The North/South Knowledge Divide Consequences for Multilayered Environmental Governance

The North/South Knowledge Divide Consequences for Multilayered Environmental Governance

The North/South Knowledge Divide—Consequences for Multilayered Environmental Governance

Dr. Sylvia Karlsson[1]

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Walter-Flex-Str. 3

D-53113 Bonn




Many natural scientists would claim that the degree of knowledge and understanding of any ecosystem, biome and particularly the Earth System as a whole, and how these systems are changed under human influence, is very limited. However, the degree of scientific knowledge is much more limited for systems in (sub)-tropical regions which mostly correspond with the region called the South.[2] This paper briefly outlines the character of the resulting knowledge divide between the North and South in the environmental issues area, not only for natural science but for scientific knowledge in general. It then discusses three types of consequences of this divide on governance at different governance levels. These governance levels all share their role in any efforts directed at facilitating more multilayered environmental governance. The first consequence is the risk of issues of the South being invisible on governance agendas. When there is limited or ‘not enough’ science to back an issue up, it will face substantial obstacles to enter agendas at the national and global level. The second consequence is that the scientific knowledge which feeds into governance of environmental concerns in the South may be inappropriate because it assumes that scientific knowledge generated in other climatic and ecological zones, in other socio-economic settings, is applicable for conditions in the South. The third consequence links to a discussion on lack of inclusion in governance. With science being such a strong legitimiser for contributing to decision-making for governance in the environment issue area, the knowledge divide contributes to the preclusion of the participation of stakeholders of the South on equal terms with those of the North. The paper concludes with a discussion on possible approaches to address the consequences of the divide on governance.

The knowledge divide

The unequal start that developing countries has had in developing scientific capacity in its universities and other institutions, is part of the path dependence in the state of the world’s academic community of the 20th and 21st century. This community is, by number of members, resources and scientific ‘production’, heavily dominated by the North. It is estimated that only five percent of the world’s scientific production comes from developing countries (International Development Research Centre, 1991). A World Bank official, acknowledging the growing science gap in the world expresses the situation in the following way:

“I see not just a gulf, but a yawning gulf, between the industrialized countries and the developing countries in terms of sheer numbers of scientists and engineers” (Serageldin, 1998:43).

A few examples suffice to illustrate the remaining dominance of Northern scientists, generally. In the early 1990s the IRDC reported that engineers and scientists from Africa, Latin America and Asia only represented 10 percent of the 4 million researchers in the world (International Development Research Centre, 1991). The number of scientists/engineers per capita in developing countries is on average 200 while developed countries on average have 2800 (Serageldin, 1998). The huge divergence is further illustrated if one looks at the extremes of such figures, the country with highest number of scientists and engineers is Japan with close to 5000, while the statistics from Senegal report only 3 per million population (Anonymous, 2001).[3] Nevertheless, by their mere size some of the large developing countries have significant number of scientists, such as India which now has the third-largest scientific manpower in the world (Kandlikar and Sagar, 1999:121).

In the field of the environment, the pattern of heavily skewed knowledge production towards the North is representative of this general picture.[4] The amount of basic research in biology, ecology, ecotoxicology etc. that has been carried out in the sub-tropical and tropical regions, is very small compared to research in the non-tropical latitudes, see e.g. (Bourdeau et al., 1989; Lacher and Goldstein, 1997). The North and its temperate and arctic ecosystems pose as the ‘normal’ or ‘standard’ type in the ecological sciences which is illustrated by the fact that textbooks in ecology are dominated by temperate examples (Pomeroy and Service, 1986). Yet, it could be reasonably argued that it is the ecology of the tropics that should be the ‘normal’ ecology as this is the environment in which it is likely that life evolved first before it migrated to more harsh climates.

The comparatively less amount of basic research in the environmental sciences in the South, and thus lower level of knowledge on the undisturbed or ‘natural’ functioning of the systems found there, is paralleled by the level of knowledge on environmental degradation and change. Without knowing the base-line it is not possible to identify and quantify change. This situation exists for locally confined environmental issues in the South, but also for local manifestations of present global environmental change, and even more for estimations of local manifestations of future global change. One UNEP report states:

“Almost all basic research and economic and policy analysis on global environmental issues is done in the North. Dissemination of findings is not widespread and their relevance for DCs [developing countries] is not assessed” (Gutman, 1994:390).

