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Natural Resource Governance around the World

Sharing Power: Natural resource management and participatory democracy

Equitable and inclusive political processes in support of sustainable natural resource management

Documents of reference

Borrini-Feyerabend Grazia, Pimbert Michel, Farvar M.Taghi, Kothari Ashish, Renard Yves et al, Sharing Power-Learning by Doing in Comanagement of Natural Resources throughout the World, IIED, IUCN, CMWG, CEESP, 2004

The distribution of power in society profoundly affects the conditions for sustainable natural resource management. When the interests of the local level are not represented in policy-making processes that take place in other spheres of power, the co-management of natural resources is not feasible in the long term. Sustainable natural resource management therefore requires the alignment of different scales of decision-making, from the local to the international level and in between. More equitable and more inclusive policy-making processes aim for the mutual recognition of interests and concerns at different scales, especially by creating new spaces for participation and the sharing of knowledge and values. In this sense, improving the quality of the collaboration among social actors at different levels can lead to the development of lasting partnerships for sustainable natural resource management. Co-management efforts are thus part of a wider social objective for increased citizen participation in political affairs. This brief discusses this broader social aim, which may be called participatory democracy: its rationale, its forms in practice, and the main challenges faced by societies desiring to promote more just and more inclusive forms of representation.

I. What is the rationale behind participatory democracy?

“A policy is the result of numerous interactions among the social actors who, directly or indirectly, shape its content, interpretation and implementation. In general, thus, a “policy-making process” reflects the power relations that exist in society. In other words, it is to be expected that the dominant policy reflects and reinforces the interests of the powerful— be they the political parties, individuals or aristocracies in control of government and/or influential corporations, financial giants and key market forces.” Understanding the complex and power-laden processes by which policies are made is essential for people engaged in co-management and for civil society in general. A few questions help to shed light on the policy making process: “Which actors are involved? Where is “policy-making” actually taking place? Who has the final control and say? Whose knowledge is included and whose is excluded? Whose interests are served? Is someone held accountable? If so, to whom, and how?”

Answers to these questions can “nurture a critical analysis of the “rules of the game” and promote fairer representation systems and better social inclusion in the policy process.”

“Four emerging trends provide a strong rationale for the direct participation of citizens in the formulation and implementation of policies throughout the world.” In the first place is the increased demand for more direct forms of democracy coming from citizens who feel that their interests are not effectively taken into consideration by systems of representative democracy. In many countries, representative democracy’s major flaw is perceived as the incapacity to protect the true interests of poor or marginalized groups. Moreover, many civil society organizations argue that “citizen deliberation and inclusion can improve the quality of decision-making and make the policy process more legitimate, effective, and efficient.” Secondly, natural resource management policy issues are becoming ever more complex and the results are less predictable. Complexity, variability, and uncertainty in natural resource management necessitate flexible responses and adaptive management practices. “Managers must be able to monitor and respond to ecosystem changes and be central actors in analysis, planning, negotiations and action”. Local actors thus have a key role to play in monitoring ecosystems and analyzing feedback for the deliberation of adaptive management policies. Thirdly, critical perspectives on “science” and professional expertise question the supremacy of elite experts in the realms of knowledge and decision-making. Many no longer perceive “Science” as representing knowledge that is certain and unique. There is a mounting distrust of scientific expertise and the government institutions associated with it in policy-making. “In fact, advocates argue that more deliberative and inclusive processes involving citizens and the “lay public” generate a much better understanding of all science-policy questions and, in particular, of the uncertainties that surround them.” Lastly, enhanced advocacy for human rights, social justice, and local empowerment provide a rationale for “citizen inclusion” and “democratic deliberation” in the policy process. “New social movement and peoples’ coalitions throughout the world are reaffirming the importance of human rights over economics and the rule of market forces. For these movements, human rights, justice, and democratic accountability are enhanced when the formulation of policies and the design of technologies involve “inclusive deliberation”.” Essentially, “inclusive deliberation” is a process that permits all citizens to exercise their human right to participate in the decisions that affect their lives.

