Innovative governance : IUCN

Note: A version of this post first appeared on the University Pompeu Fabra website (Orbis Working Papers series).

Founded in 1948, the International Union for Conservation of Nature is the oldest global environmental organization. Its longstanding participation in global environmental governance led, for instance, to the creation of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Also, IUCN has a decentralized structure with more than 1,200 members ranging from states, IOs and NGOs. It is one of the rare institutions that give an official voting status to NGOs through its General Assembly and the IUCN’s resolution and recommendation process.

IUCN is a membership organization, that supports scientific research and manages field projects all over the world. It provides services to a group of member organizations and governments, who joined the organization to benefit from these services: practical solutions to conservation and biodiversity challenges, scientific and policy knowledge, influence international agreements, and network with an extensive community. To achieve these objectives, the organization has developed complex internal governance mechanisms, which require the organization to communicate and share information intensively between several locations throughout the world.

IUCN is often described as a hybrid organization: its members are governmental and non-governmental organizations. Some of its main donors are states and governmental development organizations, but the majority of members are NGOs as stated previously. In most communications, IUCN introduces itself as a Union composed of various bodies: a Secretariat, a Council, the Members Assembly, six Commissions, and numerous national and regional Committees. The Secretariat supports the work of the organization with over 1000 staff located at headquarters in Switzerland and in a web of regional and local offices throughout the world. It is divided into core functions such as finance, communications, human resources, and programs, such as water, forest or global policy.

IUCN Members meet every four years at the World Conservation Congress (WCC). IUCN Members’ Assembly (MA) is the highest governing body of the organization. All members meet and decide on the work of the organization for the next four years. Each member has also the possibility to take part in the preparation of IUCN’s program, and to propose motions that will be then debated and voted on. The MA elects the Council every four years and counts a President, Treasurer, three representatives from each region, and the Chairs of the six Commissions. The Council meets twice a year and functions as a Board of Directors: it represents the members in between the General Assembly meetings, approves finances, and decides on the strategy.

At national and regional levels, some member organizations joined forces and created national and regional Committees to coordinate their work and participation in the Union’s global project. Some Committees have grown over the last decades with their own budget, donors, logos and projects. This is the case of the Dutch, Spanish or French Committees. National committees have no specific link with their respective governments, and therefore are free to take position and action freely.

Commissions are another essential body of IUCN’s internal governance mechanisms. They consist of voluntary scientists who produce conservation knowledge, policy and technical advice. They are divided into six thematic Commissions: the Commissions on Ecosystem Management (CEM) that aims at guiding the management of natural and modified ecosystems; the Commission of Education and Communication (CEC), which promotes sustainability through education and communication; the Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy (CEESP) advising on economic and social factors that affect natural resources; the World Commission on Environmental Law (WCEL) that aims at advancing environmental laws and its application; the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA) advising and promoting terrestrial and marine reserves, parks and protected areas; and finally the Species Survival Commission (SSC), which supports species conservation and protecting endangered species.

IUCN collaborates with the private sector at multiple levels to foster green economy and new business practices compatible with the goals of sustainable development. It advises companies from industries with large ‘footprint’ such as mining, fishing, agriculture and forestry, and ‘green’ enterprises including renewable energy and nature-based tourism.[1] IUCN also develops new knowledge with the private sector, to improve corporate environmental performance, and implement joint conservation projects. However, entities from the private sector cannot become an IUCN member, and therefore cannot vote or participate in the organization’s internal governance mechanisms.

The organization designs a four-year program to plan and organize its actions. This program,  designed by all members of IUCN through an extensive participatory process, is then adopted by the Members’ Assembly at the World Conservation Congress. Together with the UN Earth Conferences, WCC is the most important conservation events in the world. The first Congress was held in Fontainebleau in 1948 and the most recent one took place in Hawaii, USA in September 2016.  It brings together IUCN members, but also other environmental organizations, and world leaders from various sectors: governments, the public sector, non-governmental organizations, business, UN agencies and social organizations.

The World Conservation Congress contains two parts. First, the Forum is the place where the conservation community meets with the objective of exchanging ideas on how to better manage nature in regard to human, social and economic development. During these days, workshops and conferences are organized; publications and scientific research are launched. Following this first part, the second part of the Congress, the Members’ Assembly gives voice to members, who vote on the program, elect the council, and debate on the proposals made by other members.

Before each Congress, an audit (entitled external reviews) [2] is conducted by an external audit company, which is then presented to Members. The external reviews range from early 1990s until 2015. This research examines the impact of ICT on knowledge management, internal communications and membership services (see the next three posts) through the analysis of these external reviews. The analysis conducted here includes all external reviews until 2011.[3]  For each external review, a text analysis was performed to extract all information related to knowledge management and membership services. The results of this text analysis are presented in a chronological order, with the objective to highlight the increasing digitalization of the organization and its impact on knowledge management and membership services.

This research takes stock of the generalization of ICT since 2000. By this year, most global actors used already these technologies, Google had already emerged, and social media giants such as Facebook or Twitter were gaining millions and millions of users. The year 2000 will be used in this working paper to distinguish two eras: before and after the generalization of ICT. In other words, it helps better distinguish when the organization started to use ICT for its internal activities. As mentioned further, external reviews confirm this milestone.

If IUCN has become a reference in terms of biodiversity and conservation, it is not only due to its participatory governance mechanisms, but also to its capacity to produce well-recognized scientific knowledge through its members and commissions.


[1] IUCN (2012) Transforming business practices. Gland, Switzerland: BBP, IUCN. Retrieved 7 May 2013 from

[2] IUCN (2013) External reviews, Retrieved 17 July 2017 from

[3] A following edition of this paper will include the latest data from 2015.