[img_assist|nid=190|title=|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=100|height=43]The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has identified information exchange down as one of its aims and established a Clearing-House Mechanism (CHM) with the task of facilitating technical and scientific cooperation. Information exchange by the National Focal Points, however, is decentralized and lacking a common structure, and lacks the resources required to make the most of its potential.
The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has three main objectives: the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits (article 1). For many years, research and resource management organizations, environmental organizations, scientists, governmental agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been collecting information on various aspects of biodiversity, and a significant amount of this data is publicly available. However, according to the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) access and effective use of this information is hampered by:
- lack of shared knowledge of who has what information, technology or expertise, as it is held in a broad range of separate sectoral and regional institutions;
- lack of consistency of observational methodologies, classification, qualification standards, quality assurance methods and analytical models, so that inter-sectoral and cross-sectoral integration and comparison are very difficult;
- lack of equity of access due to varying levels of information technology infrastructure and 'information buying power'.
With article 17 the Contracting Parties emphasized the need to exchange biodiversity information from publicly available sources, taking into account the special needs of developing countries. They considered it necessary to bring all relevant information together, including an exchange of results on technical, scientific and socioeconomic research, as well as information on training and surveying programmes, specialized knowledge, indigenous and traditional knowledge as such and in combination with technologies (including biotechnology). However, a mechanism for this information exchange was not defined.
Clearing-Houses in general
While there was no mechanism planned for information exchange (article 17), the Contracting Parties established a Clearing-House Mechanism (CHM) to promote and facilitate technical and scientific cooperation (article 18.3).
The use of the term 'clearing-house' in this context is somewhat misleading as it is a general term used for information agencies. Originally clearing-house referred to a financial institution where member banks exchanged checks and bills, so that only the net balances had to be paid in cash. Today its meaning has been extended to include any agency that brings together seekers and providers of goods, services or information, thus matching demand with supply. As an agency, the key characteristics of a clearing-house can in general be described first as being independent, which means that the operators of the clearing-house should have no vested interest in controlling or subverting the flow of information. Second, a clearing-house is set up for a mutual benefit. No detailed accounting is made of the transactions, as it is assumed that the contribution and retrieval of information will be equally distributed for all participants in the long run.
[img_assist|nid=191|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=150|height=65]Modern clearing-houses are computer-aided and increasingly accessible via the internet, so it is no longer necessary for the clearing-house to be physically located in one central place. Instead contributed information can remain on the computer of the institution that provides it. The contributing institution continues to exert expert custodianship like updating the information, while the central clearing-house facilitates the access, for example by providing an internet portal to the different websites. In this way, a distributed centrally linked information exchange system can be build.
Who's responsible for article 17?
In contrast to this general definition of a clearing-house, the main task of the CHM of the CBD is not the exchange of information, but the promotion and facilitation of technical and scientific cooperation. The CHM is achieving this broad objective through organization of capacity building projects and workshops, and by participation in the work of the thematic programme areas of the Convention. It also offers expert assistance in setting up National Focal Points (NFPs), amongst other tasks.
Even though the Contracting Parties considered the exchange of information a relevant issue, there is no special mechanism established to achieve it, and it is now incorporated within the tasks of the CHM, based on the general idea that the exchange of information is an essential step in promoting cooperation. During the pilot phase of the CHM, information exchange systems to support the objectives of the CBD were developed and implemented, and the CHM is continuing to do so on request of the Contracting Parties or as part of its collaborative work with other units of the CBD Secretariat.
The CHM is located at the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (SCBD) in Montreal, Canada, and equipped with a staff of three (and two additional computer systems staff to assist when needed). Apart from their main task of facilitating technical and scientific cooperation, they are also responsible for the technical set-up, content and update of the CBD website. The CHM also designed and implemented the technical architecture for the Biosafety Clearing-House (BCH), a separate clearing-house established as part of the CHM per Article 20.1. of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB, see box below). The CHM, therefore, requires adequate physical and human resources to continue its work in support of technical and scientific cooperation while further developing cutting-edge information systems and networks.