The four trends summarized above converge on the call for inclusive and participatory processes of policy-making, which could be brought about by the following reforms:

Opening up policy processes to more diverse forms of knowledge. The issue here is not to choose between popular knowledge and scientific expertise, but to recognize the legitimacy of a variety of systems of knowledge, and to give them all a place in the decision- and policy-making process. The intent is also to demystify scientific knowledge, bringing it closer to the lives and realities of people and making it more transparent and less threatening.

Recognizing that knowledge is not separated from values. The world views and ideologies of those who possess or produce knowledge are woven into it by virtue of the questions asked, the answers provided and the conditions under which the knowledge itself has been generated. In the decision-making process, knowledge must therefore be complemented and guided by the opinions, aspirations and values of the people and institutions concerned with these policies.

Embracing participatory decision-making approaches. Methods and procedures exist that allow for the involvement of people and organizations in policy making processes. This is particularly important for the people normally excluded from planning and decisions. Creativity and courage are required to use such methods and procedures, and thereby combat exclusion, offering to all concerned people a fair chance to participate

Understanding that policy-making is more than formulating policies. In order to be meaningful and durable, policy processes ought to introduce monitoring, evaluation and feedback mechanisms and place the responsibility of managing policies in the hands of those who are supposed to be served by them. At all stages in policy processes, there is also a need to enhance transparency, accountability and credibility.”

II. What forms does participatory democracy take in countries around the world?

The call for increased citizen participation in the processes of designing, implementing, and evaluating policies has sparked a growing variety of initiatives and experiments in participatory democracy around the world. In different countries, new spaces are being created that allow citizens to directly influence policy decisions that deal with society, the environment, and the organization of economic life. Although relatively few in number thus far, “such innovations go under various labels, ranging from participatory democracy, to deliberative democracy, to “empowered participatory governance”. The sharing of rights and responsibilities in sustainable natural resource management can be a vector of participatory democracy. Co-management partnerships can privilege specific methods to expand democratic deliberation and inclusion. Such methods “aim to improve the deliberation of policy and policy-making practice through the inclusion of a variety of social actors in consultation, planning and decision-making.” (Refer to brief 4C: “How might the effectiveness of participatory methods be ensured?”) A second, complementary route to participatory democracy is the direct and conscious strengthening of civil society. (Refer to brief 4D: “Three principle strategies for strengthening the civil society”).

Although they take on extremely diverse forms, different initiatives in participatory democracy around the world share certain common characteristics. All attempt to bring about more active and participatory forms of citizenship. Citizens are seen as movers and shakers in political affairs, and not as mere clients or consumers. Citizens are to engage in policies, in agenda setting for research and in the delivery of services in ways that “go beyond consultation to more empowered forms of involvement that renew or establish traditions of direct democracy”. Experiences in participatory democracy also emphasize inclusion, especially those who have been excluded or marginalized in the past such as ethnic minorities, women, youth, and older people. At the same time, these experiences emphasize “the involvement of multiple actors in new forms of partnership, which in the end enable wider ownership of decisions, processes, and projects.” Furthermore, broader forms of accountability are stressed in participatory democracy experiences. Institutions, professionals, and policy makers are held accountable through social, legal, fiscal, and political means. An overarching feature of initiatives in participatory democracy is “the search for new political forms that realize the democratic ideal of government of and by, as well as for, the people. These political forms are participatory because they rely on the commitment and capacities of ordinary people to make sensible decisions through reasoned and conscious deliberation, and they are empowered because they try to link discussion with action.”

