Main Challenges of UNCCD combating land degradation

Now that the issue has been presented and that the actors' network and their role in solving the issue have been showcased, a deeper analysis on the problem structure, the institutional design features and the institutional participation could be exposed. This part intents to dig into the relation between the issue, UNCCD design and how does it effects the effectiveness of the institution. We will see through this analysis outcomes what are the biggest challenges the UNCCD has to face.

1. Concept definition ¶

Some specific concepts in this section will be used, which require some clarification before moving on to the analysis part. The effectiveness is quite often used in order to asses an institution’s main realizations. One common definition of effectiveness is:

the extent to which institutions contribute to solving or mitigating the problems that motivate those people who create it (Young, 2011).

In our case, it will be to see how land desertification rate has decreased since the enter into force of the Convention. It must be compared to the expectations and goals described in the Convention. It is slightly different from the performance concept which helps evaluate institutions in a better way when the goals are not clearly defined. Performance takes into consideration internal operations and how the institution mobilize resources (Gutner, 2010). This makes performance more complex to assess, but it allows to take into consideration more factors, such as the capacity of the institution, the internal processes and the external constraints to evaluate the institutions' overall results. In this section, the effectiveness of the institution will be assessed. It is therefore important to keep in mind that the time and space constraint did not allow to dig deeper in the performance evaluation but effectiveness is already a fair measurement for this level of analysis.

2. Problem Structure and Design of the Institution ¶

Desertification is a complex issue as it stands between socioeconomic and environmental drivers. One part being linked to human activities on soil such as overgrazing, deforestation, intensive agriculture, and the other being the meteorological factors such as extreme weather events, intensified by climate change (UNISFÉRA Report 2019, p.13). Institutional drivers are also considerably significant as national and supranational policies have large influence on soil desertification globally. If environmental matters are not considered or land management is neglected, soil and water are negatively impacted (Briassoulis, 2019). How does an international institution is supposed to respond to this complex issue? How do states develop rules to be efficient in tackling it? These questions will be answered through the problem structure analysis as well as the description of the UNCCD design features following Koremonos' (2001) article.

Problem StructureUNCCD Design features
A high disparity exists between those suffering from desertification and the ones causing it. It is often the population living already in fragile areas, like drylands that will be at high risks of desertification. The actors' capacities and the way they are affected by the issue are largely asymmetric. Some countries, particularly in Africa suffer from severe droughts or land desertification.MEMBERSHIP: Almost all states are parties to UNCCD - universal membership
The problem with desertification is that it depends on national land policies, international trade agreements but also on climate change impacts. As an important factor is national land management, the states highly dependent on agricultural production will have high incentives to comply. Some states less dependent on their own agricultural production might want the others to comply while they might not have particular incentives to do so. This is generally the case between developing and developed countries. Therefore we can classify this problem in the prisoner’s dilemma game, as well as a moderate enforcement problem because some would have incentives to comply while some other states won’t.SCOPE: UNCCD is about only one type of land degradation (desertification), and is specially focused on the African continent.
The state of knowledge on the impacts and processes of desertification are quite well known. The only issue is the potential aggravation of desertification due to the increase of extreme weather events related to climate change and also the biodiversity loss as a cause and consequences of desertification. It is therefore a moderate uncertainty; only some risks are recognized.CENTRALIZATION: UNCCD has a low centralization level in terms of institutional tasks concentrated into one agency. The Conference of the Parties (COP), the representatives of the states meeting once every two years has this role of monitoring progresses, and adapting the Convention if needed. The Permanent Secretariat also has some important tasks, but more in terms of facilitating the COP decisions' implementation
Preference uncertainty is not fully clear and transparent as some states would not show clearly what are their preferences. They might want others to take care of the issue while they can use their lands as they want. It is therefore contingent preferences.CONTROL: Control over the institution is kept by the member states who take decision under the one “Party, one Vote” rule. Generally, two-third majority is necessary to modify the Convention.
Behavioral uncertainty is also moderate, at the border of high, as it is really difficult to check all countries' rate of land desertification. It is requiring important monitoring and scientific capacities.FLEXIBILITY: Flexibility is not a feature of UNCCD as no provision mentions the adaption to extraordinary events. Transformative or adaptive clauses do not exist in the Convention.

To conclude this part, desertification is a global issue which requires all the states actors' actions, from the ones being directly affected by severe desertification through better land management policies, to the ones that make bilateral or multilateral agreements on agricultural commodities trade, and therefore putting indirect pressure on lands. The most vulnerable states, those suffering from desertification succeeded in engaging the other states under the UNCCD universal membership. There could be some incentives not to comply from states not highly affected by desertification, but it is maybe the scope of the institution that improved compliance. Developed countries agree to support only specific regions of the world suffering from one type of land degradation: desertification. The scientific knowledge on the issue is developed enough to ensure that sustainable agricultural practices could reduce the problem, but external factors such as lack of capacities, lack of comprehensive land policies or lack of political will are severely threatening the path to land degradation neutrality. UNCCD attempts to englobe all the different drivers pressuring on the African region particularly, but as we will see, other institutional design are posing serious problem to an effective decrease of desertification.