The National Focal Points
With the National Focal Points the CBD has established agencies at national levels for the implementation of the CBD. Among other tasks, like dealing with issues of Access to genetic resources and benefit sharing (ABS), NFPs are also supposed to set up their own clearing-house mechanisms, the so-called CHM NFPs. Their tasks are similar to those of the CHM in Montreal, but in general they are acting much more as content providers than as facilitators of technical and scientific exchange.
The CHM NFPs show differences in their resources and in the activities they can undertake. Currently, of the 182 countries that are Party to the CBD, 74 per cent have a CHM NFP, 58 per cent have an email address, and 29 per cent have a website. Regionally this differs enormously. The smallest online presence comes with 15 per cent from Central and Eastern Europe; 25 per cent of African countries have a website, and 78 per cent of Western Europe (see box below). On the one hand these differences are caused by the so-called Digital Divide, by differences in access to Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), by differences in resources and capacity.
On the other hand, the CHM NFPs and their websites also differ in quality and in the priorities they set. They range from sites that just announce the existence of an CHM NFP to sites with elaborate databases. They might give information only in the national language or are aimed at an international audience, offering an English translation of the whole site.
[img_assist|nid=192|title=Online presence of the Contracting Parties to the CBD|desc=Column number:
1. Total number of countries in the world (194)
2. Contracting Parties of the Convention of Biological Diversity (CDB) in total (182)
3. Number of countries that have set up National Focal Points (NFPs) (143)
4. NFPs that have an email address (112)
5. Countries that have put an NFP Clearing-House Mechanism online (56)
6. Countries that are considered in the CBD search engine (10)
No common structure
[img_assist|nid=190|title=|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=150|height=65]The CHM NFPs are supposed to give information about national biodiversity, national biodiversity policies and other related issues, but there is no common structure of how to do so. Countries are requested to make information about their biodiversity related laws and regulations available, and also to publish their National and Thematic Reports, Country Studies etc. that they prepare for the CBD, and with most of the CHM NFPs this information is available. Through the set up of NFPs, biodiversity and biodiversity policy is divided along political borders, but not by ecological regions or thematic issues. This gives the CHM NFPs the room to define their own priorities and their own divisions within the wide scope of the field of biodiversity. CHM NFPs are advised to structure the thematic content that they want to provide along the key areas thematic programmes and cross-cutting issues of the CBD (see box below). Most CHM NFPs take up some of the issues, but not all of them. The lack of a common structure makes it complicated for users to access the information provided by different national sites as similar information might be listed under different headings. Even for example within the European Union, where the responsible persons of the different CHM NFPs have regular meetings, there is no common structure.
The one positive exception comes from the African countries Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Congo, Mauritania, Chad, Niger and Ivory Coast. These sites are all set up with the same structure and even with the same graphic icons. They are developed in a partnership project from Belgium and therefore have a common standard.
A small but effective step to develop a common appearance and architecture, and to make the NFP sites much easier to find could be a common URL internet address for all sites. At the moment users can easily get frustrated when they try to find the names and addresses of the different national sites, as they quite often appear to be hidden away on government sites.
The lack of common structure and common standards makes not only the access for individual users complicated, but it also complicates the integration of the CHM NFPs into a bigger system. Technical differences for example in the command scripts used for databases can effectively hamper the set up of a common search engine, that could have the potential to send a search query posted on one site to all other CHM NFPs.
The lack of both common quality and common technical standards seem to restrict the access to information already available within the whole CHM. For example the search engine on the general CBD site only takes 10 of the existing 56 CHM NFPs into account. Even if agreeing on common standards and implementing them is a considerable task, it would be worth the effort to make more from all CHM NFPs.
