Abstract

Since the aftermath of the 1999 Kosovo Conflict, UNEP has addressed the environmental dimension of insecurities and turned to peacebuilding. This has been risky because it strays close to conflict prevention, identification, or resolution, which lie outside of UNEP’s mandate. I argue that this change in approach results from knowledge creation. UNEP’s experiences about the linkage between environmental degradation and insecurity in postconflict settings motivated its search for opportunities that would legitimize its contribution to postconflict peacebuilding. Seizing on the UN’s Peacebuilding Architecture, UNEP established ECP and, through the program, aimed to develop environmental peacebuilding as a concern through three distinct but interrelated knowledge-building practices: knowledge collection, strategic interpretation, and implementation.

In 1972, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was established to raise awareness about environmental concerns and to coordinate cooperation around these in the UN system (United Nations 1972). However, it has expanded into the security domain, exemplified by its work in post-conflict settings and specifically peacebuilding. The broadening of UNEP’s agenda merits a closer look because security matters are excluded from its mandate and because some states vocally opposed its engagement in issues pertaining to conflict identification, prevention, and resolution. UNEP’s initial experiences on the linkages between environmental degradation and insecurities in the aftermath of the Kosovo conflict shaped its interest in peacebuilding. Later, UNEP expanded its work in the area through its Environmental Cooperation for Peacebuilding (ECP) program.

By assuming a constructivist perspective and applying an open system lens, I argue that knowledge acquisition through issue-linkage has shaped UNEP’s interest in peacebuilding, and that its organizational environment has provided the setting in which UNEP’s knowledge of the environment-security nexus, as well as the Programme’s agency, evolved. It has done so by first providing the context in which knowledge develops and, second, by representing the favorable and opposing forces that international bureaucracies need to consider when pursuing their goals.

This article contributes to several strands of research on international bureaucracies broadly and UNEP specifically. UNEP’s contribution to peacebuilding makes an interesting case not only because it has an exclusively environmental mandate but also because the fulfillment of its goals has been highly dependent on foreign resources (e.g., Bauer 2009, 178). However, UNEP has not garnered as much scholarly attention as other international bureaucracies, with many contributions taking either a historical (cf. Ivanova 2007, 2012; McCormick 1989) or normative (Downie and Levy 2000) perspective. Although theoretical arguments about its role and agency are scarce, there are studies on UNEP’s impact on global environmental governance (Mee 2005), the role of its secretariat (Bauer 2009) and experiences of its Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch (PCDMB) (Conca and Wallace 2009).

First, this article adds to well-established insights about international bureaucracies’ expert authority (e.g., Adler and Bernsteil 2005; Barnett and Finnemore 2004; King and McGrath 2004; Kramarz and Momani 2013) by showing how expertise develops and is legitimized. To be sure, there are different sources of international bureaucratic authority. Apart from expertise, these are their rational-legal status, the fact that states delegate responsibilities to them, and their moral standing (for a detailed discussion, see Barnett and Finnemore 2004, 20–29). A particular focus on bureaucratic expertise allows for analyzing processes of authority formation. Thereby, it adds to established insights on how international bureaucracies matter by showing how they come to matter in the first place.

Second, the article simultaneously contributes to a better understanding of bureaucratic agency (e.g., Brown 2011; Collins and White 2011; Engström 2011; Haftel and Thompson 2006; Oestreich 2012), autonomization (Koch 2009), knowledge development (Bueger 2015), and mission creep. Seeing international bureaucracies as at least partially autonomous agents, the analysis points toward bureaucratic interest formation and illustrates what they do with interests, something that, for example, the principal–agent approach excludes.

Third, the article adds to research on interorganizational cooperation in the international arena (e.g., Biermann 2011; Biermann and Koops 2017; Gest and Grigorescu 2010), in which actors’ motives have been of particular interest, but which has mostly ignored how the resulting interaction with supposedly unlikely partners can be a well of knowledge and a conduit for organizational and policy development.

Last, in this article I offer a different perspective on environmental peacebuilding research, which has focused on interventions at different stages of the conflict cycle but generally looks at specific geographical contexts and peacebuilding concerns (for an early examination, see Conca and Dabelko 2002; for a discussion of the field’s development, see Ide et al. 2021; see also Yoshida and Céspedes-Báez 2021 and other contributions to the special issue for an overview of the general focus of environmental peacebuilding research).

Following the conceptualization of knowledge, agency, and international bureaucracies as open systems, I will offers a theoretical framework for understanding how actors span organizational boundaries and create knowledge. By applying the theoretical model to UNEP’s work on peacebuilding, the second half of this article addresses the evolution of the Programme’s expertise on the linkages between environmental degradation, conflicts, and insecurities; how it influenced UNEP’s interests, contributing to its search and seizing of an opportunity in its environment; and, last, how it aimed to establish environmental peacebuilding as an international concern.

