The importance of choosing the right tool for the job

Duh! I mean obvious or what? Except, as is well known, people equipped with only hammers often see too many problems as solvable purely by use of a hammer. International donor engagement with Community-Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) has long struck me a case in point.

The international donors come armed with their hammer, which is money to support the government in the recipient country. This is primarily what big international donors do. They work often through diplomatic or pseudo-diplomatic channels. Aid should be channelled to the host government; anything else could be construed as meddling in someone else’s country. This is a pretty good hammer for things that the host country government is already good at, e.g. building new schools all over the country: the more money you pour in, the more new schools get built.

CBNRM has been just one of the sexiest concepts in conservation for about 30 years now. Even Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES), including REDD, hasn’t fully displaced it, just been added to the mix, since rich folk much prefer to pay those poster children of poverty porn – poor rural communities of farmers – for protecting their local environment than a bunch of shapeless bureaucrats. So plenty of donor investment in conservation in recent decades has focused on CBNRM. Except that, as I pointed out previously, the same government officials who are charged with enforcing local environmental laws do not really make the most sensible agents of change when it comes to facilitating the development of CBNRM projects.

Now along comes a World Bank report critiquing participatory approaches to development. It includes a substantial section on CBNRM, which is certainly pleasing to see. The main conclusion is that the majority of CBNRM projects do not appear very successful; depending on how they interact with existing policies and laws they may even be counter-productive, helping the rich at the expense of the poor. Now I am familiar to some extent with some of the CBNRM projects they are talking about (or citing others talking about), and I noticed one thing in common: they were all classic international donor funded efforts, working through local government.

So yeah, I’m not particularly surprised by Messrs Mansuri and Rao’s findings, but I’m not convinced that it greatly undermines the theory of CBNRM so much as the practice in the context of international development aid. (Which one presumes was very much Mansuri and Rao’s starting point, given their employer, and is supported by their associated blog post. All of which is not to say the report is not worth a read.) Major donors, of course, employ some very bright people, some of whom have come to realise the same thing. Alas, while they would choose to fund us – a small NGO – if they could, the only thing their employer ever gives them is a metaphorical hammer.

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