International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD)

International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD)



When I heard about a place in Winnipeg called the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) I was intrigued. Was it just another government PR effort? It sounded worthy, interesting, important, but what did such a grandly named organization actually do?

I turns out that the IISD is a small (about 40 employees) organisation set up by the Governments of Canada and Manitoba, with a budget of $25 000 000 dollars over its first five year period (1990-1995). It's stated mandate is to promote the concept of environmentally sustainable economic development, integrating the needs of private, public, and voluntary sectors at the national and international level.

The first, government appointed head of the Institute resigned after the first 6 months. He was replaced by Dr. Arthur Hanson, who has remained there ever since. Hanson was an original member of the board, with a Ph.D. in fisheries ecology and had worked internationally on a number of large projects. The seniority and breadth of experience of the board and its advisors is impressive, they include very senior figures from the Canadian scene and from other countries such as Algeria, Indonesia and Zambia. Curious, I visited the IISD to ask a few questions, poke around in the cupboards and generally be nosy. Pretty much everything looked very much as you might expect from a government - corporate environment. I wondered about the IISD mandate and how that was translated into action. My host, Frank Cosway conceded that the staff at IISD are perceived as very conservative, but he insists that image is quite misleading. In the internal running of projects, the institute has brought together health workers, representatives from government and private industry, youth workers, economists, environmental activists and others. He feels that the fact that they have helped such diverse interests to reach a consensus, sufficient at least to agree on the contents of published documents, is evidence of IISD's independence of action and of spirit.

In fact documents, books, information gathering and education are really what the IISD does. A regular publication it supports is the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, a summary of events and discussions at UN meetings dealing with environmental issues. It is a daily overview for meeting participants, and is downloaded regularly to the network. In line with the aims of the IISD the Bulletin is a self financing publication. In 1992 the institute published Sourcebook on Sustainable Development as a part of its effort to develop an information centre, like the ENB this is available through the Web. Of perhaps more general interest is the product of a cooperation between groups from the USA, Canada, Mexico and India "Our Responsibility to the Seventh Generation". It provides a condensed expression of the perspectives of indigenous peoples on issues related to development and the environment.

But how can the IISD be truly independent and objective ? Right now its funding does come from government sources, and theoretically the government could just get ticked off and pull the plug. Similarly how, with an emphasis on business connections and influencing "decision makers" how much can the institute be trusted in its dealings with the issues of trade, agriculture, poverty etc. Is it possible to remain close to the business and political communities, draw your support from them and not become in some sense their agent ? I raised these questions with Frank Cosway.

He accepted that the funding issue is a problem, although he says the Institute has had no problems with government pressure so far. To strengthen its independence and security the long term aim of the IISD is to become self supporting - in line with the philosophy of its existence. This is to be accomplished by drawing in more support from private industry for specific projects, and developing collaborations. His response to my second point was that business is the most influential factor in shaping the ways in which development occurs, and that in changing trade, agriculture, social situations or whatever -- one way or another -- business is going to come into the picture. One way that "corporate bias" has been counteracted is simply the drawing in of representatives of organisations such as the Earth Action Network and United Nations Networks to take part in many of the projects the IISD has had a role in. Another aspect of the organisation which Cosway believes gives the IISD much of it's credibility and ability to communicate confidently with people who have influence and decision making power is it's range of board members, including the original UN director of the Somalia project (who was sacked for telling the world that the operation was a screw up). Another of its advisors Vandana Shiva, was described by the Guardian as "one of the world's most prominent radical scientists", certainly not your regular crowd follower. Cosway believes that the calibre of the board members and staff, as well as their dedication to the goals of the enterprise will keep the organisation on the rails. As it develops its financial base and security, he predicts that the institute will eventually start taking positions on some issues where it might currently remain neutral (things like transport policy, and national issues within Canada).

I wondered what motivated business interests to get involved with an organisation associated with problems many companies and indeed governments would prefer not to think about, an organization with other goals to consider besides the financial "bottom line".

An example of commerce as a partner is a joint project between the IISD, Deloitte, Touche Tohmatsu International, and SustainAbility. The result of this was a very polished looking document 64 pages long called "Coming Clean: Corporate Environmental Reporting". It summarises, from a corporate perspective, important issues in corporate reporting practice, what, when, why, how, based on information from a survey of companies which have produced environmental reports in Europe, North America and Japan. It recommends corporate reporting on environmental issues for a number of reasons, partly to understand and limit liabilities, but also for more positive reasons, such as using it as a marketing tool and educating employees. Among their guidelines : reports should be systematic, honest (including both the good and the bad news), develop meaningful performance indicators, and ask for feedback. Why would a private company volunteer its cooperation in such a major enterprise, which is telling businesses that they should get their act together and add a new dimension to their performance monitoring, data gathering, and reporting procedures? Cosway believes that part of the incentive is the potential for a new market, Deloitte and friends can simultaneously point out the dangers of not having a coordinated and rational reporting strategy, suggest solutions, and set themselves up as an obvious place to turn to for help in implementing the necessary changes.

As a part of its aim to become a major international resource centre for issues dealing with sustainable development, related business opportunities, problems of empowerment, poverty, and so forth the IISD is developing its own databases accessible through the Web, an on-line hypertext system, CD-ROM databases, possibly an electronic discussion group and so forth. They recently hosted a conference here in Winnipeg dealing with new business opportunities that are arising from the current emphasis on environmental protection and sustainability. Through the Earth Negotiations Bulletin the IISD already has an increasingly unique perspective on the UN and its role in environmental and developmental work. Most people - even the conference goers - only encounter small fragments of the proceedings, but the four people who put together the ENB see both the specifics and the generalities of the conferences, and they have the information collated and available over the net before many governments (because of security, secrecy, paranoia, or whatever) get information from their own delegates. The IISD does have an e-mail address ( for anyone who might be interested in their archives. But I have to warn you that e-mail doesn't necessarily get read more than once a month so don't be in a hurry.

- Dr. Euan Taylor, Winnipeg, Canada

     * IISD annual report 1992-1993.
     * Earth Negotiations Bulletin - various issues.
     * Coming Clean: Corporate Environmental Reporting, Deloitte Touche
       Tohmatsu International, SustainAbility (1993).
     * Our Responsibility to the Seventh Generation: Indigenous peoples
       and sustainable development, Clarkson, IISD (1992).
     * Various issues of the Globe and Mail (Toronto) and the Winnipeg
       Free Press.

Newsgroups: bit.listserv.devel-l
Date: Mon, 5 Sep 1994 20:16:21 -0700
From: "Arthur R. McGee" 
Subject: Int'l Teletimes Article on the IISD

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar
Previous Menu Home Page What's New Search Country Specific