Knowledge, Bureaucratic Agency, and Open Systems

I adopt a constructivist stance here, focusing not only on international bureaucracies’ strategies to advance their interests but also on how those interests develop based on evolving perceptions about issues. While knowledge influences bureaucratic agency, an open system describes the context in which knowledge evolves and lays open transmission paths for strategic and epistemic activities. The following section defines knowledge and introduces the open system context in which it evolves.

Knowledge and Bureaucratic Agency

Knowledge not only constitutes a vital resource for bureaucratic authority but also harbors a normative quality. Here I define knowledge in a sociological sense as a justified belief shared by actors about the truth of a particular issue. Its ties to “truth” highlight its normative impetus, which points toward desirable goals. Hence knowledge also constitutes organizational identities, that is, who they believe they are and what they are meant to accomplish, and directs bureaucratic agency by showing appropriate paths toward achieving their goals.

“Truth” relates to the substance of the phenomena that can be known (Siebenhüner 2003, 20–21). International bureaucracies become knowledgeable on matters within their mandates’ purview, often by linking the issues within their mandates with ones foreign to them (on issue-linkage, see Haas 1980; Hall 2016). They do this by either conducting or having access to science or acquiring on-the-job experience. Haas and Haas (1995, 258), for example, note that international actors perceive issues as increasingly complex and uncertain, requiring the understanding of their linkages to other concerns all the more for addressing them effectively. New knowledge becomes most visible in written documents and other material. It needs to spread and be collectively shared in organizations to affect organizational behavior.

International Bureaucracies as Open Systems

An open system perspective provides a helpful context in which knowledge creation can be understood. While some have applied the perspective to international bureaucracies (e.g., Béland and Orenstein 2013; Hanrieder 2014; Koch 2009), there is more left to be explored from this conception about how international actors evolve. Seeing them as permeable entities that depend on and interact with their organizational environment,1 an open system lens can add value to the study of bureaucratic development by laying free the organizational trajectories for their agency and, by implication, the specific strategies that each environmental dimension requires.

An open system perspective highlights the mutually constitutive character of international bureaucracies and their environment. It opens a conceptual space for both out-to-in processes, that is, organizational adaptation to environmental influences, and in-to-out processes, represented by bureaucracies’ goal-directed and knowledge strategies. As such, it can help understand how they develop new knowledge. Bureaucracies depend on resources from their environment, such as personnel, funding, and ideas. Their environment permeates international bureaucracies and influences their “formation, character, and behavior” (Ness and Brechin 1988, 250; cf. Scott and Davis 2007, 31). In turn, bureaucratic actors influence their environment by shaping broader views about issues and navigating around obstacles.

I propose viewing the organizational environment as a three-dimensional construct.2 Its technical dimension represents the policy domain that defines bureaucratic activities and shapes their goals (Dill, cited in Scott 1998, 131). Technical concerns comprise the substance of issues that can be known and actors who can make plausible claims about the constitution of problems and manage them. The environmental domain, for example, encompasses the natural world and its interconnectedness with other issues. Many national and international bureaucracies manage ecological concerns by learning about their composition and implementing programs that adequately address them. The technical domain lends itself to knowledge creation, as it is here that new issues emerge and are linked by actors making new sense of their domains through observations and research.

International bureaucracies also navigate a political world, reflecting how actors, displaying interests and having different resources at their disposal, aim to control how, to what extent, and by whom the management of their domains is executed. International bureaucracies operate in highly politicized contexts, as they are impacted by the global distribution of power, interstate dynamics, and “world patterns of conflict and alignments” (Cox and Jacobson 1973, 37). Ecological concerns often compete with economic, geopolitical, and, increasingly, security issues. UNEP’s political environment involves the interest-based pursuits of political actors, primarily states, which manifest in the support or rejection of bureaucratic endeavors and can be influenced by sudden impacts and changes in leadership within states or organizations (Kingdon 1995, chapter 7). Bureaucratic actors can persuade and perhaps bargain to win over states and other donors to advance their interests.

Finally, the institutional dimension describes the “cognitive, normative, and regulative structures and activities that provide stability and meaning to social behavior” (Scott, cited in Scott 1998, 133). It establishes the foundation for bureaucratic behavior in the technical and political areas by shaping their interests and legitimizing certain practices while delegitimizing others. By collecting and disseminating information, international bureaucracies influence states’ political decisions, most prominently by setting agendas and contributing the knowledge base for international agreements (Svenson 2016, chapter 6). The institutional dimension also ties to technical concerns, as “many aspects of technical environments and systems rest on institutional underpinnings” (Scott 1998, 137). UNEP acts in an institutional context in which sustainable development, as a “meta-norm” (O’Neill 2017, 32), has provided the ground for normative evaluations about desirable outcomes. Moreover, as a conduit for, in particular, scientific knowledge, UNEP’s activities are based on a legitimate foundation for environmental protection policies.