The size of the knowledge divide vary with the character of the issue and the methodologies and technology needed to gather knowledge. For example, the research on the presence and size of bird populations is more possible for scientists in developing countries to pursue than computer intensive research on climate change. On the specific issue of climate change, most Southern countries have “ coordinated national climate programmes, few climate researchers, and hardly any data to compute long-term climate projections” (Agarwal et al., 1999:31). One of the exceptions to this pattern is India, which has a community of climate researchers (Kandlikar and Sagar, 1999:126). However, the focus of this community has been almost exclusively on the impact of climate change on coastal zones and agriculture, and hardly any of the results has been published anywhere (Kandlikar and Sagar, 1999:122). There is a trend of increasing research in the South on climate change but “...there is a constant and continuous process of trying to ‘catch up’ with the others” (Gupta, 2000:117).

The divide is reflected in the relatively low participation of Southern scientists research endeavours on Global Environmental Change. In this specific research area there are three international programmes, the International Geosphere Biosphere Programme (IGBP), the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP), and the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) under the international scientific community’s sponsorship. The more natural science dominated programs, IGBP and WCRP has only a limited participation of scientists from the South (Kandlikar and Sagar, 1999:132) and the situation for the more social science dominated programme, IHDP, is similar.[5] The limited contribution to the body of scientific knowledge on global environmental issues from developing country scientists is not, however, only a reflection of the unequal research capacity, but it is a result of different research priorities. Environmental issues of more acute local importance are engaging scientists in developing countries (Biermann, 2001; Commission on Developing Countries and Global Change, 1992; Gupta, 2000).

The knowledge divide can be traced all through from basic environmental and social data, to monitoring of change, assessments and more comprehensive research of the human and social systems. Furthermore, it is not only recognised in the academic community but also among those who use environmental knowledge in their work with addressing these issues. The UNEP Global Environmental Outlook project has had a Data Working Group which concluded that the “[m]onitoring and data collection infrastructure of most developing countries is severely handicapped or non-existent...” (United Nations System-Wide Earthwatch, 2000). Some regions are more poorly covered in monitoring programmes then others. In the are of water quality, for example, Africa has the lowest level of monitoring and this makes assessments difficult (WHO/UNEP, 1991). Another UN report stress that even in the industrialised countries, data is often too limited or too disparate to be usable, but in developing countries “...even the most basic statistics are often lacking” (United Nations Economic and Social Council, 2001:II.9). In the year 2000 the International Expert Meeting on Information for Decision-making and Participation discussed key issues in Agenda 21 regarding this theme and acknowledged the “great differences” in the availability of primary data relevant for sustainable development between regions and countries in different stages of development (United Nations System-Wide Earthwatch, 2000:II.7).

It is important to note that the knowledge divide that is discussed here concerns scientific knowledge, which signifies knowledge about the environment and human interaction with that environment which has been incorporated into that sphere of knowledge which is generated largely within the wall of the academic world, and has its outlets primarily in international peer reviewed journals. Because of this focus the knowledge divide appears greater than it is. Firstly, there is a lot of good science made in the South which never reaches the international science arena. Many, specially younger, researchers in the South publish in local journals, particularly in the field of agriculture, silviculture and aquaculture (International Development Research Centre, 1991). In many cases the language barrier hinders scientists from publishing in international journals and they are confined to the domestic or regional science community. Secondly, there is a lot of knowledge generated by agencies, domestic and foreign, governmental and non-governmental, who work directly with the environmental management and sustainable development. Their knowledge usually stays in more or less official reports and never reaches the scientific journals. Those who work in these areas even if they have an academic background, seldom go back to that community to write up their results for the academic audience. Thirdly, the divide may look differently were we to include the ‘non-scientific’ knowledge. Local and traditional knowledge of species and ecosystems is harboured in oral traditions of people who live in close interaction with those ecosystems. Likewise would those people who suffer the consequences of e.g. indoor air pollution or water pollution know more about suffering from environmental degradation than any scientist who gather statistics on disease prevalence. On the other hand, the knowledge divide would still remain in the fields relating to aspects life in the era where modernity exerts its impacts on the environment. No local population would have had generations, experience and the methodology, to build up knowledge of the largely invisible pollutants, such as organic chemicals and heavy metals, which enter their environment and food chain. They would not be able to connect cases of cancer in their families with e.g. pesticide exposure 20 years earlier.

A clear expression of the knowledge divide is its manifestation in international scientific advisory processes. Such processes range from intergovernmental expert bodies like IPCC via ad hoc expert groups to various Convention negotiations or more general deliberations to global assessments on the state of environmental knowledge. (UNEP, 2000). Even in institutions designed to be ‘global’, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there is an enormous disparity in North-South participation, obvious from participants in the IPCC Second Assessment Report (Agarwal, Narain, and Sharma, 1999). It is when discussing these scientific advisory process that we come closer to the issue of the inflow and application of scientific knowledge in governance processes at the global level. It is these governance processes and the potential consequences of the North/South knowledge divide which the next section will address.

Consequences for multilayered environmental governance

The knowledge divide between North and South regarding environmental issues which was described in the previous section could, if we take the historical perspective into account, be described as situation when science itself is colonised. We could talk about ‘colonised science’. This concept becomes all the more appropriate in the situation when those who have the resources and intellectual legacy to dominate the international science scene fail to acknowledge the unequal contribution to the body of scientific knowledge from a large section of the world. When the knowledge divide is confined to the scientific realm, the result may be classified as just a phase of the scientific process, of knowledge gaps that remains to be filled. But when the science of the natural world, and of human interaction with this natural world, is entering the policy process for environmental governance both at global and lower levels, it should be of significant interest to explore possible consequences of the knowledge divide on governance.

Science and policy—science and governance—have a specially strong interrelationship in the field of environmental issues in most modern decision-making contexts. The UN Secretary-General concludes in a report to the Commission on Sustainable Development that “...the role of science is evident in all advances that have been made towards sustainable development” (United Nations Economic and Social Council, 1997). Policy makers put strong faith in particularly natural science and its experts to discover environmental threats, interpret the consequences and even suggest policy options. At the global governance level this is illustrated by the fact that “...scientists represent the only members of civil society to be consistently asked to advice government representatives” (UNEP, 2000:13). In a study on the issue of pesticide governance I showed that across all governance levels natural science and expertise have a significant influence as trusted, authoritative sources of knowledge (Karlsson, 2000).

Governance to address both the various types of global environmental change, as well as more locally confined environmental degradation increasingly takes place at all governance levels, local, national and global. To be effective, these efforts of governance need to be mutually supportive, building on co-operation and co-ordination not only within one governance level but across all governance levels, resulting in a system of ‘multilayered environmental governance’ (Karlsson, 2000). This is the reason I look at the consequences of the knowledge divide across governance levels. I have divided the consequences into three broad categories and will discuss them one by one, but there are obviously close connections between them.

Invisible issues of the South in global governance

The first consequence of the North/South knowledge divide which I discuss here is concerned with the global governance level. Global governance involves both the creation of Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs), and more informal Declarations and soft law developed by IGOs independently or in collaboration with civil society. Many argue that the type of environmental issues which are addressed by governance at the global level tend to be those on the priority agenda of Northern countries (Agarwal, Narain, and Sharma, 1999; Gutman, 1994). It is normally issues of ‘global character’ which are addressed at this governance level. Redclift (1998:500) claims that for many commentators in the South “...the GEC agenda is essentially a Northern agenda, of little relevance to them” as they “...identify issues other than climate change, ozone depletion and biodiversity, and do so in a way that emphasizes other aspects of globalization”. The parallel argument is then that environmental issues which the South prioritise are more invisible on the global agenda. The Commission on Developing Countries and Global Change which finished its report in the early 1990s stated that the current agenda is dominated by the North, and it is necessary for “...Southern thinking must be clearly integrated into the global agenda on environment and development”(Commission on Developing Countries and Global Change, 1992:13). According to the Commission:

“From a Third World perspective, the development crisis and the environmental crisis in fact constitute a single social-ecological crisis—the most pressing challenge of our times” (Commission on Developing Countries and Global Change, 1992:18).

This invisibility of Southern prioritised environmental issues can naturally be linked to the common explanation of the North/South power gradient of governments, those in power set the agenda. Nevertheless, I argue that this power gradient is at least strengthened by the knowledge divide, and by some analysts it is clearly expressed in the language of science. Kandlikar views the international community, dominated by experts from the North, as being “...often disconnected from the particular needs, realities and interests of LICs” (Kandlikar and Sagar, 1999:130).[6] It is difficult for the South to put up science based arguments for alternative issues to prioritise, as it (the South) “ unable to express its environmental priorities or assess the costs and benefits of the international environmental agenda put forward by the North” (Gutman, 1994:390). Agarwal comments the power of the scientific discourse in setting the agenda, and how that handicaps the South, thus:

“...the focus on science can easily divert attention from problems that have a focus in other issues like poverty. A science-based environmental agenda is more likely to be an agenda determined by the science-rich North, which can neglect the environmental concerns of the poor nations.” (Agarwal, Narain, and Sharma, 1999:5).

Agarwal here makes the usual limitation of defining scientists as natural scientists, in this case environmental scientists, while it is merely scientists of different disciplines who have “other issues like poverty” as the subject of their concern. Describing the influence of the North on the development of an international agreement on the ozone problem, Yearly states:

“They knew the globe had a problem and they knew what was needed; they did not involve the rest of the world in coming up with an answer... Using the privilege of its expert knowledge of the situation, the North effectively drew up the rules of the negotiation game” (Yearley, 1996b:116).