Environment and Development: Political Economy and International Aid

>> Saturday, August 4, 2007

Political Economy of Environmental Problems in Developing Countries:
Implications for International Development Assistance Efforts

Ajay S. Pradhan

It's Policy, Stupid

When we consider the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on "foreign aid" and Third World "development" over the last several decades in conjunction with the claims that the world's poor are becoming poorer and increasing in number, it would seem that a rigorous stock-taking and evaluation is in order. Such assessment and self-criticism is undoubtedly occurring in many bilateral and international development aid agencies. However, this will never go far enough without penetrating studies of the development process itself through the analysis of the political economy of recipient countries.

The international aid operations have spawned vast bureaucracies. Aimed at reducing the gap between the "have" and "have not" countries and improving the lot of the world's poor and underprivileged, those operations have, in many instances, implanted or enlarged local privilege and affluence, separated large numbers of poor people from access to natural resources and, directly or indirectly, damaged the local environments. Much of this dismal process has been typified by actual or unintentional arrogance based upon the assumption that modern science and technology and western educated elites have the answers to all the problems in the Third World. In Nepal, for example, the great number of virtually competing foreign aid projects has placed the central government in the cleft stick of inability to control its own policy development.

There exists a tendency on the part of bilateral and international development aid agencies to see the temporary provisions of technical experts, dissemination of knowledge, and the training of Third World technicians as sufficient responses to serious environmental degradation in the developing countries. The importance of disseminating knowledge and assisting the Third World countries to overcome lack of skilled labor is great. However, ignorance and poor technical training are not the only things at fault. Political and economic constraints may be important impediments to preservation of environmental quality even though there are enough skilled workers.

Environmental problems in many Third World countries are often the manifestations of bad political and economic policies. Development aid agencies must not ignore this fact in administering funds to help developing countries deal with the problems. This essay critically examines the political economy of environmental problems in developing countries, and its implications for international development aid efforts.

Development Aid at What Price?

Evolutionary changes are underway in the focus of international development assistance organizations. Because of these changes and the efforts of international conservation movement, bilateral and multilateral development aid programs in the environmental and natural resources sector have expanded greatly in recent years. An increasing number of environmental management pilot projects have been implemented and some have even shown signs of success in helping people design local watershed management techniques, village woodlots, and soil conservation systems.

However, in many developing countries where people depend on forests, pastures, and agricultural lands for their livelihood and welfare, significant deterioration in the productivity of these environmental resources continues. The question of how these countries are going to stabilize and then appropriately manage their resource base is made complicated by numerous political and economic factors that are often overlooked.

Despite their expressed concern for highlighting the serious environmental problems that are rampant in developing countries, development assistance organizations and international conservation organizations have sometimes failed to examine the underlying political and economic dynamics of resource and environmental abuse in the Third World. Environmental abuse and mismanagement are often a result of complex political and economic circumstances and incentives prevailing in individual countries. The results may be similar in similar ecosystems all over the world—deforestation, soil erosion, desertification, etc—but the causes of such environmental degradation may vary widely from place to place, region to region, and country to country. This variation has significant implications for the natural resource management and environmental protection efforts of international development assistance agencies and developing country governments.

The generalization of environmental problems by development aid agencies can lead to an oversimplification of solutions proposed at the local level. No environmental policy, plans, programs or guidelines can be successful if they overlook the basic fact that environmental abuse is rampant in the developing world because of much larger and more complex failings of individual political and economic systems. In such a context, resource abuse at the local level or national strategies for depleting forest and fishery resources may well represent the most expedient responses by countries and individuals to situations which would otherwise require fundamental political and economic reforms. Or, power and authority may be exercised to shift the costs of environmental externalities from one group in society to another.

Resource Abuse - Poverty or Greed?

In many cases, the poor, especially the rural poor, suffer great costs, while those with political power may actually gain from a strategy of environmental exploitation. At the same time, there is a tendency to overemphasize the extent to which the poverty-population conundrum is the predominant reason for environmental abuse in the poorest countries. While the link between poverty, population and serious degradation of renewable natural resources in many countries is certainly important, such a viewpoint understates the complex factors that make environmental abuse the most logical short-term strategy for people to pursue. Overpopulation and absolute poverty are not necessarily the primary causes.