Open systems interact with their environment through executive heads, senior managers, experts, ambassadors, or operational staff who act as boundary spanners and, as such, assume different roles (Koops 2017, 203; Organ 1971; Williams 2002, 2010). Boundary spanners operate at an organization’s periphery. As reticulists, they engage in networking activities and “foster a sense of shared fate” (Webb, cited in Williams 2010, 13); as entrepreneurs, they seize opportunities, “advocate their proposals …, and act as brokers to negotiate successful couplings between the necessary stakeholders” (Kingdon, cited in Williams 2010, 18); and as interpreters and communicators, they “manage difference” (Williams 2010, 19) by framing and synthesizing understandings. Boundary-spanning activities lie at the heart of knowledge creation, as resource-dependent actors draw on the different environmental dimensions at various points in the process and use the different functions to build new insight.

Knowledge Creation in an Open System Context

As a case of bureaucratic agency, knowledge creation in an open system context emerges as a three-step process, defined as knowledge emergence, the seizing of opportunities, and concept building. It is advanced by actors who span technical, political, and institutional boundaries and, in doing so, employ epistemic and strategic activities.3

  1. Knowledge emergence describes the development of a new awareness about the substance of issues through the linkage of underlying concerns, which, apart from scientific findings, can be shaped by bureaucratic experiences. To link previously unrelated issues, actors often depend on access opportunities to a new domain. These can themselves be technical in that new concerns emerge at the periphery of the organization’s activities. They can also be political when upheavals or catastrophes create uncertainty and require insight for decision-making. Opportunities can also emerge from changing institutional conditions, such as the emergence of regimes and evolving standards of appropriateness.

  2. As a strategic episode, the seizing of opportunities represents a bureaucracy’s calculated activities vis-à-vis external conditions. New knowledge makes actors attentive toward opportunities that allow them to fulfill their interests. Opportunities emerge if and when they recognize occurrences and use them to create benefit (Grégoire et al. 2010, 415). First, their previously gained insights help bureaucracies interpret external developments and gauge what strategies create gains (Grégoire et al. 2010, 415). Second, actors need to seize opportunities and enlist support for their cause. Boundary spanners as entrepreneurs and communicators do this by, for example, framing concerns in a consistent manner and presenting themselves as appropriate actors to tackle them. Here, too, opportunities can be technical, political, or institutional.

  3. By interacting with the technical environment both strategically and epistemically, concept building involves establishing a new concern through targeted activities that aim to develop an understanding of the complexities and interlinkages of underlying issues. Owing to their resource dependence, actors, acting as reticulists and interpreters and communicators, aim to bridge organizational boundaries to initiate partnerships with other stakeholders (Aiken and Hage 1968, 914–915). Their strategic work opens epistemic space that allows them to research the underlying intricacies of problems and develop substantive and explicit knowledge that is collectively accepted among partners and shared more widely. Knowledge collection, strategic interpretation, and implementation are discussed as three substages of concept building.

The following section analyzes UNEP’s knowledge-based turn toward peacebuilding. The analysis rests on a qualitative approach, in which the process of UNEP’s contribution to peacebuilding is traced by establishing and linking key historical events. Beyond that, a grounded theory approach, which involved empirical feedback for theory development, has contributed to theory building. The analysis draws primarily on thirty-two interviews conducted between 2013 and 2017. Interview partners were selected because of their ability to provide information about ECP and UNEP’s work leading up to the program’s establishment. They represent both UNEP PCDMB staff and external experts. While the earlier interviews had an explorative character, later conversations were theory guided.4 Further evidence was gathered from UNEP’s early postconflict environmental assessments and ECP’s progress and policy reports.

Creating Knowledge for Environmental Peacebuilding

UNEP’s story is one of well-meaning intentions but unfavorable design, which has often weakened its impact. At the first UN Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, state and government officials established the Programme with an exclusively environmental mandate. It was to catalyze environmental issues and coordinate other organizations by promoting cooperation, recommending policies, generating knowledge, and reviewing global environmental problems (United Nations 1972; for a principal–agent analysis of negotiations over UNEP’s design, see Manulak 2017). With its form, they hoped to enable it to “put its finger into other agencies’ pies” (UN Environment 2016), as Mostafa Tolba, UNEP’s former executive head, once vividly illustrated, but not threaten their autonomy (Haas et al. 1977, 184).

However, UNEP’s performance was challenged by its geographical remoteness in Nairobi, its form, and its funding mechanisms. As a Programme, it could not control the UN specialized agencies’ agendas (Ivanova 2010, 48), and few of them were willing to accept a Programme’s coordination efforts (Ivanova 2007), as many had seniority and environmental mandates themselves. UNEP has also struggled with inadequate funding, making it dependent on voluntary contributions and vulnerable to the ups and downs of political sentiments. This voluntary funding structure limited the Programme’s autonomy concerning goal setting (Ivanova 2009, 164–165) and inhibited its effectiveness when funding declined (Downie and Levy 2000, 360–361; Ivanova 2010, 50).5

As UNEP has always depended on resources from cooperating partners, donors, and the wider international community, its foray into peacebuilding illustrates more generally how international bureaucracies develop knowledge and widen their authority toward new matters by interacting with their environments. In what follows, the central stages in UNEP’s development are illustrated, beginning with its work on postconflict environmental assessments, leading to its search for opportunities to continue their work in a domain that is typically addressed by security actors and, last, the construction of “environmental peacebuilding” as an international concern.

