Science - January 20, 2010

How do we solve this dilemma?

The university's policy specialists are set to combine their research efforts in the Wageningen Centre of Governance. Their studies look at the management of complex social questions, ranging from international problems to issues in our own back yard.

Representatives of an environmental organization are carried out of the conference hall during the climate summit in Copenhagen.
From time to time, heads of government meet up to conclude global treaties, as they did last month in Copenhagen. Such treaties have few practical consequences even if they do manage to reach an agreement. Usually it turns out four years later that the targets have not been met.
The international forestry policy under the auspices of the UN did not produce many results either, says Bas Arts, professor of Forest and Nature Conservation and one of the initiators of the Wageningen Centre of Governance. Governments have been trying to set up a binding international treaty combating deforestation since the eighties, but their efforts have always ended in failure because of the conflicts of interest. Frustrated by the lack of an agreement, in 1993 NGOs like the World Wildlife Fund and companies in the timber industry set up an organization for sustainable forestry management: the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). If forestry owners comply with ten sustainability principles, they are awarded the FSC certificate. It is a big success, says Arts. Worldwide there are now more than one hundred million hectares of forest with an FSC certificate.
Private organizations have now also taken the lead in the fisheries sector with the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and its certificate. And in climate policy the trade in emissions is now part of international policy due to the influence of businesses and NGOs in the United States.
Control
Market parties and interest groups have seized control in this area from governments. This trend can also be seen at the national level. Farmers are setting up environmental cooperatives in order to create more nature than is laid down in the regulations for nature management in agriculture. And farming and nature organizations made an agreement with the supermarkets to end the castration of pigs. Here too it is the market that is responsible for organizing and financing the initiatives while government looks on.
The days are gone when governments could push through all kinds of measures without support from stakeholders. That is why summit conferences like that in Copenhagen need to be set up differently, argued Hans Hoogeveen two weeks ago when receiving his doctorate in Wageningen for Sustainable development diplomacy. The UN should renounce the illusion that it can regulate the behaviour of member states down to the last detail. It would do better to set general targets and allow regions the room to specify those targets in more detail, says Hoogeveen. Hoogeveen's advice to businesses and NGOs is that they would do better to join the negotiations rather than trying to influence the heads of government from the conference sidelines, as they do now,  They are capable of coming up with practical solutions for global problems.
Hoogeveen speaks from experience. Between 1997 and 2005 he was involved in the negotiations for an international forestry treaty and in 2007 he chaired the United Nations Forum on Forests, which aimed to draw up global agreements to reduce deforestation. He draws lessons from that period in his dissertation. He thinks UN organizations should concentrate on structuring the debate. They should decide which sets of related problems should be discussed, who should be discussing them and at what level (global, regional or national), and which instruments are required to tackle the problems. Hoogeveen calls this the 'portfolio approach'. Hoogeveen applied this approach with success during the realization of a forestry treaty (which was not binding) in 2007.
Interest groups
Hoogeveen, whose 'day job' is as Director General at the Ministry of Agriculture, has done his bit for governance studies with his PhD thesis. Governance is a new term that covers more than the traditional administrative sciences as it looks not just at the public sector but also at interest groups. It is particularly interested in the interaction between the public sector, the private sector and citizens in turning policy into practice.  This often provides evidence that government cannot leave policy entirely to market forces; instead, it needs to come up with complementary controls.  The Wageningen governance institute aims to respond to that need. To begin with it is combining the research taking place within three Chair Groups: the Public Administration and Policy Group, the Forest and Nature Conservation Policy Group and the Environmental Policy Group. ‘It is a means of providing guidance: showing who does what’, says one of the initiators, Ingrid Visseren. That is done through the website www.governance.wur.nl, where the centre provides information for students, researchers and organizations interested in commissioning research. Researchers in other Wageningen groups can join if they wish.
It is difficult to say how many Wageningeners are working in the field of governance. At least one hundred, thinks Arts, spread over various chair groups and institutes. 'I work at the Landscape Centre and about ten per cent of the people there are working on governance issues.' The clustering will enable the participants to coordinate their research, says Arts. 'That will make us an interesting partner for governance projects for the EU and the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research.' 
Many public bodies are wrestling with the question of how they should steer things in order to realize policy objectives. Visseren, a researcher in the Forest and Nature Conservation Group, carried out extensive research into the contribution of certification, such as FSC wood, to sustainable development. She is aware of the positive examples of wood, fish and soya, where private initiatives put sustainability into practice. But she also says: 'Those certification systems have led to a wide range of logos, which often compete with each other. Consumers often no longer see the wood for the trees. And all those international targets are still not being achieved.'
Visseren came across a current example concerning sustainable food in the newspaper Trouw. Who is going to make sure that more Dutch people buy free-range meat, organic vegetables and fair-trade products? The market, says Minister Verburg, pointing to a covenant in which supermarkets, agricultural organizations and the Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals have agreed to ensure an annual increase in sales of sustainable food of fifteen per cent. However the market leader Albert Heijn announced that the market players were not succeeding in their efforts to sell more sustainable food. Government would have to introduce additional regulations in order to force a breakthrough.
Visseren: 'Government can ban abuses in livestock farming such as veal crates and battery hens, but are they also able to promote products carrying the strictest certificates through subsidies and tax products without a certificate? That is a very sensitive subject in the food industry, and the WTO (World Trade Organization) will be reluctant to accept such an approach. The ultimate question for me as a scientist is: what role do market mechanisms play in achieving sustainable development?'
Emancipated citizens also have a role to play in the governance concept. They get the right to a say and that can lead to good examples of public support and tailored solutions in the implementation of government policy, says Gerard Breeman of the Public Administration and Policy Group. He points to the creation of the Roombeek district in Enschede after the fireworks disaster, where government worked with local residents to come up with a new design for the district. 'That was a successful process as it also helped people to deal with the disaster.'

Distrust
But citizen participation can also go horribly wrong, says Breeman. He and his colleagues studied the discussions about the livestock mega-barns in Grubbenvorst, a town in the province of Limburg. The municipality had the task of administrating the national policy of concentrating intensive livestock farming in particular areas, says Breeman. It gave local people, who feared for their health and the local environment, a considerable say in the matter and carried out studies to determine whether their fears were justified. However the municipality was stuck between national interests and local interests. As the number of studies increased, so did the opponents' mistrust of the livestock mega-barns, explains Breeman.
The same issue has now arisen in the province of Brabant; the province is dealing with a citizens' initiative opposing the mega-barns by organizing information evenings, an Internet discussion and a debate between experts. The farming daily, Agrarisch Dagblad, summarized the discussion last week with 'Mega-barn debate only raises more questions'.
'Municipalities are facing a fiendish dilemma', says Breeman. 'Concentrating barns in one area has a positive effect at the regional level but the effect at the local level is negative. As their task is to administer national policy, they have no choice but to bite the bullet and get on with implementing that policy. Giving citizens a say does more harm than good because you give people the impression they will be able to steer the implementation. On the other hand, they are the voters. From the point of view of democracy it is a good thing that citizens can decide what happens to their own area.'
Another tricky governance issue for the Wageningen Centre of Governance.

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