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Governance and Power Dynamics

Governance is a critical challenge for the decade ahead if we are to manage the transition to a world capable of staying within planetary boundaries in an equitable way. Poor governance and skewed power dynamics are important underlying factors that lock in unsustainable and unjust patterns of exploitation and inequality. Poor governance also tends to worsen the impact of shocks and crises. Conversely, new approaches to governance that are more decentralised and participatory hold the potential to assist an equitable and just transition, and to create societal resilience.

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Current Trajectory

Trends in governance and power at national and international level are strongly affected by the wave of populist nationalism surging through many countries. In these places we are seeing centralising of power, loss of representation for marginalised groups and worsening accountability. 

For example, deforestation and degradation of the Amazon has actually accelerated during the COVID-19 crisis, alongside an illegal logging and mining boom. Poor governance at national level sits at the heart of this tragedy – Brazilian landowners with interests in the lucrative timber and beef sectors can act with impunity, safe in the knowledge that enforcement of environmental crimes has been loudly defunded and deprioritised by President Bolsonaro’s populist government. 

In a few significant places such as China, digital authoritarianism is becoming a reality, as increasing technological prowess is harnessed for control and surveillance.

However, more positively, more decentralised and participatory dynamics that reduce polarisation and enable engagement and consensus for action are emerging in many places as well. This is particularly happening at city level, and in small states such as Taiwan, enabled in large part by emerging decentralised technologies. There is scope for this trend to spread more widely as the benefits become clear.

Our current technological context also raises its own issues with regards to governance. The rapid development of social media and the growth of Big Tech since 2000 has largely taken place in a governance vacuum. Much positive benefit has arisen, but more negative wider societal consequences are also becoming apparent with impacts on livelihoods, social cohesion and even democracy itself, which make it clear that a new governance framework is required. While the likes of Facebook and Google have appeared before U.S. Congress, in real terms, they remain unaccountable.


The COVID-19 pandemic is causing the strengthening of almost all of these trends above. This is particularly noticeable with regards to digital authoritarianism and the centralisation of power and surveillance. However, it is also strengthening grassroots organising and shining a light on participatory models. 

What are the implications for the kind of societies we will emerge into? How can we harness technology for positive governance outcomes, while making sure that the wider technological context also supports this? How can we enable a fairer and more resilient distribution of power to assist an equitable and just transition to a sustainable future?

Supporting evidence

  • China’s model of digital governance is being boosted as governments across the world seek technical guidance and material support to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Leading research calls for new governance mechanisms to be designed in such a way as to address climate injustices and embed more just outcomes. It further points to the critical interconnection between achieving long-term climate justice goals and addressing structural root causes – including historical injustices, land rights, political participation, and governance. 
  • In Myanmar, the UNDP’s Governance for Resilience and Sustainability Project is designed to assist with the implementation of recent policy reforms related to environmental governance, climate change and disaster risk reduction, to ensure that economic growth in this country is more inclusive, resilient and sustainable.
  • Globally, deforestation is three to five times lower inside indigenous territories than outside, pointing to inclusive forest governance as an important enabling condition for effective action on sustainability.
  • In Taiwan, 10 million people – roughly half the population – now participate directly in digital governance via an online platform that allows users to contribute to the development of laws, propose legislation, fact-check politicians and experience robust transparency.

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