Knowledge Emergence: UNEP’s Entrance into Postconflict Settings

UNEP began working in postconflict settings after the Kosovo conflict in 1999. Its interest in a more active role in postconflict contexts was tied to Klaus Toepfer’s stewardship. He was a former German environment minister who sought to move the Programme into politically more sensitive areas and help rebuild postconflict societies.6 Toepfer began his term as UNEP’s director in 1998, when the international community had lost confidence in the Programme, which manifested in a decrease in funding (Ivanova 2010, 50). His vision served to communicate that UNEP could add legitimate value to the international community and, thereby, increase their trust and financial contributions.

Two conditions in UNEP’s political environment created an opportunity to address conflict-related environmental concerns. Besides the international community’s reluctance to be involved in the region (Jensen 2008–2009, 49), NATO’s use of depleted uranium created uncertainty among the population about the environmental damage and its health effects, highlighting the need for substantive knowledge about the extent of the contamination. Already during the intervention, Toepfer cautioned that the bombing would likely create not only a humanitarian but also an ecological crisis and offered that UNEP conduct postconflict environmental field assessments.7 Through these scientific assessments, UNEP learned about the substance of one facet of the conflict–environment relationship, namely, the former’s consequences on the environment.

The initial assessment’s positive reception created a path for expanding UNEP’s work to the broader Balkan area (e.g., UNEP 2000) and other regions (among others, UNEP 2003a, 2003b), which were often defined by ongoing transboundary political tensions. Recognizing the peacebuilding potential of bi- and multilateral cooperation around natural resource management, UNEP aimed to promote rapprochement by mediating between conflict actors, such as the Afghan and Iranian and the Israeli and Palestinian authorities (Jensen and Hamro-Drotz n.d.). It found a niche through which it not only gained a substantive understanding of how environmental degradation and insecurities interlink and procedural knowledge on how the UN system works in those contexts but also came to see significant knowledge gaps in the UN system.8

While Toepfer’s vision predates UNEP’s involvement in conflict settings, the work had a normative effect in that it helped shape its view about what an appropriate UN agenda on the matter should be. The increased discourse around peacebuilding in the early 2000s helped define the context to which UNEP could contribute. However, to gain a foothold, UNEP needed to act strategically.

Opportunity and Agency: UNEP and the UN Peacebuilding Architecture

Owing to UNEP’s limited autonomy, any foray that could be perceived as a stretch of its mandate depended on favorable conditions. In the early 2000s, the nascent UN Peacebuilding Architecture (PBA), which aimed to streamline the UN’s fragmented approach toward peacebuilding through, among other factors, learning, represented an opportunity in UNEP’s institutional environment “to address environmental risks and capitalize on potential opportunities in a more consistent and coherent way” (UNEP 2009a, 5).

The PBA also presented an opportunity around which political interests converged and which, therefore, created a context of political attention and opened channels for funding streams. Aiming to introduce environmental thinking into the discourse on peacebuilding, UNEP’s director saw the rising political attention on the “prevention and resolution of conflicts [as] an opportunity … to promote environmental cooperation with an emphasis on its value for conflict prevention and resolution” (UNEP 2005, para. 4). However, UNEP could not easily participate as, for one, the then prevalent view was that environmental and security concerns were unrelated. The widely accepted postulate was that matters falling under the Security Council’s auspices were distinct from issues addressed by the General Assembly.9 For another, and more specifically, both UNEP’s Governing Council and the GA opposed its involvement in high politics. In particular, GA resolution 53/242, which stressed that the Programme “should not become involved in conflict identification, prevention or resolution” (United Nations 1999, para. 10), “has always been a threat hanging over us. … Member states … have said … [that] we can shut you down at any time if we see that you are getting into issues of national sovereignty.”10

The opposition necessitated that UNEP frame environmental and security matters in a compatible manner and its contribution to peacebuilding as technical and nonthreatening to political actors. It did so first by framing the inclusion of environmental concerns in peacebuilding as “a security imperative” (UNEP 2009a, 5) and highlighting the “potential significance [of environmental issues] as pathways for cooperation, transformation and the consolidation of peace in war-torn societies” (UNEP 2009a, 5). Simultaneously, UNEP argued that the architecture ignored “the broad and complex role of natural resources across the peace and security continuum [, leaving] the UN … insufficiently prepared to support lasting resolutions to resource conflicts or capitalize on the peacebuilding potential of natural resources and the environment” (UNEP 2016, 14). Second, UNEP’s director, again, offered to the security community UNEP’s services to help fill the gap. This push was a political risk as UNEP needed to “be mindful about not to step on other agencies’ toes and not go beyond our mandate.”11

UNEP also sought political alliances for support. Backing from the Finnish government opened a path toward a substantive contribution to peacebuilding. The chair of UNEP’s Post-Conflict Environmental Assessments Unit, a prominent Finnish diplomat, was instrumental in persuading the president, Tarja Halonen, to support UNEP’s ambitions.12 In a letter to the UN secretary-general, she then addressed the environmental blind spot in the PBA (UNEP 2016, 14) and proposed funding for a program within UNEP PCDMB, “to enhance understanding and capacity across the UN system to address conflict risks and peacebuilding opportunities from natural resources and the environment” (UNEP 2016, 14). Finland bankrolled the establishment of ECP, through which UNEP then aimed to develop and mainstream knowledge on environmental peacebuilding.