For some poor people, the farming of steep and eroded hillsides and collecting fuelwood may well be the only alternative to starving or freezing. But, examined as cumulative regional phenomena, deforestation in Nepal, and desertification in the Sahel are much more than the result of poverty-stricken people trying to eke out a living. Invariably, deeply rooted political and administrative structures and economic incentives induce the poor and not so poor to cut trees or abuse the earth's soil. Corrupt officials, overly centralized bureaucracies, inequitable land tenure patterns, or pressures for short-term successes and projects may make reckless use of the land quite rational and often lucrative.

Moreover, the image of millions of poor people abusing the land, day in day out, year after year, thereby diminishing a wide area to a barren, eroded zone or dustbowl, in a continuous sequence is probably only a partially accurate portrayal of much environmental abuse that takes place in the third world. People the world over react to a continuous series of short-term circumstances that significantly affect at any given time the degree to which they abuse or care for their local environment -- whether general economic outlook, prices, political pressures, etc. Because of these changing external factors, degeneration of renewable resources often takes place in short, intensive periods rather than at one constant rate.

Often after a surge of degradation -- caused by one-shot deforestation, migratory agriculturalists or pastoralist, or a confluence of poor economic return -- the natural or human abuse is slowed and the lands attain a new, if diminished, threshold for their carrying capacity. While nature does not itself change rapidly, it is often diminished at a rapid and erratic pace with, perhaps, periods of relative stability in between. This fact may call for different approaches to the problem of encouraging better land management and conservation practices among the millions who live off the land in developing countries.

In addition, environmental degradation in developing nations is often portrayed as a "tragedy of the commons" -- no single individual has an interest in taking positive steps and collective action does not take place, so in the long term everyone suffers as lands are degraded. This is the way how international community has viewed the desertification problem in the countries in several African nations. But this image of the tragedy of the commons fails to illustrate that some benefit more than others from the short-term abuse of the land and that they might not benefit at all if collective actions were taken to implement sustainable land management practices.

Therefore, from a social sciences perspective, there is still a need to delineate more clearly: a) the diverse causes of resource and environmental degradation in the third world countries; b) why human pursuits lead to degradation of some ecosystems and enhancement of others; and c) how a strategy of environmental exploitation, whether implicit or explicit, may be quite integral for various nations, groups, or individuals pursuing disparate goals under a wide variety of political and economic circumstances.

Therefore, it is important to examine these concerns, and see how manipulation of political power by certain groups, lack of personal and territorial security, numerous economic incentives and disincentives, and the development planning and administration process itself often motivate environmental abuse even when the adverse consequences are obvious. This, of course, raises the question of whether development planners and development assistance agencies should try to treat the symptom or the cause.

Political Influence

Natural resources are finite and scarce everywhere; there is not enough for everyone to enjoy unlimited benefits from these resources. Consequently, governments have to allocate access to scarce resources through various means. The government could either do this by setting out priorities for the use of resources or by ensuring the protection of the "property rights" of institutions and individuals who have already secured access not available to everyone.

Besides their finiteness and scarcities, natural resources can be limited in their ability to contribute to the economic welfare of different groups when access to those resources is restricted. But differential access to basic natural resources in one place also can contribute to environmental degradation in other places. Within specified geographical areas, access to land for agriculture and other land uses is rarely equally distributed among the inhabitants. Groups and individuals with privileged positions within the state, or whose group access is protected by the government through the assignment of appropriate property rights, usually possess the most fertile lands, the best forests, and the rights to scarce water.

In many instances, the monopolization of lucrative resources by few rich people leaves many poor people dependent on land, which is marginal and ill-endowed with natural resources. The carrying capacity of such marginal lands is easily exceeded when large numbers of people have no other means of securing a living except to work the land around them. Therefore, environmental degradation in many areas is an outcome of lopsided distribution of land, water, and other natural resources.

