Reviewing a complex interface like IPBES – decision needed

IPBES-5 will see the decision about how to review the “effectiveness” of IPBES – or in the words of the work programme: Deliverable 4(e).

If and how to do that had been subject already to IPBES-3 und -4 where it was discussed with quite some intensity, but not coming to a decision. Due to that non-decision, the original intention to have a (smaller) mid-term review this year and a final one in two years was boiled down to a proposal of one review starting now at IPBES-5 with two elements: an internal and an external review (see Document IPBES/5/11).

The internal one would be conducted by the Chair, Co-chairs and some more members from the MEP and the secretariat until the next plenary, so in one year. It would be based on internal experiences, documents and an extensive questionnaire to experts involved in IPBES activities. The draft questionnaire is annexed in document 5/11 and shows how vast such a review can be when it needs to cover IPBES’ functions, objectives expert groups and task forces etc. Such an internal review can of course not be independent – it is a self-evaluation (and it might be more honest to call it like that).

Thus, in order for such a review to be acceptable for member states and observers, such an internal review must be complemented by an external one by external experts selected independently from existing IPBES structures like bureau, MEP and secretariat. For that, a process is proposed that

  • Asks for nominations from governments and stakeholders for a 10-member review panel (from science, governments and stakeholders)

  • The panel would be selected either via the MEP and Bureau or by a selection panel from the plenary (the latter would ensure a higher level of independence,and thus was clearly favoured by the stakeholder participating at the stakeholder day on Monday)

  • The panel would be supported either by an administrative support from an independent organisation (which would need to apply as well) or by a person in the secretariat (again, the first option would ensure higher independence and thus should be favoured according to stakeholder discussions)

  • The panel would work for the next 2 years and present its results at IPBES-7 in 2019. It would be allowed to make use of the internal review. The questionnaire would be expanded for this to all stakeholders and governments. Also the panel would be allowed to use available literature on IPBES (which needs to be made more explicit in the document though), the questionnaire results and would also be allowed to conduct own interviews and a focus group meeting (a workshop group format from social sciences allowing to jointly discuss perceptions of / experience with something – in this case IPBES)

  • All this will be subject to quite limited resources (the review may only cost 200.000 USD, a rather low number compared to the overall budget and complexity of IPBES)

While such a group and the process described are a major step forward in the discussions on the review, challenges remain: As said, the external review should be as external and thus independent as possible and not linked to the bodies of IPBES, besides having its members as interview partners and resource persons for questions. Also, the rather vague term of “effectiveness” of the platform would need to be defined in a way that is reasonable for the review process itself but of course also in a way that the review in fact can substantially inform the decisions on a new work programme.

And here comes another pitfall of the current draft: The proposed timelines do not match. Right now, the review would be finished and presented at IPBES-7 in 2019 – at the very same plenary that would already decide on the new work programme as proposed in document 5/12 so far. This does not match: The review insights should already be taken into account in the drafting of the work programme proposal, so this would need the review to be ready a year before the final decision on the new work programme. Otherwise it will mainly be work for the (digital) shelf, which would be a pity given that IPBES has design elements which are new to such multilateral bodies and is already subject to a growing number of substantial (and some less substantial) academic papers.

The discussions in the coming days will see whether a substantial review process awakes and whether it is timed in a way that IPBES really can profit from it. Right now, there remain some questionmarks.

Initial statements on this item in the plenary on the second day of IPBES-5 have not solved these issues, but rather opened an even broader discussion with even more open questions. This has led IPBES chair Sir Robert Watson to conclude that a contact group should be established discussing these in greater detail and focussing mainly on the following aspects: 1. Timing of the review, 2. Need for an internal review, 3. Selection and coordination of the external review panel, and 4. The proposed questionnaire. Following, the major viewpoints expressed on these aspects are summarized.

1. Timing of the review

Specifically, concerns about the timing of the review were raised by several member states with the suggestion being raised to postpone the review for at least one year (until the next plenary). However, the reasons presented greatly varied. Among others the view was expressed that the review was premature seen the still early stage of IPBES. It was also considered to be too early to review the (ongoing) assessments. Furthermore, concerns about budget restraints were expressed that currently would not allow for a thorough external review.

By contrast to this idea of postponing the review, inconsistencies of timing between the review and the establishment of the 2nd work programme have been pointed out, thus requiring the review to start now and instead to postpone the launch of the 2nd work programme to 2020 in order to enable to feed in the results of the review.

2. Need for an internal review

In light of the goal to conduct an unbiased, independent and efficient review, the necessity and usefulness of an external review has been widely embraced (despite concerns expressed regarding capacity and budget). By contrast, the need for an additional internal review was questioned by some participants, while others objected that internal reviews can effectively provide complementary insights (with very little budget required).

3. Selection and coordination of the external review

Statements on the selection and coordination of the external review panel mirrored a rather pragmatic view. While the majority of views seemed to be in favour of an external selection committee, at the same time this was considered not feasible to be put in place in the scope of IPBES-5 for reasons of time constraints.

Furthermore, the question of coordination of the external review panel appeared to be largely a question of budget, i.e. it might be unlikely to find an external organisation to take over this task with the budget at hand. Thus, many favoured recruiting an administrative officer, who would not report to the secretariat, but to the external review panel only.

4. Questionnaire

With regard to the draft questionnaire presented in document 5/11 it was highlighted that this is just one element of the whole review process and that it would also require considerable further work with regard to its format, content and procedure. Building on this, IPBES chair Sir Robert Watson suggested to allow for written comments from governments within the next two weeks, which may then be incorporated by the IPBES bureau into a consolidated version of the questionnaire.

What remains clear from this first round of discussions is that a lot of open questions need to be addressed in the responsible contact group in the scope of the ongoing IPBES-5 plenary – and surely also beyond that …

Article by Carsten Neßhöver und Marianne Darbi (NeFo)