UNEP identified and seized an opportunity in its institutional environment, represented by the UN PBA, with its interests being guided by its experiences in postconflict environmental assessments. Framing environmental concerns as necessary peacebuilding components and its role as technical, and soliciting support from the Finnish government, it carved a path in the security domain. ECP’s work is described in the following section.

UNEP and Environmental Peacebuilding

UNEP’s contribution to environmental peacebuilding depended on the interaction with other actors in its technical environment. ECP was established as a small program in 2008 within UNEP PCDMB in Geneva. In late 2016, it was discontinued, with at least some of its focus areas becoming independent work streams.13 ECP’s pillars—the provision of “thought leadership and … the evidence base,” “strategic advocacy and joint policy analysis across the UN system,” and “the uptake of good practices and pilot projects in the field” (UNEP 2016, 17)—represent distinct but interrelated concept building strategies: knowledge collection, strategic interpretation, and implementation. Being defined by strategic and epistemic elements, they helped produce substantive knowledge on environmental peacebuilding and establish it as an international concern.

Knowledge collection involves scanning the organizational environment for available insight about an issue, its storage in a technological repository, and provision for future use (see Davenport and Prusak 1998, 146). Spanning the boundaries of their organizations, leaders of this practice network by building communication channels and interacting with others. They can also be knowledge contributors and managers by establishing and administering knowledge hubs and gatekeepers by deciding whose knowledge should be elevated and shared.

When ECP launched, UNEP and the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) sought to establish a knowledge base on the various ties between the environment, conflict, and peacebuilding. They deemed this necessary because the international community lacked an understanding of the complexities and intricacies of the relationship at the time.14

With McGill and Tokyo Universities, ECP and ELI launched a book project, established a knowledge base, and built a community of practice. For the six volumes, which contained “case studies from field practitioners, experts and academics documenting how natural resources had successfully supported post-conflict peacebuilding, and illustrating how different risks along the conflict curve had been addressed” (UNEP 2015, 11), the leaders acted as contributors and gatekeepers by including scientific contributions and lessons from the field they deemed necessary, while excluding others. The book project established a base of substantive knowledge drawn from research and field experience and informed ECP’s activities in the following pillars. As creators and coordinators of the Environmental Peacebuilding knowledge platform,15 they have functioned as knowledge managers. The community and the platform, in particular, represent a space to broaden “awareness, knowledge and know-how used by international experts and organizations on addressing conflict risks peacebuilding opportunities from natural resources” (UNEP 2016, 18). In 2016, more than 4,000 individuals from ninety-five countries had joined the community (UNEP 2016, 22–23).

Through strategic interpretation, UNEP aimed to establish environmental peacebuilding as a concern across different policy areas. First, needing to establish an epistemic space, it searched for entry points, that is, sufficiently overlapping task domains that allow for resource mobilization and issue-linkage. The particular relevance of framing to align understandings between the partners about the issue(s) to be addressed suggests that knowledge shapes new understandings and is also an outcome of truths already held by actors. The mobilization of monetary resources enables the pooling of expertise by redirecting staff activities, employing researchers, and bringing in consultants (Davenport and Prusak 1998, 57). These resources enable actors to “flesh out hunches” (Weick 1995, 133) and build truth claims by giving language to observations through a collective commitment and immersion in the substance. Stakeholder meetings, desk and field research, the analysis and interpretation of data and information, and peer reviews help accomplish this process. Previously established frames determine the meaning of concerns, influence “the subsequent cognitions and motivations of the decision makers,” and propel “action in a particular direction” (Thomas et al. 1993, 241–242).

Being concerned with providing policy-relevant insights, ECP and its UN partners produced six policy reports as part of the Program’s second-pillar work. They also represent pieces of substantive knowledge, highlighting the diverse linkages between environmental degradation and insecurities in other policy domains. They also included recommendations for implementing agencies to carry out environmental policies in their respective domains and showed possibilities for integrating environmental protection measures into programming. Table 1 gives an overview of ECP’s different policy partnerships.