The mountainous and hilly areas of Nepal are an example of marginal areas subject to intensive and often destructive use by poor people who do not have access to limited lands in flatter, more fertile terrain of the plains, the southern food-growing belt. A large percentage of the area under cultivation in mountainous and hilly areas is susceptible to soil erosion. People who of necessity toil in the marginal areas generally cannot lay claim to other resources to help improve their lands -- they are remote from key urban centers, they participate only marginally in politics, they are amongst the poorest and least educated, and they have relatively low social status. As a result, large development projects or financing available from governments and external aid programs also tend to be focused in other areas.

Territorial Insecurity

Lack of well-defined property rights over lands often gives rise to a sense of insecurity. Security from usurpation is a fundamental requisite for long-term land stewardship. Unless people feel that the proceeds of investments to protect and improve future land productivity will accrue to them, they will not make an effort to protect the land. This security is lacking in many parts or the developing world.

For example, in the late 1960s in Nepal, the government's decision to nationalize all forests in the country led to a rapid conversion of forestlands to farmlands, as forestland owners were "rational" enough to protect their lands from being usurped by the State by converting forestlands to agricultural lands. The result was a rapid and large-scale deforestation throughout the country. Until the late 1970s, the government assumed that placing forests under the control of the Forest Department would ensure proper use. The result was just the opposite. More recently, the policy has gradually shifted and the current approach is to devolve control of forests to local community, re-institutionalizing the common-property resource management system in the forestry sector.

For poor people living in subsistence level, security is, however, not simply the freedom from expropriation of property. Poor people who work the land will not or cannot make investments to maintain long-term productivity if this entails too much sacrifice from present consumption.

Another potential cause of environmental degradation is the constant insecurity of land tenure that many poor people throughout the world must endure. In both rural and urban areas, people are reluctant to take steps to protect or improve the land around them if they do not have some reasonable assurance that they will be permitted to continue occupying that land.

Degradation of the local environment may also be encouraged when governments exercise political power to force people to move from one place to another. When governments try to dictate where people settle, one consequence can be a failure by those so coerced to care for their adopted environment.

Role of Governments

In many instances, governments are directly responsible for environmental deterioration. Often governments simply do not have capability and the will to check the undesirable trends. In many cases, governments simply lack financial resources and commitment to provide for adequate protection of natural resources from abuse. Faced with immediate economic constraints, governments are often easily attracted by short-term solutions to environmental problems. Such short-term solutions may very well be popular among the often-ignorant rural people. For the governments, permitting unlawful abuse of natural resources may be far easier than providing alternatives for people in need or implementing political and economic reforms that might reduce the pressures that lead to abuse.

Sometimes long-term environmental rehabilitation programs do not succeed because governments do not afford adequate protection or seek people's participation. In Nepal, reforestation programs have been plagued by administrative problems and the inability of the government to police reforested areas, as well as the lack of people's participation. This problem of cutting down trees will persist as long as people have no alternate sources of fuel to cook food and heat their homes in winter.

In some cases, local groups strongly protest or simply ignore government efforts to institute conservation policies because this would amount to a forced reduction of present levels of income. And in many other cases corrupt government officials and political leaders abuse their authority and exploit resources for personal gains. Those who are responsible for implementing regulations are themselves engaged in unlawful activities. Such actions by powerful and rich individuals often encourage general people to squander the resources further.

The Way Forward

The failure to manage natural resources and to contain the most serious forms of environmental degradation is quite often symptoms of broader problems. Any attempt to design strategies to reduce environmental abuse in developing countries must begin with an understanding of how intricately the various forms of resource and environmental mismanagement are interwoven into the fabric of individual political-economic systems. This fact must be accommodated by international development aid agencies in their effort to help the developing nations around the world in managing their environmental resources.

The development aid agencies must take into consideration all key aspects of political economy relating to natural resources of a country if they really want to be helpful in the sound management of natural resources. They should try to help people in developing countries to overcome resource and environmental problems in a way that is not foreign to the local people.

The stakes in devising better approaches are quite large. In many developing countries today, no single achievement would be more important for the welfare of the masses of poor people than the stabilization and enhancement of environmental and natural resources to ensure sustainable and improved production from the land. If development aid agencies consider the implications of the political economy of environmental resources in the third world countries, they will be successful in providing help, and not merely aid.


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