[Commentary] Five unconventional issues to be addressed while developing the new CBD strategic plan

  • Stakeholders across the world are developing elements for the new post-2020 Strategic Plan for the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and related Global Biodiversity Targets.
  • In this commentary, former chairperson of the National Biodiversity Authority Balakrishna Pisupati outlines the principal issues to be considered while formulating the new Strategic Plan.
  • He also describes different ways in which the main issues outlined can be addressed.

The rush to develop elements for the new Strategic Plan for the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and related global biodiversity targets have already started. A large number of stakeholders are currently working on making the plan robust, responsive and implementable with more chances for success in achieving the biodiversity goals, than before.

A quick review of inputs, discussions and outcomes from the CBD COP 14 meeting indicate the following options being considered.

The first option would be to keep the current targets intact but make adjustments to the focus and language. The simple rationale to this approach is that countries and stakeholders have spent a decade dealing with the targets and therefore the push will be to get more targets achieved while there is familiarity with the targets and related indicators. The challenge with this option is that even after a decade, some of the targets (such as target 18, 19, 20) are far from being achieved and issues like mainstreaming are still to provide impactful results.

Option two would be to reduce/combine the targets. This is being considered as an option since some targets have overlapping approaches and actions (such as targets 1 and 2; targets 3 and 4). The thinking behind this option seems to be a better articulation of targets as well as minimising the reporting.

The challenge with this option will be to combine the targets without losing the key areas of focus.

The third option would be to come up with a new set of targets. Several experts and stakeholders opine that since 2002 (the 2010 biodiversity targets), the level of success of achieving the targets has been not too significant and islands of success are not going to send positive signals for the future of the Strategic Plan, among the general public.

The challenge with this option is the time it will take to craft new targets and negotiations that would need to be finalised by June 2020.

However, this option will provide a true opportunity for the conservation community to rejig the discourse and action on conservation that is still weak and muted among several stakeholders.

Whichever option the member states that are Parties to the CBD decide, it is important to consider the following key elements, based on the assessment of achievements and shortcomings we have reviewed through revised National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans (NBSAPs), the National Reports and use of indicators at the national level.

  1. The social science and other sociological elements related to conservation are the weakest point in the current Strategic Plan and the global biodiversity targets. This needs to be corrected while developing the new Strategic Plan and related targets.
  2. The behavioural and cognitive aspects of conservation have never been considered while designing and implementing actions related to the current Strategic Plan and targets.
  3. Drawing experiences from sectors like management, marketing and advertising has been the weakest point in the way we communicate what we wish to achieve.
  4. The relatively weak ownership of stakeholders in achieving the current targets is evident from the national reports, where it is mostly a narrow narrative of government-led actions to achieving the biodiversity targets. Other stakeholder involvements, including from the private sector and civil society have largely been not actively considered. This is already presenting a skewed picture of actual, on-the-ground action.
  5. There is a need for better, measurable and coordinated actions to review implementation. Current approaches that led to countries developing more than 2000 ‘Aichi-like’ targets through their national strategies and action plans will only weaken our ability to get a big picture. The current reporting frameworks – for the Conventions and its Protocols are weak and do not inspire stakeholder engagement. What we urgently need is a narrative that will tell the results of our 25-year actions under the CBD. Responsibility for success and failures needs to be identified and options for corrections made now to enhance the confidence of the general public in accepting the CBD as a global guiding framework for conservation and development.

Mainstreaming social sciences and sociological issues

Social science might be employed to imagine desirable futures or to plan and identify courses of action to improve policies, programmes or social outcomes. Additional important social science research design considerations include: 1) whether and with whom to collaborate in the development of the research, 2) what methods to use, and 3) how to analyse the data.

Social sciences can be instrumental to conservation to improve management practices and governance processes, enable better conservation designs and models, justify conservation actions, help to achieve ecological outcomes and facilitate more socially equitable processes and outcomes.

The following figure provides some key areas of social sciences relevant for conservation.

The conservation social sciences – classic, interdisciplinary and applied traditions. Image from Nathan et al, 2017.

In the context of ongoing discussions to develop the new CBD Strategic Plan and the biodiversity targets, the following figure will illustrate the ways and means we need to assess the targets before they are finalised. Focusing merely on the biological and to some extent the economic sciences is not enough.

Ideally, once the draft targets are drafted, they need to be subject to a social science assessment/audit to ensure relevant issues related to social proofing is well done.

Social science training tends to prepare scientists to share results in modes depicted on the blue background. Modes on the green and yellow backgrounds may engage a larger audience but tend to require collaboration with others who have expertise in these types of communication. Image from Nathan et al, 2017.

Dealing with behavioural and cognitive aspects of conservation

Cognitive and behavioural change is largely influenced by the awareness of people regarding the need for change and the notion that others are also acting. This ‘social proofing’ concept used in disciplines like marketing needs to be mainstreamed into conservation thinking and planning,

By appropriately timing the messages and targeting the audience, attitudes can be shifted and changed. Once attitudes change, behaviour can change. McKinsey’s loyalty loop or consumer decision journey is an industry standard in marketing, which can equally be applied to audiences regarding conservation issues (See figure below). Conservation practice needs to adapt the steps of consumer journey urgently now.

Image by Andrew Wright Ocean & Coastal Management, 2015.
Image by Andrew Wright Ocean & Coastal Management, 2015.

