The U.S.–Mexico border region currently faces multiple sustainability challenges at the intersection of the human and natural systems affecting both nations. Warming and drying conditions are threatening surface water and groundwater availability, disrupting farming, grazing, and other land- and marine-based livelihood systems, and challenging the sustainability of human settlements and economic activity in the region. These biophysical challenges are exacerbated by a highly mobile and dynamic population, insecurity, poverty, volatile economic conditions, an often-tense border-policy environment, increased exposure to extreme weather events, and urbanization on marginalized lands. In short, social and political processes are inextricably linked to ecological dynamics in this border social-ecological system.
There has been a long history of collaborations among U.S.–Mexico border states pertaining to water resource management, flood control, fire management, and information exchange associated with climate variability and change impacts (National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine [NASEM], 2018; Wilder et al., 2020). These collaborations have often arisen despite the dynamic context of border policy at the national level in the two countries, in which trade asymmetries, cross-border migration, the management of illegal commerce, and natural resource management challenges have often created tensions in bilateral relations. There is growing awareness of shared social and ecological challenges and potential responses and that significantly more remains to be done to develop the binational scientific, policy, and management capacity that is
needed to promote sustainable development. It is of increasing importance to advance innovative partnerships among a diversity of public, private, and civil sectors that strengthen comprehensive cross-border collaboration and the co-production of sustainability solutions, interventions, and knowledge.
Understanding what makes some partnerships succeed while others fail or falter requires looking to both social science theory and practice on the ground. Knowledge from the social sciences, such as theories related to social change, managing transdisciplinary initiatives, social-ecological governance models, and participatory action research yields insights into effective partnership structures and strategies (Stibbe et al., 2019). Lessons learned from successful case studies are also valuable for understanding how partnerships work in situ. Furthermore, to determine what types of partnerships are required for success in the region, a better understanding is needed of the complexity of the challenges that cross varying scales, geographic regions, and financial constraints (Lutz-Ley et al., 2020).
To better understand these challenges, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, with support from the George C. Mitchell Endowment for the Sustainability Sciences and in collaboration with the Mexican Academy of Sciences, Academy of Engineering, and National Academy of Medicine, undertook a study to identify actionable approaches to advance the efficacy of partnerships for sustainability in the drylands border region shared by the two countries. This consensus activity combined the thematic and regional expertise of committee members with insightful and often challenging views shared by a diverse group of stakeholders from across the public, private, and civil society sectors during a structured webinar. The committee included experts in the areas of sustainability, social change theories, drought and water resource management, institutional capacity building, policy and regulatory decision making, and environmental change, as well as individuals with industry and practitioner experience and expertise.
Committee and stakeholder discussions centered on partnership strategies for sustainable development and were supported by a thorough review of literature on partnerships and literature on the border region’s biodiversity and social-ecological systems. The objective of the webinar was to inform committee deliberations and in turn to enhance future collaborative efforts focused on putting knowledge into action. Box 1-1 contains the full statement of task for the committee.
The effects of climate change, air and water pollution, resource over-consumption, human migration, international trade (both formal and illicit), and a host of other social and ecological pressures are acutely felt in communities in the U.S.–Mexico binational region. The region exemplifies the dynamics of nested and interacting complex social-ecological systems in that social processes such as urbanization, migration, resource extraction, and trade constantly produce changes in the biophysical environment while being directly affected by environmental change. Developing solutions to these sustainability issues requires engagement and collaboration across societal sectors with attention to this dynamic coupling of society and the environment. In this context, both countries are rapidly increasing their capacity to understand climate-related challenges and opportunities. But significantly more needs to be done to develop the binational scientific,
policy, and management capacity that is needed to promote sustainable development. Residents and other actors within the region have had relatively less capacity and political influence to shape such national policies to their benefit. Many challenges occur across jurisdictional boundaries and require resources beyond the capabilities of individual sectors to resolve. In advancing Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in this region, the stakeholders include governmental, tribal, industry, academic, local community, and nongovernmental actors (Alejo, 2019).
The United Nations sets forth in its 2030 agenda 17 SDGs (United Nations, General Assembly, 2015). Mexico as a nation, and in particular the Mexican federal government, committed actively and early to the SDGs (Lucatello, 2015; Mexico National Council for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, 2018; Ulfgard, 2017). Of the goals, the committee is tasked with furthering the work to achieve SDG 17,1 which is to “Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development.” Of that goal’s 19 individual targets, the committee has identified targets 16 and 17 (below) as being particularly relevant for improving partnerships in the U.S.–Mexico binational region.