Table 1

ECP’s Policy Partnerships

Report TitleAimPolicy Partners
From Conflict to Peacebuilding: The Role of Natural Resources and the Environment (UNEP 2009aUse of natural resources for conflict prevention PBSO 
Protecting the Environment During Armed Conflict: An Inventory and Analysis of International Law (UNEP 2009bStrengthen international law to ensure environmental protection during armed conflicts ICRC 
Greening the Blue Helmets: Environment, Natural Resources and UN Peacekeeping Operations (UNEP 2012Making peacekeeping missions environmentally sustainable and addressing environmental causes of conflicts. DPKO, DFS 
Women and Natural Resources: Unlocking the Peacebuilding Potential (UNEP et al. 2013Exploring the peacebuilding opportunities in the area of natural resources for women in conflict-affected countries UN Women, PBSO, UNDP 
The Role of Natural Resources in Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration: Addressing the Risks and Seizing Opportunities (UNEP and UNDP 2013Examining how natural resource management can improve the reintegration of ex-combatants. UNDP 
Natural Resources and Conflict: A Guide for Mediation Practitioners (UNEP and UN DPA 2015Transforming conflicts over natural resources into opportunities for sustainable peace UN DPA 
Report TitleAimPolicy Partners
From Conflict to Peacebuilding: The Role of Natural Resources and the Environment (UNEP 2009aUse of natural resources for conflict prevention PBSO 
Protecting the Environment During Armed Conflict: An Inventory and Analysis of International Law (UNEP 2009bStrengthen international law to ensure environmental protection during armed conflicts ICRC 
Greening the Blue Helmets: Environment, Natural Resources and UN Peacekeeping Operations (UNEP 2012Making peacekeeping missions environmentally sustainable and addressing environmental causes of conflicts. DPKO, DFS 
Women and Natural Resources: Unlocking the Peacebuilding Potential (UNEP et al. 2013Exploring the peacebuilding opportunities in the area of natural resources for women in conflict-affected countries UN Women, PBSO, UNDP 
The Role of Natural Resources in Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration: Addressing the Risks and Seizing Opportunities (UNEP and UNDP 2013Examining how natural resource management can improve the reintegration of ex-combatants. UNDP 
Natural Resources and Conflict: A Guide for Mediation Practitioners (UNEP and UN DPA 2015Transforming conflicts over natural resources into opportunities for sustainable peace UN DPA 

DFS = Department of Field Support. DPKO = Department of Peacekeeping Operations. ICRC = International Committee of the Red Cross. PBSO = Peacebuilding Support Office. UNDP = United Nations Development Programme. UN DPA = UN Department of Political Affairs.

This step required a mix of strategic and epistemic strategies. This is because UNEP has no implementing capacity and depends on partners to carry out its recommendations and elevate its work. ECP’s management assumed different roles to build partnerships and establish insights on the diverse linkages. The initial strategic step involved building epistemic space by acting as reticulists, entrepreneurs, and interpreters. As such, they identified entry points for partnerships, framed concerns in a manner that reflected the perceived realities of their partners, and helped mobilize joint resources.

ECP’s first challenge was to find partners, which required an entrepreneur “with the right political and diplomatic skills and patience.”16 Its first policy partnership with the Peacebuilding Support Office “opened doors for [UNEP]”17 and revealed potentially fruitful partnerships for ECP. The program then sought to define priority areas that would be receptive to including environmental concerns, by outlining “natural resources across the conflict life-cycle … [,] approach[ing] each agency and ask[ing] what they could do to address those risks or … opportunities.”18 Beyond identifying mutual interests, its management sought individuals in the partnering agency who would champion the work on environmental peacebuilding by helping to “carve out an initial area of work and expand it over time.”19 These individuals themselves occupied boundary positions in their respective organizations and were interested in the environmental dimension of their work.

Acting as interpreter and communicator, ECP followed up on identifying potential partners by framing concerns in a language relevant to them.20 Defining its role as a technical expert on “natural resources and [how] the environment can contribute to more effective conflict prevention, resolution and peacebuilding” (UNEP n.d.), ECP came to view the security community as clients, whose concerns it aimed to understand.21 Its staff used that understanding to systematically “work on each of the major sectors of the peace and security community, translate the evidence in ways that make sense to them as a rationale for engagement …, and … concretely propose ways of integrating these issues into their programming.”22

Engaging the security community was challenging for reasons related to its skepticism toward the environment. First, the military community generally viewed it as unrelated to their work. Moreover, military actors often saw environmental protection measures as infringing upon military operations’ effectiveness and efficiency23 and even being incompatible with them. Second, the term has different implications, often being used synonymously with climate change and a normative discourse, which the security community has generally not considered compatible with its more immediate concerns. Specifically, climate change is also subject to political contestation, exemplified by the UN Security Council’s considerable disagreement on whether it can appropriately address matters relating to it.24 Against this background, the UN’s security apparatus is very conscious of and challenged on its mandate if activities appear to be breaching its limits.25

Given the challenges inherent in tying security concerns to the environment, ECP’s leadership soon pivoted to “natural resources.” This new frame was more expedient, as ‘natural resources’ represent concrete and sensible concerns in the security domain and allow for breaking down broader environmental matters into implementable components. For the security community, the natural resource frame was substantively reasonable because it represents tangible concerns for, for example, peacekeeping26 but also for other security areas.

