Newsletter No 3 October 2012

Sustainability partnerships critically analysed

epa1Since their endorsement by the UN in 2002, partnerships have become mainstream and widespread in environmental governance. Despite their marginal success, they remain popular instruments of governance. Why is this the case? A historical, discursive study explores these new, hybrid governance mechanisms and the logics of the UN’s partnerships regime.

Research and Publication

The research was conducted at IVM since 2006, in the framework of the PARTNERS project funded by the NWO research programme on Shifts in Governance. The resulting dissertation, titled Governance after Nature at ‘the End of History’: A discourse theoretical study on sustainability partnerships, will also be published by Edward Elgar in 2013 under the title Environmental Governance through Partnerships: A discourse theoretical study. Employing a critical methodology that combines post-structuralist discourse theory and ecocriticism, the dissertation focuses on UN CSD partnerships and the discourses that settled into the logics of these institutions. Specifically, the discourses of privatisation, sustainable development, and democratic participation are examined and contextualized into globalization, and the recent crises in ecology and economics. This opens up new debates about justice, legitimacy and democracy in global governance.

Main Conclusionsepa_nieuw

Partnerships are not necessarily environmentally friendly or benevolent institutions. Through their various goals and sub-projects they transform discourses of environmental governance. Furthermore, the CSD’s weak mandate results in several lacunae in the UN partnership regime,
allowing for new actors, policies, institutional models and technologies to become legitimate in the UN context. An individual partnership might help better implementation, enable broader social involvement and provide efficient management. However, the aggregate effect of the huge profusion of
partnerships we have today is not a sustainable planet.

More specific conclusions of the thesis are on the discourses of privatisation of governance (1-4); sustainable development (5-7); and participatory democracy (8-10):


1. While international negotiations of new treaties have failed for over a decade, new governance mechanisms are increasingly characterised by voluntary and unbinding sets of rules outside of legal system. With this shift the role of public, democratically controlled law is diminished.

2. Voluntary, unmonitored arrangements make failures difficult to detect and responsibility so diffused that no party can be held accountable.

3. Narratives of globalisation consolidate homogenisation in global financial governance, since the invention of partnerships as a business ownership model with limited liability. Although state actors lost power to global capital markets, the international state system copes with the market order by inventing new forms of legality in line with the dominant narratives of globalisation such as partnerships.

4. Implications of privatisation for actors: Fragmentation and deregulation of social/ environmental governance allows for state actors to maintain some degree of control over their economies. As market failures are often regarded as inevitable results of globalisation, they appear as ‘state failures’. In this process, social influence of the corporation is consolidated as it becomes a legitimate stakeholder in global politics, and mediates between hypermobile capital and public sphere.

5. Since the conceptualisation of ‘sustainable development’ in 1987, the ecological ceased to be the negation of the capitalist logic. Environmental values have been redefined by the hegemonic discourse of developmentalism.

6. Managerial approaches to environment standardised and objectified issues that are of political nature. Thus, narratives of voluntarism, expertise, and win-win situations negated eco-politics.

7. At the international level, environmental conservation has become a part of official development aid, which has been instrumental in establishing the hegemony of industrialism, modernisation and development. Through ODA, environmental principles defined strictly within the confines of these hegemonic discourses were introduced to the recipient societies.

8. The Rio Summit opened the space for the participation of previously unrepresented groups in governance platforms. The civil society was invited to join certain UN platforms, such as the CSD, in the form of major groups. However, the radical potential of civil action was transformed into the restrictive and ambiguous end goal of sustainable development, which greatly limited their participation, and chances of contesting and exerting power.

9. The categorisation of civil society into major groups coincides with the conception of partnerships in the UN texts, wherein they are associated with the participation of social groups, democratisation, and inclusiveness. However partnerships quickly became institutions of the status quo, replicating earlier social exclusions, especially because they were defined as implementation mechanisms at the Johannesburg Summit. Thus partnerships are regarded by most environmental NGOs as co-option mechanisms. Responses to this counter-productivity are manifest in the demands for alternative rules for global governance, as well as the reluctance of certain social groups in joining partnerships.

10. Participation has become an integral part of the developmentalism, without being able to remedy the democratic deficit in global governance.

Contact:  Ayşem Mert