Experiences in participatory democracy have their limits. Working towards a fairer balance of power in society, which would imply redistribution towards the weaker sectors and civil society in general, is by no means a smooth process of unquestionable merit in furthering the cause for sustainable natural resource management. Empowerment requires some formal organizing of civil society, a fact that offers important opportunities but also presents potential problems. “Experience has shown that formal organizations, including those that evolve from informal community institutions, can also be dominated by powerful interests, capable of marginalizing the poor and the powerless in even more insidious ways. Formal organizations almost inevitably introduce hierarchy and structure, and these can consolidate a sclerotic distribution and use of power within groups and communities.” Moreover, although “there is a need to recognize and strengthen local rights and responsibilities, attempts to empower previously marginalized sections of the society can have unintended consequences on local livelihoods, the environment and social justice. The social disruption that change could cause, as entrenched groups try to hit back, could in turn upset customary natural resource management patterns. Whether this is ultimately destructive or not depends on the new equations among the social actors and networks involved, interventions by outsiders to stabilize the situation, and other factors. Experience from community-based natural resource management initiatives suggests that greater community engagement combined with supportive outside interventions and incentives leads to better resource management in the long run. Yet, it cannot be assumed that greater democracy in society will automatically and inevitably lead to better resource management at all times and in all places.”

Paradoxically, forms of participatory democracy may also obstruct the path towards social justice. When granted formal powers in inclusive, deliberative policy processes, previously marginalized social actors “may no longer be willing or able to use their informal, and often more effective, tools of resistance— coming late for work, going slow, minor sabotage, slander, ridicule, pretended ignorance, desertion, etc.” These unobtrusive weapons of passive resistance are effective, yet difficult for the formal sector to punish. “If oppressed people are brought out into the open and asked to use formal processes of democracy, at which they may be weak, their relative power might actually diminish. . . Finally, and related to the above, there is the danger that some processes of democracy may actually be a means of co-option. People and groups that get engaged in co-management committees, or processes of deliberation and inclusion, often lose their sharp edge and relax their questioning attitude towards authority. They may also become less “representative” of the whole constituency they come from and distort demands or favour some of its sections. This is, of course, by no means an inevitable process, but one that has to be strongly guarded against. Unfortunately, powers affects the attitudes and behaviors of people, and rarely so in a positive sense.”

III. The challenge of participatory democracy

Achieving more just and more equitable forms of representation involves empowering civil society for policy change. Empowerment necessitates the creation of an enabling social context at different levels, from the global to the local, including within civil society organizations and peoples’ movements themselves. At present, there are several grave obstacles to achieving a social context propitious to participatory processes in support of sustainable natural resource management. Effectively taking into consideration the interests and concerns of weaker social actors; creating safer spaces for participation and knowledge; and deepening democracy in the age of economic and cultural globalization challenge the development of equitable forms of governance.

Gender equity and learning how to better include and respect the voices of the very poor and marginalized are both enduring and urgent new challenges for civil society at large.” Too often, the demands of civil society organizations and peoples’ movements involving farmers and other resource users are biased to the needs of the rich. Even when such organizations succeed in being heard, the concerns of the poorest of the poor are seldom voiced. There is a need “to support additional organizations that can specifically represent the very poor and the marginalized environments in which they live.” “Although natural resource management is becoming increasingly feminized, rural organisations still seem to reflect and reinforce the patriarchal relations that characterize many rural societies. Thus if raising the voice of poor people in natural resource policy is a general problem, then raising the voice of poor women in these policy discussions is particularly challenging. Traditional, community level organizations are often biased to men.” A crucial aspect in the exclusion of women is the fact that participation in rural organizations is often linked to tenure over land and other natural resources. Since women are not often the direct bearers of entitlements to land and resources, they are not considered relevant social actors and are thus continuously excluded from deliberation. Including women’s tenure rights in new land use regulations can be a way to enhance the voice of women.

