Future Earth’s ‘global’ secretariat under fire

GLobal light north
Copyright: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Speed read

  • The alliance aims to provide scientific backing to sustainable development
  • Its globally distributed network of hubs will be largely in developed countries
  • This will skew the priorities to Northern concerns, critics claim

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[NEW DELHI] The announcement of the “globally distributed” secretariat for Future Earth, a research platform aiming to provide scientific knowledge and support for sustainable development, has drawn the ire of South Asian policy analysts who say it is heavily skewed in favour of developed countries.

Future Earth alliance announced this month (2 July) the winners of an open bidding process to host their five ‘global hubs’ that will function as a single entity — the secretariat of Future Earth. The winners were research institutions in Canada, France, Japan, Sweden and the United States.

These will be joined by four regional hubs in Cyprus, Japan, the United Kingdom — and just one in a developing country, the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research in Uruguay.

The idea of the alliance is “superb”, but the “preferred bidder here is all Northern, from developed countries”, Rajeswari Raina, a scientist at India’s National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies, tells SciDev.Net.

Even the regional hubs include developed countries, she points out. “So the hubs will articulate Northern views,” Raina says.

“It would be healthier to build a more sustainable global research framework with the key hubs located equitably in both developed and developing countries.”

Mohan Munasinghe, Munasinghe Institute of Development 

The secretariat is too Northern-centric, says Mohan Munasinghe, chairman of the Munasinghe Institute of Development, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and vice-chair of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) fourth assessment report. 

"It would be healthier to build a more sustainable global research framework with the key hubs located equitably in both developed and developing countries," he adds. "Internet and modern communications would facilitate this arrangement."

There should have been a “more inclusive and representative selection of countries”, agrees T. Jayaraman, dean of the School of Habitat Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, in Mumbai.
“It is unclear who is the driving force behind the [Future Earth] alliance, which is entirely dominated by the North,” he says. “It is extraordinarily skewed in favour of developed countries; with multiple representation of developed countries.”

The sidelining of developing countries, particularly when there is so much debate around sustainability and its implications for development, “smacks of an appalling insensitivity and lack of awareness of what the global debate is about, and the concerns of developing societies”, says Jayaraman.

“It demonstrates a lack of sensitivity on the social, economic and political underpinnings of sustainability and how it can be achieved,” he says.

Sharachchandra Lele, convenor at the Centre for Environment and Development, part of the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, says the distributed secretariat will bring some degree of diversity.

But he says it is “unfortunate” that it contains only one hub in developing countries.

Lele says that the challenges of environmentally sound development faced by developing countries “are more acute and more context-specific” than in developed countries, and often relate to use of local resources.

Because of this, programmes like Future Earth should have full participation of scientists from developing countries and operate in a context-specific manner, he adds.

“It is disturbing that the mission of Future Earth is framed simply in terms of ‘accelerating our transformations to a sustainable world’ when the need is clearly for ‘sustainable and equitable and alternative development’ in the South and ‘de-growth’ in the North,” says Lele.

International Council for Science (ICSU) has responded to criticisms on behalf of the alliance behind the Future Earth in a statement to SciDev.Net saying they “very much recognise the need for the Secretariat to have strong participation from the North and South and from all regions”.

It adds that the institutional sponsors of Future Earth include UN organisations and ICSU, who “are global organisations, many of whom have a global membership, leadership, regional offices and networks from the South, capacity building initiatives, and who have already made a major commitment to consultation and engagement in the South on the development of Future Earth”.

But the ICSU statement adds that they “recognise that more needs to be done to incorporate leadership from the South into the Secretariat, and whilst this was not possible on the basis of the proposals received, we have ensured that there is space to bring in additional components (in fact, we always assumed that there would be a need for the Secretariat structure to develop past its initial shape from the competitive process)”.

“We also note that Future Earth strategy will be set by the programmes committees; the first of these to be fully established — the Science Committee — is regionally representative, as well as gender and discipline balanced,” the statement says. “Notwithstanding this, we acknowledge that this still won’t always guarantee that subtle north biases do not creep in through day-to-day activities, and hence we are developing our thinking around some formal regional committee structures.”

 > Link to Future Earth

See below for a video about Future Earth: