herding. This land degradation negatively affects populations in terms of food security and nutrition, livelihood, cultural practices, and biodiversity.

Nearly 40 percent of the world’s land is comprised of arid drylands vulnerable to- or experiencing desertification. Desertification is unique among other global environmental problems because it is often closely associated with socio-economic problems like poverty and hungry. Ninety percent of people living in drylands live in developing countries.

Global distribution of drylands.
Treaty Formation

Originally, many developed nations were against the creation of the UNCCD because they didn’t feel like desertification affected them or that it was a global issue. The idea for a desertification treaty was proposed at the Rio Summit by leaders of some African states that were particularly hard-hit by desertification. They didn’t feel like their worries about poverty, drought, and food insecurity were getting proper focus. In order to get these African leaders to engage in the rest of the Rio negotiations, developed countries made the deal that they would begin negotiations on a desertification convention.

Despite this trade-off, however, there was still doubt that desertification was something that required a global treaty. The World Bank and many developed countries believed that desertification was caused by structural problems within a given country and the mismanagement of the economy by a national government. Finally though, with support from France and unexpected support from the United States, the UNCCD was finally born in June of 1994. 

The struggle to get developed countries to support an international treaty like the UNCCD can be explained by the different interests that each country has. In international environmental agreements, the distribution of vulnerability and the cost of fixing a problem are rarely the same for all countries.

Support for international environmental agreements.

Some countries might have a high vulnerability but a relatively low abatement cost. These countries are known as “pushers” and they are usually the ones who are most strongly advocating for environmental policy. Other countries might not be severely vulnerable to an environmental problem, but it would cost a lot for them to sure up the little vulnerability they do experience. These countries are called “draggers”. Countries in between, experiencing both high vulnerability and high abatement cost, or low vulnerability and low abatement cost, are called “intermediates” and “bystanders”, respectively. 

This inequality of interests is still reflected today through a participatory gap among developed countries when it comes to fulfilling their treaty obligations. Watch this video to learn more about this participatory gap:

Developed nations are not the only ones that have been unable to fulfill their treaty obligations. Developing, desertification-affected countries are also struggling to implement policies and live up to the expectations of the treaty. This is due in part to a lack of funding, but challenges of national governance are also responsible for these shortcomings. 

Under Article 5, affected countries are required to create a national action plan (NAP) within their existing sustainable development framework, but most NAPs have reported challenges in implementation. An evaluation of NAPs found that most were undermined by “shortages and weaknesses of institutional and human capacity,” and they lack sufficient funding. Moreover, NAPs are often fragmented across several different ministries, and the lack of coordination means that financial and human resources are distributed ineffectively. Too much time and energy are usually spent on the planning phase and not much on actual implementation—or people are burnt out and cynical by the time the implementation phase finally comes around. Additionally, land management policies have tended to become independent from the socio-economic development policies they are supposed to underwrite, causing the NAP to lose touch with its original purpose. Ultimately, NAPs often find themselves on the outside of national policy- and decision-making spheres instead of being integrated into them like they were meant to be.


Structurally, as mentioned in the video, the UNCCD is a weak institution because it lacks specifics, and this has contributed to the participation gaps by both developed and developing countries. The treaty doesn’t specify exact goals of indicators that countries should strive to reach. It doesn’t say how much money developed countries should be contributing to meet their obligations. It doesn’t have any timelines for implementation. And most of its focus has been on raising awareness about the issue. The specifics are left for each country to decide on its own. As of now, the UNCCD just doesn’t have the internationally recognized political support needed to put effective weight behind its policies compared to the other treaties that came out of the Rio Conference (the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity). Despite these limitations, though, the UNCCD has improved in many ways since its founding, and policy-makers are continuously working to try to make it more effective. Listen to this short podcast to learn about the UNCCD’s evolution over time:

Audio clips from the UNCCD’s Capacity Building Marketplace. Watch the full presentation here.

This transformation of the UNCCD is a perfect example of how most international organizations (IOs) tend to change over time—sometimes in ways that were not imagined by the states that founded them. IOs are born from states but they become their own entity. Barnett and Finnemore put it well when they said, “Global organizations do more than just facilitate cooperation by helping states to overcome market failures, collective action dilemmas, and problems associated with interdependent social choice. They also create actors, specify responsibilities and authority among them, and define the work these actors should do, giving it meaning and normative value.” Think about how international organizations have rethought and redefined the meanings of themes like “development”, or groups like “refugees”. 

