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Natural Resource Governance around the World

Sharing Power: Co-management and effective governance

Is co-management more effective than the non-concerted management of natural resources?

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 authors of Sharing Power employ “the term co-management (CM) to describe a partnership by which two or more relevant social actors collectively negotiate, agree upon, and implement a fair share of management functions, benefits and responsibilities for a particular territory, area, or set of natural resources.” In other words, co-management describes a kind of arrangement for governing natural resources that involves negotiation and a degree of power sharing. Many such partnerships cited in Sharing Power have come about as alternatives to other, prior forms of natural resource governance, and are sometimes, but not always successful in implementing effective management solutions. In fact, some attempts at CM are utter failures (see Brief 1C: Nicaraguan Reef). Nevertheless, the authors convey that CM may be an optimal solution for managing natural resources. Provided that certain crucial conditions are met, it presents certain advantages regarding sustainability and equity in natural resource governance. This brief asks if CM is more effective than other forms of natural resource management. In response to such a large question, three subjacent themes are discussed below: how CM compares with other forms of natural resource governance; its requisites; and to what extent it fosters “good governance”.

I. What sets co-management apart as a natural resource management system?

Co-management is certainly not the mainstream form of natural resource management in the world. Indeed, it is dominated by other systems, such as a system in which one actor or a small group of actors holds all of the power to make management decisions about natural resources. This type of situation, a non-concerted management system, is common throughout the world. The negative social and ecological results of such monolithic systems have spurred the development of alternative, collaborative approaches to natural resource management. The main difference between a single-party and a collaborative approach lies in the acknowledgement of the variety of legitimate interests and concerns in natural resources and the sharing of decision-making power among different actors. “Processes, agreements, and institutions are inclusive rather than exclusive, they attempt to include all the bearers of interests and concerns who wish to participate. ” Co-management is based on this type of negotiated, joint decision-making approach that aims for a sharing of rights, responsibilities, and benefits regarding the governance of natural resources.

“Co-management capitalizes on multiplicity and diversity. Different social actors possess different capacities and comparative advantages in management, and a partnership stresses and builds upon their complementary roles”. For example, local actors may have more information about the status of the natural resources in their vicinity, and are often better equipped to monitor their use. At the same time, the national government might have the financial means to implement a project while an international organization may have the expertise to offer advice and support. When these actors pool their diverse resources, more effective management solutions can be found to optimally manage a set of natural resources. This joining of forces—collaboration—is at the root of co-management’s potential to propose effective management solutions.

Moreover, co-management is an alternative to systems based on the belief in a unique and objective solution to natural resource governance. Management systems that rely on objective Science often privilege the strict application of a set of established rules, and allow little room to adapt to changing circumstances (for more about science and natural resource management, see Brief 1D and Brief 4, parts I and III). Co-management is different in that it is a “process requiring on-going review and improvement”. “Its most important result is not a management plan but a management partnership, capable of responding to varying needs in an effective and flexible way”. Changes in the legal, political, socio-economic, and ecological factors of a socio-ecological system affect the outcome of management practices. In changing circumstances, sticking to a rigid management plan might lead to inefficiency and waste. Co-management partnerships make a priority out of flexibility and adaptability as they are processes of learning-by-doing. “In addition, a process of learning-by-doing generally leads towards a better recognition of specific needs, and new opportunities to involve institutional actors”. Co-management is really a process of dialogue and action-research which, if conducted with equity and integrity, can produce concerted agreements and institutions capable of meeting the challenges of modernization through the wise merging of features of different historical and cultural origins.