Relevant issues for the Clearing-House Mechanism
|The CHM of the CCBD aims to facilitate exchange about a variety of information|
|6 Key areas:
||14 Cross-cutting issues
|5 Thematic programmes
The information exchange through the CHM and the CHM NFPs is very supply driven. The CBD site is spilling over with official documents, nearly all of them in the formal language of the United Nations (UN). This can probably not be avoided in the UN context, but it hampers the access to the site and information given in it, for all those who for example come from a technical or scientific background and who may not be familiar with this kind of official jargon. There certainly is a demand for information about the CBD and its implementation in different languages.
Within the CHM and the CHM NFPs, provision of information is seen as a necessary step towards promoting technical and scientific cooperation. The CHM NFP sites therefore link to official policy papers and national reports, to list of experts, and to the sites of institutions and research programmes in the field of biodiversity. Again the presentation of information is supply driven. Most CHM NFPs have employed one person at most. The information presented on the site therefore has to go through a very narrow bottleneck, with this one person being responsible for finding, judging and collecting the information, as well as putting it online or linking it to the NFP site. In some cases the NFP staff can fall back on a network of experts that act as information providers from their field and as multipliers, but in the end the CHM NFP sites in general come down to presenting collected information. The site of the Belgium NFP offers visitors the option to submit links to sites they consider relevant, but all in all there is no possibility for formulating a need.
In general the idea of a clearing-house is to bring demand and supply of information together, and it could make the information value of the CHM much higher if it could be transformed into a demand driven system. It would enable the facilitators of the CHM to concentrate on the information asked for.
For what constituency?
The available information on the CHM sites is supply driven by linking already publicly available information, while the main work of the CHM, the capacity building workshops and other projects, and its existing networks remain largely invisible (or are too hidden on the sites). The websites provide information but it remains unclear how that should turn into cooperation. Most sites have no way of knowing what the visitors of their site actually search for and more important what they actually do with the information they retrieve.
CBD working groups regularly hold regional and international meetings where discussions and the information generated go far beyond the data that individual persons can collect. Using ICT options, those networks and discussions could be made much more visible, and could invite people to join in, by starting with a discussion instead of with pure information. Online discussions and workshops, like the one between the Netherlands, Costa Rica, Benin and Bhutan to prepare a joint statement for the COP6 meeting could be a start.
Good ideas and new approaches - as always - need funding. The Contracting Parties have identified the CHM as of key importance for the implementation of the CBD. When it comes to funding however, the CHM seems to be lost between different responsibilities and funding obligations. The CHM at the SCBD is only staffed with three persons, the CHM NFPs in general with one person, who is not necessary working fulltime. Funding situations are worse in developing than in industrialized countries. Even though the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) provides grants of up to US$ 14,000 for computer hardware, software and ICT training for developing countries, funds are also needed for a reliable infrastructure like telephone lines. If this issue is not tackled, the gap between industrialized countries that can promote their expertise on highly developed websites, and developing countries whose CHM NFPs cannot even be reached by email will only widen instead of being closed through cooperation.
Appropriate funding is necessary but it can also start at a small level. The Belgium NFP is running training courses for members of NFP of developing countries. After a five week long course, the CHM NFPs can put a basic CHM NFP site online, hosted by a server in Belgium. 14 CHM NFPs from African countries are facilitated that way.
The Clearing-House Mechanism of the CBD is an ambitious project to facilitate technical and scientific cooperation on biodiversity issues, and it has also the task of providing information exchange. High expectations are raised when the CHM is described as the main tool for implementing the CBD, and when it comes across as a major information exchange system at the same time. Often public understanding about the size and the priority of those tasks seem to lack. One should downscale those expectations while also raising funds, to enable the individuals at CHM and the CHM NFPs to continue their work and get the attention they deserve for it. Meanwhile the CHM should develop a more uniform structure for the CHM NFPs, and explore ways to make the information exchange more interactive and demand driven, to get the most out of the existing networks.
A. Lorch, Biotechnology and Development Monitor, March 2002