Adding Governance to the Management of Natural Resources: DFID Topic Guide.

The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) released a Topic Guide on the governance of renewable natural resources. Authored by Fiona Nunan at the University of Brimingham you can download the full version here It grew out of questions debated between two groups of practitioners in international development. On one hand the Governance Advisers. Experts in a spectrum of activities ranging from understanding how the ideas and power relations in a country affect whether change for the better is likely, through to supporting reforms to public institutions. On the other hand the Climate and Environment Advisers. Skilled at managing the often difficult balance between facilitating economic development while also sustaining good environmental practices. This was a first effort at bringing some of those perspectives together. In itself a good use of time, if only to help overcome our inevitable silos.

Overall the message comes over loud and clear: governance is crucial if renewable natural resources are to be sustained and effectively managed. No surprises there.The guide goes into some depth on the kinds of governance arrangements that are currently thought to work best. Decentralised governance is necessary, but badly done in most places because central governments have held on to decision making power, money, or simply paid lip service to local views rather than acting on them. To stand a fighting chance of working decentralised governance of natural resources needs strong financial and technical resources as well as binding regulations. NGOs have an important role to play. They can build collaboration and trust between governments and resource users, especially where there’s been a history of bad feeling over, for instance, the way that a water body is utilised.

But effective decentralisation is not a silver bullet. Multi-level and adaptive governance approaches have been trialled in some contexts to try and link together the various users of a natural resource. This sounds complex, and it is; imagine how many potential uses a lake could have and therefore how many different actors would engage in its utilisation: irrigation, fisheries, hydro-power, drinking water, to name just a few. The keys here are coordination and collaboration, sharing information and joint planning. The idea being that once forums to facilitate exchanges (and manage disputes) are put in place and formalised then these same forums can also adapt to changes that will happen over time, both societal and ecological.

Trouble is there is an array of reasons why central governments will fail to implement, and legislate to protect, these kinds of arrangements. Put starkly, why would they when capturing the benefits of these resources is so valuable?

The guide’s take on this conundrum is to urge the international development community to think and act politically. At least with a deeper awareness of where incentives towards better natural resource governance might lie, there is more chance that initiatives may land. And there’s a mountain of methods for conducting analysis that tells us more about stakeholders and their incentives to support or otherwise spoil positive change. Political economy analysis, drivers of change analysis, conflict analysis — there’s no shortage. We need to keep doing the analysis and know how to implement the findings, something we’re guilty of overlooking.

In the world of international development the messages in this guide are not ground breaking; think politically, support governance innovations, encourage participation in decision making, insist on greater accountability. What is unusual is that renewable natural resources generally do not get thought about in these terms. Nor do they receive much ODA in general compared to other sectors that gain the lion’s share. OECD DAC reported in 2015 that “agriculture and rural development sectors received just 8–9% ODA, with most funding going to agriculture, leaving 8% to forestry and 3% to fisheries in 2012–3.”

Without a shadow of doubt there are multiple needs out there, some more pressing than others. But adding governance to natural resource management is urgent too. Renewable natural resources — land, water bodies, fisheries, wetlands, wildlife — are all too commonly associated with scarcity, degradation, loss of biodiversity. Increasingly the damage is so great that there is limited capacity for some resources to be replenished. In simple terms that means what should be renewable can no longer be renewed.

There are various doom and gloom outcomes associated with a world where forests, land and water bodies can no longer renew, are just spent. So, here’s a positive point, contained in the guide, on which to end. An improvement in the governance of renewable natural resources would not only enhance the chances of sustaining resources, it could have wider benefits. If people can both play a part in decision-making and experience the social, cultural and economic benefits that brings, they are likely to want to play a similar role in other sectors, like health, education or security. That would be a hugely positive outcome not just for natural resources governance but also for international development writ large.