Another key feature that distinguishes co-management from other forms of natural resource management is that it strives for equity. Other management systems may privilege controlling or protecting a set of natural resources, while “co-management attempts to achieve more equitable management”. Having equity as its ultimate goal means that co-management searches to make the system as fair as possible. Since the interests and concerns of different social actors with respect to the same resources can be enormously different in both quantity and quality, the quest for equity is not a mere pursuit of equality. Certainly not all social actors deserve the same entitlements to natural resources. As one or more grounds for environmental entitlements can appear much more fundamental than others, the key relevant social actors need to be distinguished among the others claiming entitlements. Such distinction among actors can be the basis for determining “whose opinion should count” and “who should decide”. For this reason, striving for equity means that the interests of the weakest actors be expressed, recognized, negotiated, and protected. The direct and equitable involvement of all the different social actors in a management partnership can be seen not only as necessary for a sustainable learning-by-doing process, but also as social progress towards greater collaborative democracy. (For more about the goal of equity in co-management, see Brief 3, part II).

In sum, co-management differs from and may be more effective than, other, more common forms of natural resource management for three reasons. First of all, co-management is a collaborative process, meaning that different social actors are involved in deciding, implementing, and assessing management actions. This type of organization differs from a unilateral system in which one actor assumes the majority of rights and responsibilities, while the other actors are left without the power to pursue their own interests and concerns. Secondly, co-management spurns the myth that there is one best way to manage natural resources. Rather than believing in the infallibility of a “scientific plan”, co-management embraces uncertainty. This acknowledgement of a variety of possible solutions is the starting point for a process of learning-by-doing, which enables co-management partnerships to respond more or less effectively to shifting circumstances. Thirdly, the centrality of equity in a co-management partnership sets it apart. The interests of all relevant social actors, including the weakest ones, are made known instead of being subjugated to the interest of the strongest. In fact, the rights and responsibilities of each institutional actor are more likely to be respected in the long term when they are defined during a participatory process that aims for equitable management.

II. What are the obstacles and costs involved in co-management? Is co-management always feasible?

Co-management thus might be more effective than non-concerted forms of natural resource management. However, this does not mean that co-management is always feasible, or that when it is, it comes about in a smooth, easy process. On the contrary, establishing and maintaining a partnership necessitates meeting certain costs and overcoming some obstacles. For CM to work, delicate balances need to be found, and this takes time. If the costs are too high or the obstacles insurmountable, co-management will not be an effective solution.

One of the main challenges that a co-management partnership needs to face is its early transaction costs. In other words, the preparation of the partnership and the negotiation of the agreements can incur “early and substantial investments of time, financial resources, and human resources”. “This is a serious issue as the time requirement may be unaffordable for short-term projects and/or the financial requirements may be unaffordable for some relevant actors. The human resources need to include professionals with uncommon skills (e.g., capable of carrying out a fair stakeholder analysis, supporting the organizing of the relevant actors, facilitating participatory processes and the negotiation of agreements, etc.) who may not be easily available” (ibid).

A key obstacle encountered in co-management comes up in the relationships between social actors with contrasting interests and concerns. Indeed, power sharing is not an obvious process. Reaching the initial agreement can present quite a challenge. Some parties might oppose the agreement, and refuse to “share authority, substantially change their livelihood systems, or forego current advantages and benefits”. A serious obstacle could be created in the case of “explicit conflict among relevant social actors with different power bases, which, in the absence of protection measures, may bring about negative outcomes for the weaker ones.” (ibid). “The challenge is to create a situation in which the pay-offs for everyone involved are greater for collaboration than for competition”. If this equilibrium cannot be reached, then co-management is not possible because “the commitment of most parties in the CM process is a crucial condition for success”. Just because a partnership is up and running does not mean that the negotiations have ended for good. For example, new factors may intervene or unforeseen problems may arise, which would bring the relevant actors back to the negotiation table. For example, a shift in the economic conditions that make a management option viable and profitable, the emergence of new relevant social actors, or sudden ecological transformations might threaten the negotiated agreements.

