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MEA Bulletin

Guest Article

4 July 2006

Strengthening the biodiversity conventions through the strategic use of information

By Michael Williams, UNEP/DEC, and Marcos Silva, CITES Secretariat

There is no integrated system designed to store, search and retrieve information generated at the UN, much less to do so rapidly and in real time, limiting the ability to translate data and facts into informed policy and management decisions.

– UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, “Investing in the UN for a Stronger Organization Worldwide” (A/60/692) 

Perhaps our greatest challenge is to create a way for the thousands of information-gathering bodies around the world to connect with each other and share knowledge. We need to create more equitable access and commit ourselves to a more flexible and efficient open source community.

– UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner, “International Environment House News,” June 2006

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) and its related agreements, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands each generates large quantities of data, documents and other forms of information. Much of this information addresses common biodiversity-related themes and activities. However, because it is not inter-linked or organized in a consistent and harmonized manner, grasping “the big picture” and ensuring that the conventions are mutually supportive can be extremely difficult. 

Most major corporations and organizations also face the challenge of managing large, isolated pools of information. Fortunately, the growing recognition that institutional information is a vital strategic asset is occurring just as rapid advances in information technology (IT) are providing new solutions. Together, these forces have inspired the development of a new, more strategic approach to information resources known in the jargon as “knowledge management”. The biodiversity secretariats together with UNEP and the UNEP-World Conservation Monitoring Centre are collaborating on a new project aimed at empowering Parties and secretariats through the principles and IT tools of knowledge management.

This is an exceptionally opportune time for implementing a knowledge management strategy for the biodiversity conventions. The Secretary General’s recent report on UN reform highlights the need to improve information management across the entire UN system. Various COP mandates for promoting data exchange, the need to collaborate on the 2010 biodiversity target, the opportunities provided by the Bali Strategic Plan and the availability of funds from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) all support early action. By working as a team on this project, the secretariats can service the wider biodiversity community while maintaining control over their own information resources and building their in-house technical capacity.

Knowledge Management for Biodiversity”


Each of the four conventions currently maintains large collections of data and information on their web sites and in various databases. This information is not generally organized in a manner that supports strategic decision-making. Many databases hold complementary information (for example on case studies and best practices) that could be better linked. Harmonizing these information resources would boost the overall value of their contents and facilitate the development of new information products.

The key types of information that biodiversity conventions generate include:

  • List of Parties

  • National focal points and other contacts;

  • Strategic plans;

  • Official COP documents;

  • COP decisions, resolutions and articles;

  • Calendars of events;

  • Case studies and best practices;

  • Indicators for measuring progress towards the 2010 target;

  • Documents and recommendations of the technical bodies; and

  • National reports.

The project team evaluated each of the above information categories as candidates for this project based on the following criteria: existence of a clear need or mandate, risk of duplicating work already being done by others, uniqueness of convention/secretariat information, strategic relevance for harmonized implementation of conventions, benefits to Parties, feasibility given existing financial and technical resources, value of the outcome as a stand-alone result and its contribution to the future development of knowledge management, and costs of maintenance and updating. Based on these criteria, the team decided that the project should start with the following four categories:

List of Parties – This will allow secretariats and Parties to view the status of ratification across Conventions

National focal points – Interlinking national focal points and other key contacts is relatively simple. A searchable list offers a practical way of promoting the harmonized implementation of the conventions and the 2010 target. 

Strategic plans – Hyperlinking the strategic plans of the conventions will facilitate comparisons and analyses of progress and, as above, promote the harmonized implementation of the conventions. The plans will be indexed using keywords. 

Decisions and resolutions – Interlinking the exponentially growing mass of convention decisions will facilitate practical collaboration on specific issues and support Parties’ efforts to retire or consolidate decisions. It will also inform debates on crafting future decisions.

A second phase of the project could build on these four categories by tackling, for example, official documents, case studies, and recommendations from scientific bodies and information aimed at assisting Parties to achieve the 2010 target.

The project will establish the harmonized information base by May 2007. The outcomes and benefits of this work will include:

  • Improved capacity of Parties and secretariats to manage and use the harmonized knowledge resources of the four conventions, leading to improved implementation of the conventions and agreements.

  • Improved ability to ensure mutually supportive decisions and activities across the four conventions (for example, a more efficient collaboration on the 2010 targets, reduced duplication of work, easier identification of gaps).

  • Significantly greater technical capacity of secretariats to develop and maintain knowledge management systems.

  • Continued control by each convention and secretariat over its own information resources.

  • Continued maintenance of the harmonized information base and the related software after the main development phase is concluded.

  • A practical demonstration of the future potential for knowledge management and other collaborative projects amongst secretariats.

  • A sound basis for raising additional funds for widening, deepening and sustaining the knowledge management system.

  • A model for increased technical cooperation among the secretariats.

A vision for the longer term

This project is not intended to stand alone in splendid isolation. Over the coming years, the harmonized knowledge base it envisions will need to become increasingly interlinked with other UN and environmental information resources. Just as the Internet exploded out of obscurity in the early 1990s to become the dominant medium that it is today, knowledge management will evolve over the coming decade to become a universally used organizational tool for strategic management.

The Knowledge Management for Biodiversity project will therefore anticipate the benefits of linking up with similar efforts throughout the UN system and beyond. The chemicals and wastes cluster of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, for example, could be a suitable early partner. The CBD has already taken steps to explore knowledge management with its sister Rio conventions, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The FAO and other UN organizations are also investing in knowledge management programmes.

The links created by this and other knowledge management projects must be sustained, widened and deepened. While maintenance is not necessarily expensive, further fund raising will be key to future success. Developing the technical capacity of secretariats, investing in staff at UNEP and engaging UNEP-WCMC in project development are all possible ways forward.

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