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Environmental governance

Governance is what authorities do. It refers to the practical management of power and policy. Governance may be exercised by a government (nation state), a corporation (business entity), through customary institutions (tribe, family, etc.) and so on. It may be used for any purpose, good or evil, for profit or no profit.

Three of the main bodies that have promoted the concept of governance since the 1980s are the World Bank (WB), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). According to the latter, governance is ‘the rules of the political system to solve conflicts between actors and adopt decision (legality). [The term] has also been used to describe the “proper functioning of institutions and their acceptance by the public” (legitimacy). And it has been used to invoke the efficacy of government and the achievement of consensus by democratic means (participation)’ (UNDP, 2004).

In this context, ‘good governance’ has become a dominant buzzword in the literature on sustainable/international development, implying that ‘bad governance’ is one of the root causes of all evil within our societies. Major donors and international financial institutions such as the WB and IMF routinely base aid and loans on condition of structural adjustment reforms to ensure that measures of ‘good governance’ are undertaken.

According to the United Nations, ‘good governance’ has eight characteristics (UNESCAP, 2006):

• Participation:  Participation is a key cornerstone of ‘good governance’. Participation could be either direct or through legitimate intermediate institutions or representatives. Participation needs to be informed and organised. This means freedom of association and expression on the one hand and an organised civil society on the other hand.

• Rule of law:  ‘Good governance’ requires fair legal frameworks that are enforced impartially. Impartial enforcement of laws requires an independent judiciary and an impartial and incorruptible police force.

• Transparency:  Transparency means that decisions taken and their enforcement are done in a manner that follows rules and regulations. It also means that information is freely available and directly accessible.

• Responsiveness: ‘Good governance’ requires that institutions and processes try to serve all stakeholders within a reasonable timeframe.

• Consensus oriented:  ‘Good governance’ requires mediation of the different interests in society to reach a broad consensus in society on what is in the best interest of the whole community and how this can be achieved.

• Equity and inclusiveness:  A society’s well-being depends on ensuring that all its members feel that they have a stake in it and do not feel excluded from the mainstream of society.

• Effectiveness and efficiency:  ‘Good governance’ means that processes and institutions produce results that meet the needs of society while making the best use of resources at their disposal.

• Accountability:  Accountability is a key requirement of ‘good governance’. Not only governmental institutions but also the private sector and civil society organisations must be accountable to the public and to their institutional stakeholders.


United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) (2004) Regional project on local governance for Latin America. New York; UNDP.

United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) (2006) What is good governance? Bangkok; UNESCAP.

For further reading:

Himley, Matthew (2008) Geographies of Environmental Governance: The Nexus of Nature and Neoliberalism. Geography Compass 2/2 433-451

International Monetary Fund (IMF) (2005) The IMF’s approach to promoting good governance and combating corruption — a guide. Washington DC; IMF.

World Bank (1991). Managing development: the governance dimension. Washington DC; WB.

This glossary entry is based on a contribution by Jampel Dell Angelo

EJOLT glossary editors: Hali Healy, Sylvia Lorek and Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos

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