Additionally, a CM partnership incurs other operating costs that need to be contained. To name one, the complexity of socio-ecological topographies can present a challenge for demarcating the pertinent natural resource management unit. This unit needs to make ecological sense (including the key factors impinging upon the ecosystem) and economic sense (sharing of management costs among all the concerned parties). “The natural limits of an ecosystem, however, are often hard to define…For instance, a coral reef can be affected by the detritus and pollution brought to the sea by a river. Should the relevant NRM unit comprise only the reef or also the river basins opening into it?” Therefore, in order to be ecologically coherent and economically sound, a natural resource management unit should often encompass a large surface, involving many actors with complementary roles in different parts of it. However, the larger the management unit, the more actors will be involved and the more complex the negotiations will be. The partnership may become too large for people to manage. For this reason, this social preference for a “small-scale” unit must be harmonized with the “large-scale” tendencies sketched out by ecological and economic factors. Achieving this balance “requires context-specific institutional engineering through negotiation,” one potentially costly undertaking indeed. On account of the complex relationships among human societies and with nature, CM can incur potentially high transaction costs (organizing large meetings, translation costs, employing mediators, etc). These costs need to be contained to a minimum in order for CM to be effective.

Beyond meeting costs and overcoming obstacles, CM is not always appropriate or feasible. “For instance, when the basic conditions of freedom of speech and personal safety are missing, a ‘partnership’ loses its meaning and attempting it may actually endanger people. When a seemingly endless ‘search for consensus’ is utilized by some parties as a way to stall decisions, others may be rightly compelled to abandon the game. And when rapid decisions and actions are required, e.g., to block the very fast ecological deterioration of an area, it may be better to act unilaterally than to achieve a broad consensus on how to protect…a devastated territory. Most importantly, there are situations of entrenched powers in which a confrontational strategy is more appropriate than a collaborative one. In such cases, promoting CM would mean supporting an illusory ‘social pacifier’, which may waste time and energy that can be used to muster a more useful opposition stand. In general, the decision to pursue a CM process is both technical and political”.

III. Can co-management be a tool of “good governance”?

Certainly economic and ecological factors are important to take into consideration when gauging the effectiveness of any natural resource management system. However, it is essential to reflect upon co-management not only as a technical solution, but also as a political organization. A cogent means for assessing CM settings as political arrangements is to compare with the principles and conditions of “good governance”, as based on the work of the United Nations. Basically, the U.N. definition of good governance is underpinned by five principles: legitimacy and voice, accountability, performance, fairness, and direction. By reflecting upon how settings in which multiple actors share the rights and responsibilities in regards to natural resource mangement might perform in each of these five areas, a quality analysis of CM as a form of governance can be reached. However, as management partnerships can produce very different outcomes, this type of analysis would need to be carried out on a case-by-case basis. For this reason, the potential strengths of CM in each of the five domains of good governance are discussed below. The reader is invited to keep these five principles in mind when reading CM case studies.

The first principle of good governance is that of legitimacy and voice. This involves looking at the kind of participation involved. For good governance, “all men and women should have a voice in decision-making, either directly or through legitimate intermediate institutions that represent their intention. Such broad participation is built on freedom of association and speech, as well as capacities to participate constructively”. CM settings ideally uphold this principle in that peoples’ “views are freely expressed, with no discrimination related to gender, ethnicity, social class, etc.” and that “agreed rules are respected because they are ‘owned’ by people and not solely because of fear of repression”. Also falling within this first principle of legitimacy and voice are concerns for consensus orientation. “Good governance mediates differing interests to reach a broad consensus on what is in the best interest of the group, and where possible, on policies and procedures”. In CM partnerships, “dialogue is active and consensus is often achieved. There is a measure of trust among stakeholders”, which indicates that CM has a lot of potential for achieving this prime good governance standard.

Integral to good governance is thorough accountability. “Decision-makers in government, the private sector, and civil society organizations are accountable to the public, as well as to institutional stakeholders. This accountability differs depending on the organizations and whether the decision is internal or external.” A prerequisite of true accountability is a high level of transparency. “Transparency is built on the free flow of information. Processes, institutions and information are directly accessible to those concerned with them, and enough information is provided to understand and monitor them.” CM partnerships should provide for genuine accountability because “all management partners [ought to] possess adequate knowledge, and quality of knowledge, about what is at stake in decision-making, who is responsible for what and how responsibilities can be rendered accountable. [Furthermore,] the avenues to demand accountability are accessible to all.” After all, since CM partnerships operate best when everyone involved is well-informed about what is at stake, CM is a form of governance that is highly conducive to developing the free flow of information. A management partnership can improve its degree of accountability when “accountability is not limited to verbal exchanges but linked to concrete and appropriate rewards and sanctions.