Target 17.16 Enhance the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development, complemented by multi-stakeholder partnerships that mobilize and share knowledge, expertise, technology, and financial resources, to support the achievement of the sustainable development goals in all countries, in particular developing countries.
Particularly with Target 17.16, the committee emphasizes, in both conceptual and programmatic terms, multi-stakeholder partnerships (as described in Chapter 2) with empirical case evidence (described in Chapter 3).
Target 17.17 Encourage and promote effective public, public-private, and civil society partnerships, building on the experience and resourcing strategies of partnerships.
Target 17.17 dovetails with the task of the committee, which is to better understand the opportunities and challenges for sustainability partnerships in the binational region to synthesize recommended strategies. These strategies are outlined in Chapter 4.
HISTORY OF COLLABORATION BETWEEN THE U.S. AND MEXICAN NATIONAL ACADEMIES ON BINATIONAL SUSTAINABILITY
In May 2018, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and the Mexican Academy of Sciences, Academy of Engineering, and National Academy of Medicine2 held a binational workshop. The outcome of that workshop was published under the title, Advancing Sustainability of U.S.–Mexico Transboundary Drylands: Proceedings of a Workshop (NASEM, 2018), in both English and Spanish (Avances en la Sostenibilidad de Tierras Áridas Transfronterizas de Estados Unidos y México). The proceedings highlighted the key sustainability challenges facing the region, explored the scientific and technical capacity that each nation can bring to help address them, and suggested new opportunities for binational research collaboration and coordinated management in the advancement of sustainability science and development (NASEM, 2018).
The workshop was centered around four sustainability themes of high priority to the binational region. The four sessions covered (1) the interaction and flow of resources, people, and services across the border and throughout the region; (2) the simultaneous scarcity and abundance of cultural and ecological resources; (3) environmental shocks and stressors, which often co-occur alongside unexpected policy changes and market volatility; and (4) how sustainable solutions can be achieved through governance and innovation at the local, national, and binational levels. These four themes tie the discussion of sustainability partnerships in this report more closely to the U.S.–Mexico binational region. The themes also served as guidance for this study committee as it carried out its deliberations.
The consensus study committee comprises 11 experts, with representation from both the United States and Mexico, in the following disciplines: sustainability science; water resources management; social change and social justice; drylands ecology; policy making and institutions; climate and environmental change; and mining and industrial development.
At the onset of its work, the committee deemed it essential to develop a single, streamlined definition of binational sustainability partnerships, specifically directed toward U.S.–Mexico border relations. In defining sustainability partnerships, this committee builds on a definition that appeared in a National Research Council (2009) workshop summary (Enhancing the
2 The Academia Mexicana de Ciencias, the Academia de Ingeniería de México, and the Academia Nacional de Medicina de México, respectively.
Effectiveness of Sustainability Partnerships), which defined them as “actors from different sectors (thereby excluding cooperation within a sector; e.g., business to business) voluntarily coming together to jointly produce what no single actor could effectively produce on its own” (p. 3). The committee’s expanded definition appears in Box 1-2.
As described, such partnerships are especially beneficial for addressing challenges that call for cross-sectoral, interdisciplinary, collaborative solutions.
In addition to building on a prior binational collaborative workshop report, reviewing the literature on binational partnerships, and drawing on committee member expertise, the committee also sought key input through stakeholder feedback. It did this by conducting a public webinar on U.S.–Mexico binational sustainability partnerships and using the feedback to inform committee deliberations.
The consensus study design was centered on a focused workshop approach, in which committee members actively engage with other participants to discuss and obtain insights on key issues to be addressed in the statement of task. This approach jumpstarts the consensus process by having a committee plan and participate in a highly structured public workshop—the discussions from which serve as the primary information-gathering source for later committee deliberations in closed session. Due to restrictions in response to COVID-19, the workshop was held as a webinar. Because this activity was designed to inform a wide range of stakeholders in the region, gathering input and feedback from the various organizations and individuals that work on sustainability at the border and the binational region more broadly proved to be insightful while enabling the overall study process to be more inclusive and collaborative.
