Ramsar and the International Organization Partners

Ramsar and the International Organization Partners

24 November 2006

Reprinted from the Web site of the MEA Bulletin, http://www.iisd.ca/mea-l/guestarticle15.htm; a shorter version appeared in the MEA Bulletin 15, http://www.iisd.ca/mea-l/meabulletin15.pdf, 6 November 2006.

MEA Bulletin
Guest Article
Wednesday, 1 November 2006


By Dave Pritchard, BirdLife International

It couldn’t happen today?

When the town of Ramsar in Iran gave its name to the Convention on Wetlands in 1971, it witnessed an MEA being born effectively out of a cooperative initiative by a group of NGOs.

That founding ethos of voluntary effort, cooperation across institutional boundaries, and a technical base including what we now call citizen science, remains embedded in the Ramsar Convention’s personality. This could be one reason why it consistently “punches above its weight” and gives good leadership on several fronts among the environmental Conventions.

The names of those original NGOs have changed: The International Wildfowl Research Bureau (IWRB) is now Wetlands International; IUCN added the subtitle World Conservation Union, and the International Council for Bird Preservation (ICBP) became BirdLife International. Together with the World Wildlife Fund, later re-named the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), these bodies’ relationship with Ramsar evolved as well, eventually becoming formalised in the Convention’s architecture some years ago as the “International Organisation Partners”, or IOPs.

A formal partnership

Ramsar has a generally open and healthy relationship with the non-government community, even adopting a Recommendation (5.6) at its Conference of Parties in 1993 (COP5) encouraging Parties to support NGOs.

The IOPs are a hybrid case; both in the sense that two of them (Wetlands International and IUCN) include governments among their memberships, and in the sense that from time to time all assist with official, semi-official or delegated functions under the Convention as well as playing more typical NGO roles.

Each is a permanent observer on the Standing Committee, and a full member of the Scientific & Technical Review Panel (STRP). Where the Strategic Plan cites who is responsible for delivering each identified action, “IOPs” are included along with the COP, Standing Committee, STRP and the Parties.

In fact they were part of the core fabric of the Convention for several years before any decision was taken formally to define the Partner concept and how it should operate.

This was eventually done in 1999, through COP Resolution VII.3. This confirmed the status of the four Partners (subsequently reconfirmed by Resolution IX.16 in 2005); and set out how other organisations could apply via the Secretariat and Standing Committee for COP approval.

The Standing Committee was also permitted (and under the later Resolution “requested”) to report to the COP on the IOPs’ performance. It remains to be seen how this provision may be used.

Among the adopted rules are a stated expectation that the Partners should contribute to Ramsar’s agenda, and that they will be invited to participate in relevant organs and processes of the Convention.

A list of seven criteria that Partners should satisfy was agreed, covering their mission, track record, practical ability to contribute, and geographical scope of activity that must be “global or at least cover[ing] many countries in one or more regions of the world”.

The Strategic Plan also includes actions to strengthen the input of the IOPs to the Convention, including support for their provision of analyses and data to help Parties.


In 1999 the organisation Ducks Unlimited made a request to become a Partner, and in 2001 the Lake Chad Basin Commission and the Niger Basin Authority also applied. On both occasions the Standing Committee asked for more analysis and a trial period of cooperation. Memoranda of Cooperation (MoCs) were signed, but these applications have not been revived.

The only other request to date was from the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) in 2005. The Secretariat and the existing four IOPs expressed support; BirdLife International referring to the “evolution of the IOP construct”, implying that it was healthy for the Partners not to be seen as a permanent closed “club”.

Although one government voiced reservations, COP10 (Resolution IX.16) approved the addition of IWMI, seeing their water and agriculture expertise as significant for Ramsar’s own evolution. The Resolution also encourages others to consider applying.

What Partners do

Each IOP signs a Memorandum of Cooperation with the Convention. These express general commitments such as increasing consultation; then an annex details joint/harmonised activities related to the Ramsar Strategic Plan. (In fact this tends to identify activities contributing to Ramsar objectives, rather than joint or harmonised activities per se).

Almost every area of Ramsar’s agenda in wetland policy, legislation, advocacy, cooperation, planning, finance, site management, casework, research, capacity-building and outreach features in the IOPs’ work.

Cooperation mechanisms are varied, including contracted services, staff secondments, delegated responsibility for leading working groups, project funding and delivery, championing the Convention in external fora, day-to-day advice and assistance to the Secretariat and the Parties.

The magnitude of “support in kind”, in addition to direct resourcing, is huge; and the IOPs help considerably in making the delivery of Ramsar coherent and meaningful at all levels from global to local.

There are complementary strengths in the IOP group - respective specialisations on wetlands, birds, and water; some having governmental members, others with campaigning skills; volunteer networks of different kinds; and so on.

Some initiatives are undertaken jointly, and strategic coordination and joint speeches at major meetings are common. In 1998 the IOPs launched a pledge of support for Ramsar’s cooperation with the Biodiversity Convention. Technical side events at the last Ramsar COP were organised jointly, and coordinated efforts on wetland monitoring are currently under discussion.

The IOPs do more than serve established agendas: they can act as a voice for wider communities to evaluate the Convention’s impact, challenge it to perform at its best, and bring forward visionary ideas for future strategies.


The Ramsar IOP system offers an interesting model of cooperation through a mixed formula of government, non-government and intergovernmental contributions, on both an individual and a consortium basis.

An explicit harmony of missions, a high volume of real action and a rich foundation of trust and understanding have probably been critical to its effectiveness.

It continues to adapt to change and to be agenda-setting, while also implementing long-term programmes.

Some might question the desirability of so much non-Party resourcing going into implementation of a treaty; but since MEAs themselves are essentially multi-stakeholder partnerships, this might be too narrow a view.

In future, greater visibility for what is done in the Partners’ name, and further imaginative use of collective actions, may extend the impact of this unique arrangement. It remains to be seen whether other MEAs will develop anything equivalent, despite their different origins!