Once ECP understood and took on its partners’ language, it could elevate its issues more quickly.27 For example, it addressed the skepticism in the peacekeeping community by arguing “in financial terms.”28 As many peacekeeping missions operate under financial strain, the argument that good environmental management can reduce costs through, for example, lowering fuel consumption is quite persuasive. Therefore highlighting the financial benefits of environmental policies is beneficial for both sides.29

After securing their partners’ commitment, participants moved to epistemic work by cooperatively researching their particular concerns. Through the building of research networks, the “gather[ing of] field evidence, [analysis of] policy and operational responses” (UNEP 2015, 10), writing, and peer review, they developed substantive knowledge on the linkage of environmental and security concerns that elevated their understanding of how exactly the issues relate. For their work on women, peacebuilding, and natural resources, for instance, the partners conducted both desk and field research to gather “evidence … [on] relevant UN and other institutions” (UNEP et al. 2013, 11). They also interviewed “experts and field practitioners from humanitarian organizations, women’s organizations and NGOs, government ministries, UN peacekeeping missions, and the private sector” (UNEP et al. 2013, 11). Field research often focused on gathering practitioners’ experiences, which could be translated into lessons and best practices (e.g., UNEP 2011).

In the writing process, which was conducted in constant and close consultation with their partners, language took precedence, making it very iterative. One author of the women, natural resources, and peacebuilding report noted that the need for consensus created “a political process,”30 in which partners were vigilant about contributing balanced expertise on all issues. Last, extensive peer reviews aimed to increase the quality and validity of their insights. For the mentioned report, the partners involved “more than 20 leading experts in the fields of gender, natural resources and peacebuilding from the UN, international and national NGOs, and academic institutions” (UNEP et al. 2013, 11). With UNEP lacking resources for implementation, they also looked to elevate their insights to a practical dimension by “catalyz[ing] the uptake of good practices and innovative pilot projects in the field by UN actors, governments and other stakeholders” (UNEP 2015, 10).

In sum, both strategic and epistemic activities defined this pillar’s work. Strategic activities were important, as they created space for cooperation and knowledge building. The particular relevance of framing shows that, contrary to expectation, knowledge not only helps shape actors’ interests but also highlights that pre-existing conceptions of truth define legitimate problems and thereby set the conceptual frame for ensuing analyses. This case highlights that knowledge creation is conceptually “bound”; it takes place in a context where already accepted truths define problems. Their epistemic work produced explicit knowledge through the immersion in the linkages of different technical domains, drawing on research and experiences and translating the knowledge into recommendations that agencies with the appropriate mandates and resources would implement.

Last, implementation describes the shaping of practices that reflect the new knowledge. Already in the second pillar, ECP and its partners aimed to promote the implementation of their recommendations. In the third pillar, the Programme aimed to elevate knowledge by moving it from a conceptual understanding to tangible activities on the ground by assisting implementing actors in the “uptake of lessons learned and good practices on natural resources, conflict and peacebuilding in the field” (UNEP 2016, 16). Presenting itself as apolitical, ECP offered its “impartial expertise on a ‘rapid response’ basis to UN partners and national stakeholders, as well as developing pilot projects and joint programs aiming to tackle specific resource-driven conflicts” (UNEP 2016, 16). ECP thereby acted as an interpreter, translating the often abstract insights from the previous pillars by fitting them into the lifeworlds (realities) of entities that can carry those issues forward and articulating implementable portions of information and directions.

Examples of UNEP’s work in this pillar include, among others, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, and the Central African Republic (see UNEP 2016, 24–28), where UNEP conducted technical assessments and assisted in the integration of environmental concerns. ECP has also assisted the UN’s missions in Somalia, South Sudan, Mali, the Central African Republic, and Democratic Republic of Congo in implementing environmental policy31 and becoming more environmentally sustainable (see UNEP 2016, 32–34). Last, and building on its work on environmental diplomacy and conflict mediation, ECP provided support in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Ogoniland, Nigeria, Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, Western Sahara, Afghanistan, Iran (see UNEP 2016, 37–40) by conducting environmental assessments and fact-finding missions and by supporting and engaging in stakeholder dialogue.

Thus ECP’s activities represent a specific case of knowledge creation that aimed to establish environmentally sustainable practices in peacebuilding through the transfer and tailoring of generalized insights for a particular context. As technical experts, ECP representatives moved knowledge from mental concepts to developing practice, skills, and know-how. This is where knowledge development can be seen to come full circle. However, this type of learning can be assisted by, but not accomplished by, UNEP, as it does not have an operational mandate. However, how well ECP’s work has caught on needs to be further analyzed.

