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MEA Bulletin

Guest Article

Tuesday, 24 April 2007


By Jerry Velasquez*

Full Article

The increased attention to inter-linkages and synergies in environmental governance is the result of a global trend towards strengthening synergies, coordination and cooperation. This trend results from the challenging political climate in which we are operating, which has been created by the lack of positive political drivers for assisting developing countries, the limited results and political clashes that define large international meetings, widespread economic challenges, the backlash to globalization, conference and aid fatigue and regional conflicts. In addition, the explosion of development and the emergence of national, regional and global issues and disasters have diverted resources and attention. The world is faced with additional global priorities such as terrorism, new diseases (HIV/AIDS, SARS, Bird Flu), and difficult environmental problems. This has led to greater competition for resources to deal with “old” focus areas.

Numerous calls within the international community for promoting synergies have been well documented, but in order to improve coordination and collaboration, there must be, for a start, some common denominator that calls for such an initiative. It is in this perspective that the identification of synergies plays a critical role.

If synergy is so important, then why aren’t more people promoting it? The issue here is two-fold, first is the understanding of what it actually is, and second, clarifying the costs and benefits of doing it.

What is synergy?

First, the term synergy itself has been interpreted in many different ways and the literature suggests that there are a variety of types of synergies. The Oxford Dictionary has the following definition of synergy: “Synergy: a combined effect ... that exceeds the sum of individual effects.” In short, synergy is when 2 + 2 is greater than 4. For many people, the concept of synergies lacks clarity. For example, although the concept of synergies have long been used and operationalized within the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) context, during the eighth Conference of the Parties (COP) to the CBD, one national delegate stated that the concept of synergies is neither defined nor understood and should therefore not be used in CBD decisions.

Clustering vs. mainstreaming

There are several popular modes for promoting synergies, including clustering and mainstreaming. Clustering can be approached by a) issue (such as chemicals and wastes, biodiversity-related, climate and atmosphere, oceans and seas, etc.), b) function (capacity building, technology support, reporting, information and data, etc.), c) impacts (health related, trade related, etc.), d) regions, etc. Mainstreaming, however, is an approach where a single and smaller issue is brought in to the “main stream” of issues, which might have more attention or are at a higher priority at the moment. Simply put, clustering is horizontal synergies and mainstreaming is vertical.

The decisions by the three COPs of the hazardous waste and chemicals Conventions (Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm) is one example of a clustering approach, while the work by the UN Convention to Combat Desertification’s Global Mechanism is that of mainstreaming the convention objectives into national development plans, including the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs).

Inter-linkages – drivers of synergies

The global environment is naturally synergistic. These tendencies are driven by the natural linkages that exist within science (biophysical links), functions (implementation links), impacts, geography, etc. These linkages then drive activities that will eventually lead to synergies.

For example UNEP’s Global Environmental Outlook report (GEO) seeks to discover the biophysical linkages within the environment that could lead to suitable policy responses, including the promotion of synergies among MEAs. What should be noted is the fact that inter-linkages are not synergies. The scientific or implementation linkages may be absolute and obvious, but the promotion of synergies that take advantage of these linkages are optional and conditional. In short, inter-linkages drive synergies.

Identifying synergies

The specific synergetic activities that could be pursued can be identified in a variety of ways, including demand from users (in particular Parties), guidance from MEA governing bodies (COPs and MOPs) and experience from various institutions.

Numerous consultations, official decisions, recommendations, guidance documents and studies conducted by various institutions have identified a number of activities or areas that are ripe for promoting synergies.

What are transaction costs for promoting synergies?

The costs and benefits of cooperation and coordination need to be understood before determining if synergies will happen. The understanding of transactions costs of synergies is often lacking in many initiatives, leading to situations where synergies are pursued blindly for “the sake of synergies” without achieving the intended result that “exceeds the sum of individual effects.”

Focus should particularly be given to transaction costs when activities being proposed for collaboration are complex, important and inter-dependent with other internal processes. Transaction costs would include issues such as financial costs, contamination risks, loss of accountability, initiative and motivation, problems with human relationships, competing priorities, and resource constraints.

One example is offered by a February 2006 article on in-house collaboration in the Financial Times. It reports that even companies such as Sony and Matsushita have given up on promoting synergies internally (between hardware and software divisions, and between sub-divisions), simply because it does not make sense to do so. This does not necessarily mean that the promotion of synergies in business does not work. The same article noted that, after conducting a cost-benefit analysis that yields a more positive result, other companies such as Mittal Steel have been able to exploit synergies successfully.

This paper proposes a structured approach to the promotion of synergies among MEAs as shown in the figure.

A means, not an end

Andrew Campbell and Michael Goold, presenting their study on cooperation among businesses in the Harvard Business Review, noted that “…collaboration is not always good for organizations. Sometimes it’s downright bad.” However, in a more recent article in the Financial Times, the same Andrew Campbell wrote “… most organizations have ‘first generation structures and second generation management capabilities’. Internal synergies will only come with the right organization structure - overlapping accountabilities for products, geographies and functions - and when managers have acquired the right skills and attitude - a ‘matrix in the mind of managers’.”

The promotion of synergy is not an end to itself. It’s like a hammer in our little toolbox. We can either build a house with it, or destroy one that we like and that already exists.

* Jerry Velasquez works for the UN. These are his personal views.

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