How can we achieve a society that takes better care of the planet? A tentative answer arose from the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro: “Environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level”. This new way of exercising power and managing the planet is known by the name of “governance”. (1).
Governance is based on the recognition of the importance of civil society and of non-State players. It gives attention to incorporating these in the management and collective decision-making process, and monitoring of this process.
Governance: several meanings
The term is actually vague, with many definitions. In France, it was used in pre-Revolutionary times, and faded out of common usage until early 20th-century economists used it to describe cooperation and partnership patterns within businesses. Only recently did the word come to apply to changes in the manner of governing, at both local and international levels.
By extension, governance came to mean the best way to manage public or private affairs; this is the meaning favoured by large international institutions. The World Bank defines governance as the “traditions and institutions by which authority in a country is exercised for the common good. This includes (i) the process by which those in authority are selected, monitored and replaced, (ii) the capacity of the government to effectively manage its resources and implement sound policies, and (iii) the respect of citizens and the state for the institutions that govern economic and social interactions among them”. (3)
Democracy and participation
Governance corresponds to a form or a derivative of the democratic model of institutions, which is commonly believed to foster improved management.
Governance owes its success to several factors: the involvement of local players; needs assessment; raising awareness among the population; consulting citizens; and cooperative planning and decision-making at the grassroots level.
One of the most successful examples of governance is the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil (population 1.3 million). Since 1988, citizens have drawn up the municipal budget. Among other outcomes, this has led to the appearance of schools and bus lines in neighbourhoods habitually neglected by the authorities.
The governance experience was expanded via Agenda 21, arising from the Rio Summit in 1992. In this program, municipalities carry out needs assessments and set up task forces to deal with such issues as transportation and housing. They then survey citizens on their needs and elicit their suggestions, in keeping with sustainable development. In certain situations, citizens may participate and express themselves in public meetings; in other cases, they may vote in a consultative referendum. In Europe, however, these measures are still limited to small municipalities. For example, Morsang-sur-Orge, in Essonne, France, implemented a participatory budget pilot project; the population is under 20,000. (5)
Governance can be assessed through such criteria as respect for the rule of law; transparency of public actions; quality and effectiveness of administrations; the country’s trade balance; and level of corruption. All these parameters are intended to encourage more effective public management. (6)
The fight against corruption, for example, is an indicator of socio-economic development. It can have a direct impact on the environment, as can be seen in the many reported cases of hazardous waste trafficking, an illegal activity that is made possible only by corruption and which endangers local populations. [Fiche déchets]
Governance can be local, regional, national and even international. International governance involves international cooperation on major global issues such as climate change, peace, and biodiversity. It involves countries, international institutions, multinationals, and NGOs that gather at large international summits.
Limitations of participatory endeavours
Governance is not a miracle solution, but rather a decision-making method anchored within a given region. It is only possible under certain conditions: there must be democracy, a clearly-defined field of action, and a basis of common values.
Governance presupposes teamwork and even joint decision-making, but does not clearly define where decision-making authority lies and who must assume it. Balance must be found on a case-by-case basis, and a period of learning and adjustment is necessary.
Experience shows that many participatory endeavours have not extensively involved the public. Generally, some members are more active than others – for varying reasons – but they do not represent the population as a whole.
Another identified risk is that participatory endeavours may trigger the NIMBY reflex – “not in my back yard”. In this scenario, citizens refuse to endorse projects they perceive as being damaging at a local level, even if they are for the general good (such as building a recycling plant or a wind turbine).
Finally, governance measures can be abused to give an appearance of legitimacy to public actions. In these cases, citizens are merely asked for their opinions on, and approval of, projects that are already underway and which are difficult if not impossible to halt given the costs involved.
Although governance is grounded in good intentions – exercising power for the good of all – it comes up against conflicts of interest that are ubiquitous in political life. The “philosopher prince”, leading his country in wisdom, is still the exception to the rule, as is good governance. Many even consider it a failure, given the fact that national and international institutions so rarely manage to come to a consensus on global issues, and even more rarely bring proposed solutions to fruition.
(2) P179-180, Yvette Veyret, Dictionnaire de l’environnement, définitons gouvernance et gouvernance locale, Armand Collin
(3) Wolrd bank
(6) p74 à 77, chapitre Governance, Collins Atlas of global Issue, (wolrd bank)