To develop the agenda for the workshop and a plan for the report, the committee first created a list of key sustainability themes that were most relevant to the environment, commerce, and culture in the U.S.–Mexico region, basing the list on the takeaways from the May 2018 workshop as well as the committee’s existing knowledge of the region. Committee members then mapped the themes onto the four contexts identified at the May 2018 workshop—namely, interactions and flows, scarcity and abundance, shocks and stressors, and governance and innovation—and prioritized the list of themes based on their relevance to the four contexts. The committee ultimately settled on the following list of priorities, listed here alphabetically:
- Climate Change/Environmental Conservation
- Critical Resource Management (Water/Energy/Food)
- Disaster/Emergency Management
- Environmental Justice
- Humanitarian Aid
- Public Health
- Trade/Commercial Manufacturing
- Urban Planning and Development
In addition to the above themes, and as called for in the statement of task, the webinar and report were informed by the United Nation SDG framework, with a particular emphasis on partnerships.
To generate a broad list of attendees for the webinar and hear from a variety of stakeholders in the region, early in the study process the committee developed an online questionnaire to assess the landscape of partnerships between the United States and Mexico. The questionnaire, provided in English and Spanish, asked respondents to identify the sectors in which they conduct business and partnership affairs, the sectors in which their partner(s) operate(s), and their assessment of the effectiveness of these partnerships. The complete questionnaire text is reproduced in Appendix A.
A link to the online questionnaire was posted on the committee’s website and was also distributed by the committee and staff to their binational and sustainability networks, with a request that contacts share the link with anyone they knew with an interest in binational partnership activity in the region. The questionnaire responses themselves were not used as data, nor
were they a representative sample of all partnerships in the region; rather, they were used solely to help generate a broad and diverse list of invitees to participate in panel discussions. In total, 124 responses were received from governmental and nongovernmental organizations with partners involved in the aforementioned key sustainability areas. Over half of all responses were from stakeholders in Mexico. The committee thoroughly reviewed the responses and aggregated them by sector, and then sought to invite from each of the sectors represented in the responses at least one stakeholder to be a panelist in the webinar. Considering criteria such as diversity and inclusion, binational representation, and respondents’ self-assessment of partnership history and effectiveness, the committee selected representatives of the following agencies and organizations to serve as webinar panelists:
- Arizona State University
- Consejo Empresarial Nogales A.C.
- El Colegio de la Frontera Norte
- Index Nogales, Asociación de Maquiladoras de Sonora, A.C.
- Líderes Tradicionales de O’odham in México
- Next Generation Sonoran Desert Researchers (N-Gen)
- Northern Arizona University
- San Diego Association of Governments
- U.S. Geological Survey
- U.S.–Mexico Border Philanthropy Partnership
- Watershed Management Group
The committee held the half-day, public, virtual stakeholder webinar on July 15, 2020. In the webinar, which was publicly broadcast, participants engaged in panel discussions moderated by consensus study committee members (see full agenda in Appendix B). Sessions were conducted in English and Spanish with bilingual translation available throughout the webinar. The webinar was recorded and transcribed and is discussed in detail in Chapter 3 of this report.
Following the workshop, the committee members met virtually in closed session several times, with writing teams meeting on an ad hoc basis, to discuss their charge. The committee then determined how to ground the webinar discussions in the context of its emerging thinking and reached a consensus in identifying strategies to enhance sustainability partnerships in the U.S.–Mexico binational region.
Having reviewed the literature on the dynamic climate, population, commerce, and natural resource characteristics of the region, and looking at research
on effective partnerships, particularly in the context of SDG 17, the committee then sought to place the information received at the webinar into the larger partnership narrative, considering both countries’ policies on trade, migration, the environment, and scientific cooperation. In this way, webinar-based insights on coordination among relevant government agencies, the private sector, and civil society were included in the partnership narrative along with an analysis of the notable strengths and weaknesses of each partnership type.
This report comprises four chapters. Chapter 2 critically reviews the published literature and analyses on partnerships, placing it in context with the SDGs (both broadly and specifically to SDG 17), as well as with the characteristics of the binational region. Chapter 3 uses evidence from the July 15, 2020, webinar (see Appendix C for the webinar agenda) to explore key opportunities and challenges for sustainability partnerships. The final chapter outlines the committee’s recommended strategies for effective partnership strategies. Appendix D reviews the binational context and characteristics of the region and gives context to binational partnership discussions elsewhere in the report.
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