After losing 2020 to the pandemic, environmental negotiations are expected to have a hyper year in 2021. Several high-profile meetings on climate, biodiversity, desertification, wetlands, mercury, and others were postponed from 2020 to 2021. The G7 and G20 are expecting high-profile summits as well. Writers have increased the call for world leaders to make bigger and bolder commitments, even as environmental activists tire of the bla bla, and experts warn of bullshit. It might appear as though all that is keeping us from significant climate or environmental achievements is the boldness, vision, commitment to evidence by leaders that attend these negotiations. But there may be an overlooked factor.

It’s not just the leaders

Beyond the bla-bla and the bullshit, have we accounted for the roles played by secretariats of environmental treaties? Typically, the political and high-level decision-making in a treaty or a multilateral organization is done by representatives of member states. These representatives tend to be career politicians or diplomats with full-time jobs in their home countries. But these treaties and organizations also establish secretariats staffed by international civil servants to professionally manage the day-to-day functions.

Take for example, the Green Climate Fund, where I work. According to the Governing Instrument for the fund, the secretariat is “responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Fund, providing administrative, legal and financial expertise.” Or take the case of two overarching international conventions (treaties) whose members have high-profile meetings this year to confirm respective global commitments or plans. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has established a secretariat that “provides technical expertise and assists in the analysis and review of climate change information.” The secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity was established “to prepare for, and service, meetings.”

While the secretariats of treaties are responsible for technical expertise and operations, the general assumption is that these are completely neutral roles, even passive or inconsequential. It might seem as though the tasks of secretariats are simply to prepare meeting documents and synthesize information. But policy experts are increasingly recognizing the role of secretariats in the actual direction of decision-making.

Staff of secretariats have a high ability to influence the outcomes of decisions, according to new research. (Disclosure: I did my PhD research with members of this group of researchers, but I have no connection whatsoever with this particular research.) In this case, the researchers looked at the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, a bi-national commission made up of representatives of the United States and Canada. They found that the commission enjoys a high degree of trust and strong position in the networks of national and federal policy-makers. “The results demonstrate a high ability of treaty secretariat to influence the management decisions of federal and state/provincial agencies,” write the authors in the paper, which was published in September 2020.

This isn’t unexpected. There is plenty of evidence that bureaucrats have influence. But things can be complex in trying to quantify universally how much influence and on what exactly. Research has shown that the degree of influence depends on several factors, including: area and level of expertise, entrepreneurial activities, structure of administration, and stage of the policy-making.

Overall, this influence seems to work to the advantage of the treaty. According to researchers at Griffith University, Brisbane, secretariat of the World Trade Organization can play a critical role in achievement of its goals. The secretariat of the UNFCCC has been the subject of interest for many researchers, who have generally found its influence to be quite positive. Social scientists have found that the secretariat has “has gradually loosened its straitjacket and expanded its original spectrum of activity by engaging different sub-national and non-state actors into a policy dialogue.” Yet another group of researchers based in Germany demonstrated that this secretariat is increasingly taking on the role of a knowledge broker and connecting various actors, which will be important for the implementation of the Paris Agreement.

What to do, then?

Such roles are not highly visible from the outside, however. I am not going to make the claim that all that is keeping us from solving the world’s challenges is the temerity of the international civil servants. But everything counts in this time of hyper action. We could take a number of actions to use this under-acknowledged but important factor behind the success of multilateral systems.

First, we would need to explicitly acknowledge the crucial role played by secretariats. This would entail a clear assessment (both in the peer-reviewed literature as well as in evaluative evidence) of the degree of influence that secretariat staff exercise on the outcome of decision-making processes. Second, this acknowledgment and evidence could inform the way we recruit and design jobs. The extent to which this informs recruitment currently is not clear. But it is illustrative that the UN job portal highlights three values: integrity, professionalism, and respect for diversity. While these are noble qualities, this does not explicitly account for the responsibility for outcomes.

Thirdly and importantly, the acknowledgement of the role of secretariats could also reflect in capacity and accountability. Generally speaking, international organizations maintain high standards of integrity. But if indeed international bureaucrats do influence success of their organizations, perhaps the success of their careers could be measured not just by the efficiency or number of meetings (timeliness and clarity of information, for example), but by the impact or quality of the decisions. This would give the staff a bigger and more explicit stake in the success of the organizations they serve. In turn this would also require giving them the tools for their organization to succeed, while also making them accountable for this success.

After all, if we expect international organizations to consider moonshot approaches or for the secretariats to have delegated authority to make decisions, rethinking the role of the staff of these organizations could be worthwhile. If this really is the hyper year for international commitments on environment, every last bit is important. And better accountability may be worth the effort.

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Archi Rastogi
Archi Rastogi, PhD, is an evaluation specialist at the Independent Evaluation Unit of the Green Climate Fund. He has worked in media, academia, non-profits, multilaterals, and consulting. Views are personal and do not represent the organization.

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