3. Institutional Participation ¶

This section is taking Bernauer’s article about the “Depth versus Participation” dilemma as lens to read states' motivation in participating in the institutional framework of UNCCD . There are two important things to understand. The first thing is what were states' motivations to join UNCCD, why so many states signed the convention? The second is to understand why, with all the states participating in the institution, the land desertification rate is still highly alarming. This part attempts to analyze the relationship between states' participation and the institution’s design features.

According to Bernauer’s article, there are different reasons why states will be willing to join an institution. In that case, some specific clauses have been identified as improving states' participation:

A. Assistance to developing countries. This is a highly important feature of UNCCD. Almost the whole convention is gravitating around developed countries' responsibility to assist developing countries. This particularly motivates the developing countries to sign environmental agreements, and developed countries are more inclined to sign as they are generally the pusher for environmental protection.

B. Transfer of technology. It is related to the first point and increases as well states' participation. UNCCD also provides a whole set of clauses on “transfer, acquisition and development of technology (art.18 UNCCD). This facilitates the transfer of technology to countries that would not have the capacities to fight desertification.

C. Settlement of dispute. UNCCD also has a clause on the settlement of dispute (art.28 UNCCD). This brings more transparency and states know that there will be easy and impartial ways of solving disagreements.

While membership is almost universal, poor results have been observed since the convention was signed (Briassoulis 2019). Few reasons could explain the institution’s inefficiency despite the high number of signatories.

A. Low specificity of obligations. UNCCD has been criticized because of the lack of specific targets (NAP evaluation 2015). All member states have to develop National Action Plan but no specific target has been defined which increases the number of states joining the institution, but poses serious problem when it comes to the institution’s effectiveness in solving the issue. It really reflects the depth vs participation dilemma described by Bernauer.

B. No enforcement mechanism. There is no strong enforcement mechanism ensured in the UNCCD. This variable has not been found as really influential on states' motivation in Bernauer’s article findings but it could still explain why so little has been done since the signature of the Convention.

The Convention features are therefore perfect to attract many states, but is missing key elements to ensure the “depth” side of the Convention. The clauses remain broad and do not provide enough incentives for effective actions. Establishing clear targets to achieve in a given period of time could drastically increase the chances of better land protection, but states are not yet at the stage of revising the Convention in that sense. Finding a point of coordination would also be very challenging for a universal convention.

A solution would be to implement a time limit for states to reach the Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) which would vary depending on the country and its capacity. LDN is defined as:

“A state whereby the amount and quality of land resources, necessary to support ecosystem functions and services and enhance food security, remains stable or increases within specified temporal and spatial scales and ecosystems” (Briassoulis, 2019)

This concept has been particularly emphasized through the target 15.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which is the part of 17 SDGs adopted by the United Nations which all together aim to end poverty and protect the planet by 2030 (UNDP, 2021). The concept has gained considerable attention during the last years and could represent a potential solution to have better targets to aim for states. That means, however, that considerable efforts should be taken to modify and adopt these new targets through the UNCCD institutional framework.

4. Overall effectiveness of UNCCD? ¶

Considering the problem characteristics and the UNCCD’s results concerning decreasing desertification, there are few important points to mention. The first one being that no robust data exist on the global rate of desertification (CIESIN report). It is therefore hard to evaluate the effectiveness of UNCCD at the global level, without reliant data. It is however possible to see at some local level and the results are not really encouraging. National action plans have been developed in the most vulnerable countries such as in Mali, Mauritania, Tunisia or Syria, but lack of financial support blocked their implementation. In order to be effective to combat desertification, three main challenges should be overcome by the international institution - UNCCD. These three challenges could be resumed as such:

  1. The Depth vs. Participation dilemma is really reflecting the main challenge UNCCD has with land degradation. It has been developed to be universal, which means it had to convince every state to participate. Therefore, finding compromises between 196 states obliges to lower the specificity of obligations. Efficient enforcement mechanism and specific targets are the key missing elements in the institution’s design. Overcoming this challenge would certainly allow significant improvements but engagement from the states and willingness to change would be necessary.

  2. Even though desertification is one of the most important type of land degradation, there are still many others that are not taken into account. As explained just above, the difficulty to find compromises is already difficult for one type of land degradation, adding all of them would make the Convention completely ineffective. However, other institutions could be established in order to complement the UNCCD.

  3. The Convention is really focused on helping vulnerable population that are touched by desertification. While this is a highly important aspect to include in the fight against desertification, other major drivers of land degradation is neglected. The food system has an enormous impact on land; intensive agriculture, increased demand for meat and diary, the expansion of monoculture and the use of toxic chemicals are highly pressuring soils all over the world (Horrigan and al., 2002). Having other institutions focusing on these aspects of the issue could relieve UNCCD of fighting alone against land degradation.

For now, UNCCD is the only normative international institution fighting specifically land degradation. As seen in this blog, the issue is multi-sectoral and complex. Land degradation is similar to climate change in that sense. It should be included in all aspects of environmental, trade, health or human rights policies. UNCCD alone could not solve the issue of global land degradation but other institutions could work on the other aspects of the issue, or new institutions could be created to respond to all the drivers and causes of land degradation.