An absence of culturally appropriate spaces for participation in the governance of natural resources presents a major challenge for societies wishing to promote participatory democracy. Spaces for expression are flawed by the power relations that shape who enters them, who speaks with what knowledge, who is represented, and who benefits. Government- and donor-led efforts to set up committees and user groups can be intimidating spaces that fail to offer the possibility for meaningful voice. On the other hand, citizen or popular spaces, which are created by people who come together to create arenas over which they have more control, usually offer more opportunities for civil society to develop its agenda. “And yet, they are not always welcoming spaces for women, nor inclusive of the weak and marginalized, nor free from manipulation and co-option by powerful insiders and/or outsiders. Citizen or popular spaces can reproduce subtle forms of exclusion.” Moreover, the appreciation of diverse kinds of knowledge is a deep obstacle to participatory governance that abides in the power relations that structure a society. “This is particularly apparent, for example, when both professional knowledge and peoples’ experiential knowledge are brought together in the same space and discussed. Foresters, agronomists, protected area managers, water engineers, health professionals, architects, land use planners, and scientists all have specialist knowledge that can usefully feed into citizen deliberations and more inclusive forms of participation that strengthen civil society. But the deliberative process, and the political negotiation over what constitutes valid knowledge in a particular context deeply challenges professionals to assume different roles and responsibilities.” Since power and knowledge are intertwined, the goal of full inclusion of the civil society in the production of knowledge is part of the larger struggle for a more equitable distribution of power.” For this reason, societies seeking to create more safe spaces for participation are called to undergo profound changes.

Instilling more inclusive and more equitable policy processes is a political objective that must overcome challenges that originate in the global economic context. As certain global actors (such as transnational corporations) gain more and more influence over decision-making bodies at the international, supranational, and national levels, strengthening the civil society not only implies reinforcing political democracy to include more people and places in shaping the policy process, but also democratizing the economy and information. Powerful corporations “use a variety of official and unofficial instruments to impose three basic freedoms central to the neo-liberal credo of international competitiveness and comparative advantage: freedom of investment, freedom of capital flows, freedom of trade in goods and services.” For example, the Trans Atlantic Business Dialogue (TABD), which is made up of North American and European business leaders, is an unofficial and non-transparent body that exercises enormous clout in international trade negotiations through regular contact with politicians and international agency leaders. The concentration of power in the hands of global economic actors “is increasingly dis-empowering many more citizens on an unprecedented scale, both in the North and the South.” “Widening economic democracy is a key overarching condition for the mainstreaming of participatory forms of policy making in this globalizing world. In its deepest sense, “economic democracy” means free democratic access to the means of life and the guarantee of freedom from material want. More specifically, there is a need for economic arrangements that offer material security and time for citizens to exercise their right to participate in shaping policies for the public good and ecological sustainability. Only with some material security and time people can be “empowered” to think about what type of policies they would like to see and how they can contribute to obtaining them. Similarly, only with full access to information and liberation from active brainwashing by economic, political, and cultural advertisements and the diffusion of sheer lies can people develop some forms of critical consciousness.” Nations are thus called to implement safeguards against the economy running the show in order to expand spaces for autonomous citizen action, and to regenerate diverse local economies, technologies, and ecologies. “In the final analysis, only a strong civil society can get people meaningfully involved in the work of the United Nations, shape the international policy arena, lobby for international safeguards and accountability, reform national policies on environment and development, and achieve local solutions that value the wealth and diversity of the world’s cultures, communities, and environments.”

Participatory democracy is the name given to a diverse set of movements and initiatives by which people denounce their exclusion from the political processes that define the policies that affect their lives. It involves spaces where the interests and concerns of marginalized actors are expressed and included in the policy process, which occurs on diverse spatial scales from the global to the local. Far from being easy, participatory approaches need to safeguard against hazardous consequences such as the reproduction of processes of domination, the development of undemocratic institutions, and the ignition of irreparable social problems.

This paper is part of a file written on the basis of the book « Sharing Power ». It consists of four key issue papers that highlight its main ideas. Every issue is illustrated by additional papers that specify the analysis and provide concrete examples of co-management tools (see the links in the right margin of the page).

The whole file is available in English. At the moment, only some papers are available in French.

We invite you to discover the other three issue papers :

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