Tag Archives: emily boyd

Are There Limits to Adaptive Governance?

by Emily Boyd

From a development perspective adaptive governance (AG) raises questions about how do you measure fair, efficient and effective processes, who are the winners and losers? The concept of ‘good’ governance in the context of development is about procedural justice and fairness and all that entails to try to stamp out inequalities. It is normative and connected to human rights. Many rely on concepts of ‘good’ governance to set transparent goals in decision-making processes.

For instance, the Nobel Peace Prize Winner Wangari Maathai stated recently that without good governance, Africa was unlikely to overcome its numerous poverty challenges. In the case of SES or coupled climate and development, we are still searching for ways to think about what governance means for understanding coupled, complex, interconnected climate change, ecosystem and development challenges across multiple actors in cities, forests, coastal areas etc. The question that haunts us is whether AG is a ‘utopia’ where getting the principles right leads to a system of management that hides inequalities across scales?

AG emerged from understanding about adaptive management and co-management in natural resource management. AG is in a sense the scaled up version of co-management across hierarchies of decision-making and knowledge. Co-management is by no means a panacea and encounters broad challenges of who is accountable and for what? (e.g. see the work of Plummer and Armitage). Early research from the development community tried to break out of the hegemonies that surround natural resource management and sought to increase understanding for, and interest in, the continual evolution of local knowledge, through farmers own experimentation with crops, soils, and irrigation and with the dynamics of social networks for spreading knowledge as well as risks (for example the work of Chambers, Scoones & Thompson, Leach) (www.ids.ac.uk).

What came out of that work was a revisionist agenda that was much more nuanced about the politics of knowledge. Yet, what was missing from that early work was the resilience dimensions of ecological and climatic change – the stuff that we know now, e.g. the importance of flips, thresholds, feedbacks etc. – and also how knowledge relates to resilience. This is perhaps where adaptive governance can lend a hand specifically to ask questions about how to govern complex climate – development interactions given the imperfections of the ‘real’ world and the inequalities of uneven development.

Let us think about adaptive governance simply as a heuristic to help to pose new critical questions and tease out understandings about features of change, institutional flexibility, scale, and learning in social and ecological systems. Adaptive governance opens up arenas for asking questions about up scaling collective action e.g. the work of Per Olsson and others on the governance of the Great Barrier Reef. Another example is in examining the importance in ecological forecasting (Clark et al 2003). An emerging imperative is to incorporate feedback mechanisms into ecological forecasts, which are essential to predicting ‘potential’ tipping points. How best to manage tipping points also requires consideration of the social dynamics and ways to collectively understand and think about this. The co-production of knowledge looks to be an important part of this.

Adaptive governance also opens up new ways to conceptualize how actors and organizations respond and reorganize following shocks in coupled systems, e.g. the 2005 dieback in Amazonia and 2005 floods in Mumbai and helps us to ask questions about how networks and learning platforms (e.g. in planning for a 2 degree world) connect across different levels of organization in managing for resilience.

Thus to conclude, yes there are limits to adaptive governance. We must avoid panaceas. However it is early days, and the concept has opened up avenues to think critically and engage across disciplines. It is now from further theoretical and empirical work we will get a better grasp of the utility and limits of AG. In the meantime, let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Further reading

Clark, et al (2003). “Ecological Forecasts: An Emerging Imperative”, Science 293, 657.

Plummer, R. and DR. Armitage (2007). “Charting the new territory of adaptive co-management: a Delphi study”, Ecology and Society 12(2):10 [online] URL:http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol12/iss2/art10/

Derek, A., Melissa, M. and R. Plummer (2008).” Adaptive co-management and the paradox of learning”, Global Environmental Change Vol.18 (1):86-98.