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  • The UN Commission on Sustainable Development:Which Mechanisms Explain Its Accomplishments?
  • Stine Madland Kaasa (bio)

The UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) was established in 1993 in order to follow up the commitments from the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. An overall goal was to enhance the integration of environmental, economic and social dimensions of sustainable development at the national, regional and international levels. The CSD was established as the first and only true sustainable development commission. Agenda 21 called for the establishment of the CSD within the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).1 A special session of ECOSOC in 1993 agreed on the CSD's mandate: to monitor and review progress on the implementation of Agenda 21 at local, national and international level; to develop policy recommendations; and to promote dialogue and build partnerships for sustainable development among governments, the international community, and major groups.2

The establishment of the CSD was seen as one of the main outcomes of UNCED, as it was agreed that the follow-up activities would be of vital importance for sustainable development. However, there has been growing concern as to whether the CSD has succeeded in fulfilling its mandate and has further advanced the sustainable development agenda.3 Some observers have even argued that the CSD is merely a "talk shop." A question that should be answered is whether this criticism is well founded.

The main objective for the analysis in this article is to evaluate which mechanisms affect the work of the CSD, in order to understand how it would be [End Page 107] possible to enhance the potential for effectiveness. A starting point for the evaluation is an assessment of the CSD's accomplishments during its first ten years. The study is based heavily on interviews, which have served as sources of information that has been difficult to obtain through written documents.4 Earlier work on the CSD has also been very useful for this analysis. Given the scope of the analysis, some limitations have been made. After the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg in 2002, the delegates at the CSD's eleventh annual meeting (CSD-11) decided to introduce several reforms. As it is considered premature to determine the effects of these reforms, the CSD sessions after WSSD have not been evaluated in this study. Also, an evaluation of the CSD's relations to other UN bodies, and possible spillover effects from the CSD process to other processes, have not been included here due to the need for brevity.

The first section of the article will present the analytical framework. In Section Two, the analysis will focus on evaluating the CSD's accomplishments against the goals formulated by the commission's mandate. Based on my analytical framework, I will evaluate which mechanisms explain the CSD's goal attainment and summarize the main findings in Section Three. In Section Four, some of the future prospects for the CSD will be discussed.

1. Analytical Framework

One of the main challenges concerning research on regimes and institutions has been how to evaluate and measure effectiveness. In general, "a regime [or an institution] can be considered effective to the extent that it successfully performs a certain (set of) function(s) or solves the problem(s) that motivated its establishment."5 The concept of effectiveness has evolved as scholars have addressed the question of why some efforts at developing and implementing joint solutions to international problems succeed while others fail.6

In order to evaluate and measure effectiveness, scholars often distinguish between three types of institutional consequences: output, outcome and impact.7 When an agreement is made and an institution is established, this will lead to consequences such as the norms, principles, and rules generated by the [End Page 108] institution itself, that is, the output. Further, when an agreement is implemented, it is expected that this will lead to consequences in form of behavioral changes, which is regarded as the outcome of the agreement. Finally, when measures are in effect and target groups are adjusted, this may in turn affect the physical problem at hand, that is, the impact of the...


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