Drawing experiences from marketing and management

Conservation Marketing is “the ethical application of marketing strategies, concepts and techniques to influence attitudes, perceptions and behaviours of individuals, and ultimately societies, with the objective of advancing conservation goals” (Andrew Wright, 2015).

The use of marketing techniques to influence human behaviour for the benefit of conservation efforts is not yet effectively attempted. Influencing human behaviour is one of the most significant challenges faced by conservationists today. Tackling it will require not only the willingness of conservation practitioners to learn from marketing, but also a push towards evidence-based practice and, thus, embracing failure.

Communication and public awareness are seen as key to succeed in conservation. The core idea of this is to assume that such awareness would make people see the value of conservation. In contrast, marketing puts the stakeholders as target audience (not just specialist groups) to meet their preferences.

In the conservation agenda setting, it is a reverse approach where the conservation community decides on what needs to done and how and expect the general public to respond. This is a mistake.

Marketing always focuses on the audience’s perspective. A target audience is defined using a specific set of values and interests, including demographics, geographic segmentation, behaviours, political values, social status and other variables determined by the required context.

An ideal target audience is made of decision makers and/or influencers, who will ultimately be in charge of fulfilling the call to action. To do this, marketing professionals bridge, amongst others, psychology, sociology and graphic design principles in order to create a clearly-defined message for the target audience. The message precedes the call to action.

We urgently need to equip ourselves to use these techniques even before we define the elements of the CBD Strategic Plan and the related targets.

Re-assessing the ownership issue

The general assumption being made by the negotiators, decision makers and governments is that they own and are responsible for the conservation agenda. The discourse has always been about how other sectors and stakeholders will contribute the conservation but their actions are seen as mere ‘add-ons’ to what the environment ministries are doing.

In spite of two decades of mainstreaming discourse and millions of dollars spent to mainstream biodiversity across sectors, honest assessment reveals that the conservation discourse is still within the environment ministries. Others participate in the discussions but mostly do not initiate actions. This is in contrast the climate change agenda where multiple sectors and stakeholders have started to take action on their own.

The main reason for this conundrum is due to the fact that the Parties to CBD still think it is their ‘responsibility’ to define the agenda and others will come to own their agenda. This approach and attitude have not yielded many positive results.

If the ownership has to be spread, governments need to recognise, engage and showcase the full range of actions and approaches that all relevant stakeholders are undertaking and own the results rather than merely reporting on what the individual Ministry is doing. It is hard to find even a single National Report to CBD that has diligently reported on what the civil society, private sector, UN agencies, academia are doing as their contribution to achieving the biodiversity targets and goals.

If the contributions of these stakeholders are merely pushed to having their own publications and side events, the inclusiveness of actions will give a huge blow to Parties’ ability to achieve any meaningful conservation outcome, either within the CBD or outside.

One idea to be considered while developing the new Strategic Plan and related targets will be to request a Citizen Plan and sector targets from all relevant stakeholders. The COP 15 needs to consider stakeholder determined contributions as commitments to achieving the strategic plan.

Narrating the failures and successes

The CBD COP 15 will be a landmark moment in the history of CBD when decisions will be made on how to proceed with the conservation and development agenda. In all likelihood, Parties will be presenting a mixed bag of results with several current biodiversity either unmet or partially met. Notwithstanding the reasons for success or failure, one key question that needs to be answered is how to identify the responsibility.

Considering that the CBD is a Party-led process, it is pertinent for the Parties to own the success and/or failure. Stakeholders role has been merely to contribute to the agenda set by Parties.

While we prepare to present a report card at CBD COP 15 and based on that articulate the next decade of action, it is important to consider the following as key components of preparing a narrative.

First, while mainstreaming biodiversity across sectors has been an agenda for more than a decade, the issue of ownership is still unclear. This needs to be fixed. One way to do this is to have an open and inclusive dialogue on what we are missing in our approaches, planning and action. For example, why is that ministries of finance are still not considering including natural capital when deciding on development and fiscal planning?

Second, the reporting to CBD COP 15 on our achievements thus far should be ‘social proofed’. If stakeholders have a role to play in achieving the targets, then they should be a part of the process. If national non-governmental organisations have contributed to both finances and actions to achieve the targets, their actions need to a part of formal reporting. Showcasing what and how others have done it is a clear way to encourage others to do so. Parties need to shy away from the traditional thinking of ‘we are doing the best and are not getting enough support!’.

Third, undertaking a social audit of our actions on conservation will be necessary to prepare the messages of what we did and what we intend to do. This is missing in the current planning and discussions and needs to be urgently considered.


Wright, A. J., Veríssimo, D., Pilfold, K., Parsons, E. C. M., Ventre, K., Cousins, J., … & McKinley, E. (2015). Competitive outreach in the 21st century: why we need conservation marketing. Ocean & Coastal Management115, 41-48.

Bennett, N. J., Roth, R., Klain, S. C., Chan, K., Christie, P., Clark, D. A., … & Greenberg, A. (2017). Conservation social science: Understanding and integrating human dimensions to improve conservation. Biological Conservation205, 93-108.

[Balakrishna Pisupati is chairperson, FLEDGE, former chairperson of the National Biodiversity Authority, and has spent many years working on biodiversity policy at UNEP and IUCN. He is currently participating as an expert in global engagements to develop the post-2020 CBD strategic plan and targets ].


Banner image: Satyr Tragopan. Photo by Rejaul karim.rk/Wikimedia Commons.

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