A third principle of good governance is performance, which can be gauged by looking at a governing system’s level of responsiveness and its effectiveness and efficiency. The institutions and processes of a responsive system will “try to serve all stakeholders”. As expressed above, learning-by-doing in CM is a type of regime that is designed to be “robust and resilient, i.e., able to overcome a variety of threats/obstacles and come out strengthened from the experiences”. CM is potentially effective and efficient, meaning that the processes and institutions related to it “produce results that meet needs while making the best use of resources”. A strong point of many CM experiences is that “institutional and human capacity is available to assume management responsibilities, as appropriate”. Since a key component of CM is this ongoing self-evaluation and adaptation, the administration aims continuously for management effectiveness.

Fairness is the fourth benchmark of good governance. As discussed above, the ultimate goal of CM partnerships should be equity. Defined in the U.N. papers on good governance, equity is the state when “all men and women have opportunities to improve or maintain their well being.” Fundamentally, conservation measures within CM are usually “undertaken with decency and dignity, without humiliating or harming people.” This is a major point of how the outcome of CM can drastically differ from that of a non-concerted conservation policy aiming to exclude local societies from the process. Frequently, this type of action wreaks grave repercussions upon human livelihoods and safety. Co-management presents an alternative when “the governing mechanisms (e.g., laws, policies, conflict resolution forums, funding opportunities, etc.) distribute equitably the costs and benefits deriving from conservation.” Also related to fairness is the nature of the rule of law in the governing system. “Legal frameworks should be fair and enforced impartially, particularly as they regard human rights”. The laws and regulations that are decided upon in a CM partnership need to be “applied consistently through time. Fair avenues for conflict management [ought to be available, as well as], eventually, non discriminatory recourse to justice”.

The final principle of good governance as elaborated by the U.N. is called direction. This refers to a governing system’s strategic vision. “Leaders and the public have a broad and long-term perspective on good governance and human development, along with a sense of what is needed for such development. There is also an understanding of the historical, cultural and social complexities in which that perspective is grounded.” A CM partnership has the potential to develop a strategic vision particularly when customary and innovative ideas and processes are fused together by effective leadership. This can be an especially challenging step for those involved in CM, as contrasting viewpoints often clash and a long process of trial-and-error is often necessary before reaching a consensus on where the partnership is headed.

Co-management therefore has much potential, if certain main conditions are met, to embody the five principles of good governance as laid out by the United Nations. CM appears to have a greater capacity to meet the standards of good governance than non-concerted forms of management, particularly as regards to legitimacy and voice and fairness. “It can be argued that, if good governance principles are upheld, the CM organisational setting will be stronger and more sustainable. It is also likely that the very process of a pluralist negotiation enchases the chances of every participant to understand what governance is all about and how to attempt to improve upon it”. The degree to which the principles of good governance are followed can be used to gauge the effectiveness of a single co-management partnership, and the actors within it ideally should engage in a communal reflection about good governance.

This brief has attempted to respond to the question of whether CM is more effective, in terms of sustainability and equity, than unilateral types of natural resource management. First of all, CM is different because it is a participatory process rather than an imposed one; it seeks equity rather than control; and is constantly under review rather than programmed. Secondly, CM can be a very costly endeavour (when feasible), which means that those involved need to find the right balance of human and financial resources in order to function. Lastly, CM has perhaps more potential for upholding good governance than a non-concerted system. Ultimately, a general judgement of co-management as effective or not effective is difficult to make. In some cases, CM partnerships smoothly govern natural resource use and conservation, and in other cases, they can lead to a dead-end. A complex phenomenon involving most aspects of human life, the management of natural resources is difficultly subjected to such a simple assessment.

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 :