Disseminating the power of an index that would transform conservation efforts

Samuel Zeller | Unsplash
4 March 2019

By Carolina Campos, Luc Hoffmann Institute and UNEP-WCMC research associate; pursuing an MSc in Environmental Economics at London School of Economics.

With the vision of mobilising us all to revitalise life on earth, I have been working with the Luc Hoffmann Institute – in partnership with UN Environment’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre and global conservation organisation WWF – on a project that could redefine the way conservation policy is undertaken. We are exploring whether it would be possible to develop a multidimensional index or indices for biodiversity – and defining the conditions that would be necessary to make it happen.

Over 80 years ago, the government of the United States, entangled in the Great Depression, commissioned the construction of a tool that could capture the state of the economy and help to reinvigorate it. As a result, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was created and in the subsequent decades, virtually all nations have used it to manage productive activities and foster progress. Such has been the impact of GDP that it is considered the most powerful statistical figure in human history (Lepenies 2016). Despite misuse and shortfalls, GDP has influenced policies transforming economies around the world. Even its critics, who promote better and more comprehensive representations of human development, still advocate for the use of indices. The Human Development Index, Better Life Index and Multidimensional Poverty Index all differ in purpose from the GDP – but share the simplicity and pragmatism of communicating complexity through digestible pieces of information in a way that is useful for decision-makers.

Today, we are challenged by a new recession: the great decline of biodiversity, resulting from the ongoing unchecked acceleration of human progress. Does this unprecedented immense pressure on the natural world call for a comprehensive multidimensional biodiversity index? We are posing that question to the global scientific and decision-making community. As complex social systems need specialised tools to coordinate and assess performance, so do we, as stewards of nature, need tools to organise efforts to restore the integrity of the biosphere. The difficulties involved in bending the biodiversity loss curve are such that governments and conservation organisations alike need an overarching picture of the health of biodiversity and information about the interaction between human and natural systems, in order to define criteria for action and raise awareness.

Is it possible to condense that vision into an index that helps restore our planet’s biodiversity, which is both viable and useful? A single number alone cannot encapsulate complex reality, but it can certainly communicate its general state. The simplicity of a ‘vulgar’ index like GDP communicates effectively the need for action – and in its disaggregated form it encourages policymakers to consider multiple factors simultaneously, making more explicit trade-offs, priorities and goals. Something similar is urgently needed for biodiversity.

One challenge, though, would be to make the use of such an index ubiquitous in policymaking. Scientists have developed indicators or indices assuming that sound measurements will suffice to encourage decision-makers to use them. In reality, this is unfortunately rarely the case. As a result, the efforts of researchers eager to impact the world are under-utilised and policymakers needing to develop effective policies in the context of competing goals and limited resources are failing to leverage such tools.

To make any such index the heart of evidence-based conservation action, policymakers would need to be convinced of its relevance. But how would we engage scientists and policymakers in a co-production process? To answer this question, we drew from the experience of developers and users of two internationally successful multidimensional indices (Multidimensional Poverty Index and Ocean Health Index) and identified five lessons that would be worth considering during the process of developing and promoting any potential index or indices for biodiversity.

1) Indices should have a flexible measuring framework irrespective of data availability

A flexible framework guided by a general principle capturing the overarching features of the phenomena being measured – while allowing the insertion of context-specific characteristics – enables the index to adapt to diverse contexts, scales and data. Flexibility is ensured when data do not influence the index design.

There are several reasons why flexibility is desirable:

- An index constructed based on preselected datasets will only be applicable in settings where such datasets exist. Hence, a rigid index may exclude a large range of potential users.

- Flexibility makes the index relevant for national contexts by allowing the redefinition and inclusion of context-specific features. Countries differ and thus confront different trade-offs and priorities. Flexibility is key to better informing decision-making, allowing ownership of the tool and including a wide range of users.

- A flexible index enables the construction of a global index using standardised datasets suitable for comparison purposes and the redesign of tailored national versions suitable for decision-making.

2) Indices should be aligned with national policies

Indices are instrumental for a range of purposes: identifying priority units and locations, target-setting, coordinating efforts involving multi-sectoral solutions, supporting management of resources and efficient allocation of funds, and evaluating goals. Such uses require context-specific information aligned to specific national goals to make the index relevant for decision-making.

3) Indices should not be tied to specialised agencies

Ideally, a multidimensional index should be adopted at national level as a result of a high-level politician’s intervention – and under the auspices of a government agency tasked with coordinating multi-sector efforts, such as a national planning office. That office would be commissioned to develop a tailored version of the index along with an implementation strategy engaging all relevant parties. Specialised agencies such as a statistics office may lack the necessary influence, capacity and mandate to successfully coordinate relevant stakeholders in collaborative efforts towards a single vision.

4) Communications and promotion are essential to take indices from theory to practice

A comprehensive global communications and outreach strategy is essential to make any such index noticeable and impactful among relevant audiences. In particular, the support of high-profile academics and politicians and the creation of networks of practitioners are essential to help build momentum and grow the reputation and relevance of the index. Audience mapping, key message definition and strategic planning around relevant events will facilitate the targeting of appropriate outreach, to ensure awareness and uptake of the index are as multidimensional as the index itself.

5) Indices require sustained collaboration with users

Developers should provide advisory services during the adoption and construction of tailored versions of the index – and training on its methodology and interpretation. Sustained developer-user interaction may be enhanced through users’ networks and websites containing technical guidance, methodological updates, research outputs, open source software facilitating index calculation and the experience of index users. In this way, users benefit from improved techniques, whereas developers can identify technical and political challenges being encountered that may inspire new research avenues.

The power of a potential multidimensional biodiversity index/indices – to communicate a clear vision and path to action – holds the potential to bring a new narrative to save nature, by enabling science-based conservation policies and encouraging the engagement of the public in a coordinated way. But to achieve this, such an index would need to be embraced enthusiastically and comprehensively. A flexible measuring framework that can be aligned to national policies – along with high-level political support, an impactful communications strategy and active engagement with users – are equally relevant to ensure effective uptake.

Read another recent insight piece on this topic here.

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