Conclusions

Focusing on UNEP’s work in postconflict settings and its contribution to peacebuilding, I aimed to show how international bureaucracies build new concerns through knowledge. First, I defined knowledge and its relation to agency and presented international bureaucracies as open systems that relate to and draw on their organizational environment. Then, I introduced a multistep model of knowledge creation, defined by strategic and epistemic strategies. By focusing on environmental peacebuilding, I showed how UNEP’s knowledge on the linkages between environmental degradation and insecurities emerged through its experiences in postconflict environmental assessments, how these shaped its interests, and how UNEP’s representatives seized an opportunity to continue their work on peacebuilding. Last, this article was concerned with ECP’s different strategies of concept building—knowledge collection, strategic interpretation, and implementation; these included the collection of insights, outreach to other actors in the UN system, and framing concerns in a manner that enabled cooperation and assistance in the creation of environmental practices in peacebuilding.

In this article I have aimed to highlight the relevance of, in particular, experiential knowledge for bureaucratic interest formation. I also emphasized that knowledge creation requires both strategic and epistemic agency. Strategic activities help actors deal with resource dependence. Framing, in particular, enables cooperation through the alignment of views, thereby increasing the legitimacy of epistemic outcomes. As an essential strategy for the constitution of epistemic space, framing simultaneously highlights the political nature of knowledge.

Finally, this article has aimed to highlight the conceptual value of international bureaucracies as open systems, as an open system view can contribute to the understanding of bureaucratic agency and change. In particular, the distinction of a technical, political, and institutional dimension of an organizational environment can help to grasp where opportunities and challenges for bureaucratic agency lie and what strategies are therefore appropriate.

Notes

1. 

Here the term environment carries both theoretical and empirical meaning. Theoretically, the organizational environment surrounds open systems. Empirically, the natural environment constitutes an important part of the development of peacebuilding.

2. 

This is a conceptual distinction made for analytical purposes; in reality, there is often considerable overlap and contemporaneousness between the dimensions. For example, political and technical concerns interrelate, as actors managing different domains often vie for limited funding as the most tangible representation of political support.

3. 

Technical conditions involve the degree to which issues are perceived as interconnected and whether potential partners trust each other. Favorable political conditions are found in the financial or nominal support that bureaucracies receive from donors. Lastly, the legitimacy tied to international bureaucracies’ activities reflects favorable institutional conditions.

4. 

The interviews were conducted for the author’s dissertation with the understanding that the identities of interviewees would be anonymized. As this influenced what some individuals could share, only their roles are identified (except interviews that were anonymized entirely upon the individuals’ request; see the appendix).

5. 

The funding for UNEP was placed on firmer ground at the Rio+20 conference in 2012.

6. 

Author’s interview with former UNEP official, Skype, September 8, 2017.

7. 

Author’s interview with chief of UNEP PCDMB, Skype, September 15, 2017.

8. 

Author’s interview with UNEP PCDMB policy specialist, Skype, August 24, 2017.

9. 

Author’s interview with UNEP PCDMB policy specialist, Skype, August 24, 2017.

10. 

Author’s interview with a representative of UNEP’s Disasters and Conflicts, Skype, September 13, 2017.

11. 

Author’s interview with chief of UNEP PCDMB, Skype, September 15, 2017.

12. 

Author’s interview with UNEP PCDMB policy specialist, Skype, August 24, 2017.

13. 

Author’s interview with ECP manager, Geneva, Switzerland, March 28, 2017.

14. 

Author’s interview with chief of UNEP PCDMB, Skype, September 15, 2017.

15. 

https://www.environmentalpeacebuilding.org/, last accessed May 16, 2021.

16. 

Author’s interview with chief of UNEP PCDMB, Skype, September 15, 2017.

17. 

Author’s interview with UNEP PCDMB policy specialist, Skype, August 24, 2017.

18. 

Author’s interview with ECP manager, Geneva, Switzerland, March 28, 2017.

19. 

Author’s interview with ECP manager, Geneva, Switzerland, March 28, 2017.

20. 

Author’s interview with ECP manager, Geneva, Switzerland, March 28, 2017.

21. 

Author’s interview with UNEP PCDMB policy specialist, Skype, August 24, 2017.

22. 

Author’s interview with UNEP PCDMB policy specialist, Skype, August 24, 2017.

23. 

Author’s interview with anonymous, Skype, July 5, 2017.

24. 

UN Press Release, 2007.

25. 

Author’s interview with DFS environmental officer, New York, October 18, 2013.

26. 

Author’s interview with anonymous, Skype, July 5, 2017.

27. 

Author’s interview with ECP manager, Geneva, Switzerland, March 28, 2017.

28. 

Author’s interview with anonymous, Skype, July 5, 2017.

29. 

Author’s interview with DFS environmental officer, New York, October 18, 2013.

30. 

Author’s interview with former UNEP PCDMB researcher, Skype, August 9, 2017.

31. 

The DPKO/DFS policy, whose development was assisted by UNEP, was adopted in 2009 and aims to integrate environmental measures into UN field missions.

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Appendix: Documentation of Interviews

graphic

Author notes

*

I thank Jutta Joachim, Christiane Lemke, Jakob Wiedekind, Matthias Kranke, and three anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments and suggestions on previous versions of the manuscript. Many thanks also go to Sebastian Kahlfuss for his research assistance. All mistakes and omissions remain my responsibility.