Decentralisation Doubled Over

Community-based natural resources management (CBNRM) is often positioned within the broader development theme of decentralisation, although I think it is as much a marriage of convenience in which two separate strands of thinking (one bottom up, one more top down) were unified. Decentralisation seems mostly to have played out within the development sector – I don’t see much mention of it any more – whereas community-led initiatives are still alive and kicking: testimony to the greater staying power of bottom up thinking.

However, CBNRM is by no means a universal success story. Governments are loathe to give up control of important sources of patronage which includes many natural resources. There is a lot of superficial community engagement which gets official blessing – always good to keep the mob on side – but less genuine negotiation. A particular trap which can be hard to avoid is that the government will make apparently quite reasonable statements about the need to retain some oversight / governmental control, to which it seems unreasonable to object … Until one remembers that one of the main reasons for having this discussion in the first place is the failure of the government hitherto to carry out its responsibilities in a fair, efficient and incorrupt way.

Recently I was discussing with friends from Tanzania the contrasting stories of CBNRM in the wildlife and forestry sectors in that country. Apparently the two systems used: Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) and Participatory Forest Management (PFM) are incompatible, which would appear to be a spectacular failure of the donor-supported policy-making process in the late 1990s. Did they never talk to each other?

More to the point, PFM is widely viewed as having been more successful than WMAs. Why? Well one possible explanation is that the central government controls the allocation hunting concessions through a notoriously opaque process. (Hunters are rumoured to be generous donors to the ruling party.) Wildlife is widely perceived as highly valuable, and the government is not keen on giving away to communities a share (25%) of the income they receive. In contrast, forestry has historically been viewed as far less important, and so the government was happy to agree to communities to get up to 100% of the value of timber on their land! More significantly, responsibility for managing the forests had been devolved to district councils during the 1990s decentralisation drive. Thus, while organisations and projects working on WMAs must contend directly with the central government if they are to succeed, a forestry project, when faced with uncooperative district officials, can appeal over their heads to the central government. It’s a tactic with limited impact, but the fact that it exists at all might make the difference in some cases.

What, in effect, has happened is that responsibility for forest management had been devolved twice: once to district councils, and then again to rural communities through PFM. If anyone involved in the Tanzanian forestry policy making process back then had their eyes on this kind of political economy and anticipated such effects then I take my hat off to them; that’s seriously cunning! More likely it is just happy coincidence, but we can learn two important lessons. Firstly, that the political economy is always critical (we’re not supposed to ever forget that, but sometimes it slips), and, secondly, if you’re trying to engineer a similar kind of result in a different context, then setting up future allies within central government like this could pay dividends in the long run.

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