In the case of the UNCCD, this IO has brought new meaning to topics like desertification, drought, land degradation, and land management policies. Before the treaty, the international community didn’t fully understand the causes of desertification and tended the blame the governments of individual countries. Now, thanks to the UNCCD, desertification is seen as one of the many effects of climate change and as a responsibility of the international community. Although the UNCCD is still bound to the mandate given to it by states, it has become independently powerful and influential beyond the states.

Regime Complexity

One of the most significant transformations that the UNCCD has undergone, as mentioned in the short podcast, has been its integration into the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. This demonstrates how land degradation is becoming a central development issue. In terms of improving the implementation of policy, though, it’s unclear if this restructuring has made a difference. In fact, it may have actually made implementation more difficult by spreading the responsibility for desertification policy across an already complex international regime.

The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The idea of regime complexity refers to a system of international governance where there are many overlapping institutions, agreements, and obligations without a clear hierarchy. Regime complexity can sometimes be a good thing because it allows more points of entry for non-state actors to bring attention to policy issues, and with more organizations and institutions involved, there is logically more opportunity to mobilize financial and human resources toward an issue. But regime complexity can also be a bad thing. For example, it can make legal obligations unclear as jurisdictions and laws fragment and overlap. It can also be hard to keep track of what changes are being made in a given area, and issues are so widely spread that it is difficult to form a uniform global strategy. With many organizations and institutions working on an issue, it can sometimes be confusing to distinguish cause and effect relationships or identify the best policies. Take a look at this web of the various actors officially connected to the UNCCD:

UNCCD actor web.

This web is just the collection of international actors and does not even include all the various NGOs and national government departments that may be working within a given country on issues of desertification and land degradation. Although these actors make an effort to partner and work together, there is no hierarchy among them. It’s easy to see how projects can get confusing and accountability or responsibility can become ambiguous. 


How can we know that an international environmental institution (IEI) is effective? One could say that an IEI can be considered effective when the environment is better off than it would have been without that institution. This can be more complicated that it seems, since it’s hard to link cause and effect directly to a given action when issues are so multifaceted. Moreover, depending on the type of environmental problem and the scope of the treaty, even if all signatories adhere to the treaty, the issue might not be solved. And conversely, for another issue or treaty structure, compliance with the treaty might not be totally necessary for the treaty to be considered effective. 

To understand this, it’s important to differentiate between the performance and the effectiveness of a treaty. Performance has to do with the internal workings of the agreement and the behavior change of actors (states). Whereas effectiveness looks at the environment compared to some baseline prior to the treaty. Some institutions might have well-defined goals and function efficiently—good performance—but if its goals are really easy to achieve and no real change happens, then it wouldn’t be effective. Other IOs might have very lofty goals that make measuring performance difficult, but they might still see environmental improvements—effectiveness—even though the performance of actors would technically be considered poor.

The UNCCD, like most international environmental institutions, finds itself in the middle ground of good performance and effectiveness. Its goals are somewhat lofty and not very clearly defined, but some actors have made positive changes in their behavior. The UNCCD has definitely succeeded in raising awareness about desertification and helping the international community to understand the global importance of the issue, bringing it to the center of international development policymaking through the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. However, the UNCCD still faces participatory gaps from both developed and developing nations. These gaps, caused primarily by interest diversity and organizational weakness, are the biggest challenge to the institutional governance of the UNCCD. Both developed countries and developing, desertification-affected countries lack clear instructions for how to meet the treaty obligations. For developed countries, it’s unclear how much financial and technical assistance they should provide. And for developing, desertification-affected countries, national action plans are rarely integrated properly into national policy, and they face many challenges to proper implementation. Now that land degradation is a central development goal, the international community will have to ensure that the constantly widening network of actors does not inhibit a coordinated global strategy. The UNCCD is constantly evolving, and hopefully, it will continue to make positive changes to strengthen its own capacity as a treaty and continue to become a more effective tool for the international governance of desertification and land degradation. 

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