Exploring the IPBES’s Work on Capacity Building

An ongoing loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystems can be observed globally. In order for political decisions to be based on the best available knowledge which takes into account the complex interactions between biodiversity, ecosystem services and society, the call for an intergovernmental and independent body increased over the years. As a result, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services IPBES was established in 2012. In a recently published paper, Gustafsson et al. (2020) examine the IPBES’s work on capacity building. To that end, the study focuses on three dimensions of the organization’s work. First, the IPBES’s general strategy for capacity building is analyzed. Next, the authors inspect the IPBES’s fellowship programme. Finally, they explore to what extent there are additional capacity building needs that may need to be addressed by the IPBES.

The IPBES was established in order to provide scientific information on biodiversity and ecosystems to governments, multilateral environmental agreements, UN institutions and other relevant decision makers. In other words, the IPBES aims at strengthening the science-policy interface in the context of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Four central functions were defined for the IPBES: assessment, policy support, capacity building, and knowledge and data. Gustafsson et al. (2020) focus on the third of the four functions. Using interviews, participant observation and official IPBES documents, the authors illustrate current capacity building approaches and identify gaps and shortcomings.

The four functions of the IPBES (illustration by Brainich, 2016).

Capacity building can be seen as a goal in and of itself or as a means by which individuals or groups are empowered. In a very general sense, capacity building describes the process of enhancing individual skills or strengthening the competence of an organization to undertake specific tasks. In the context of the IPBES, Gustafsson et al. (2020) suggest that capacity building could actively contribute to shape relations and organizational structures of the science-policy interface.

The IPBES’s strategy on capacity building is summarized in a capacity building rolling plan. Capacity building is understood as enabling knowledge assessments, conceptual and methodological competence, as well as knowledge communication and self-reflexivity. Three strategies for capacity building are outlined. While the first strategy focuses on the development of skills and experience at the individual level to create a pool of competent professionals, the second and third strategies primarily focus on capacity building outside of the organizational boundaries of the IPBES on community and national levels respectiveley.

After giving an overview of the IPBES’s work on capacity building, Gustafsson et al. (2020) discuss the key findings with regard to what capacity has been built and what capacities still need to be built. Amongst other aspects, they focus on the fellowship programme. They argue that a lack of guidance concerning the operationalization of the general goal of the programme has resulted in a situation where the specific capacity outcomes are individually decided on by the fellows themselves instead of being steered by IPBES. While this autonomy allows for individual development and empowerment, the fellowship programme risks not meeting the capacity building needs that have been originally identified. Gustafsson et al. (2020) suggest that by setting the boundaries for capacity building through bureaucratic structures, the IPBES can take stronger control over the capacity building process.

Gustafsson et al. (2020) further highlight that by focusing capacity building efforts on the science side of the science-policy interface, the IPBES neglected the policy side of the interface. To support effective and legitimate science-policy relations through capacity building, the authors recommend to not solely focus on the (co)production of assessments. Rather, they argue that to support policy processes to reflect on the implications of assessments and the translation of their findings into locally appropriate terms is crucial to reunite the science and policy sides of the interface.

The authors conclude by emphasizing that the study’s findings are relevant beyond IPBES itself: intergovernmental expert organizations such as IPBES are not neutral social spaces in which science and policy meet, interact, and work together. Rather, the organizational structure of such expert organizations sets preconditions for how science and policy are able to interact on a broader scale. Thus, Gustafsson et al. (2020) argue, that as the IPBES grows in importance, its capacity building activities will contribute to the shaping of science-policy relations in the environmental domain beyond the organization’s boundaries.

Read the full paper by Gustafsson et al. (2020) here.

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