Inequalities, Institutions, and Sustainability (IIS)

(I am key personnel on this project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. Award: #1757136; Programs: Political Science and Decision, Risk, and Management Sciences.)

Abstract: One of the longstanding challenges of community-based approaches to managing natural resources is that such approaches often lead to increases in social exclusion and economic inequality. The devolution of property rights over natural resources is an increasingly popular policy response to environmental degradation, especially in developing nations. One example of this trend is that local communities now collectively own and manage an increasing share (currently more than 15 percent) of the world’s remaining forests. Some scholars, however, are voicing concerns that the local governance of natural resources brings with it the risk that resource management ends up benefiting mostly the relatively rich or privileged members of natural resource user groups, hence further marginalizing poorer members. This risk is a serious threat to the sustainability of community-based approaches, especially as there is mounting evidence that common-pool resources used by groups with relatively high degrees of inequality tend to have more degraded resource conditions. This research project investigates the conditions under which community-based governance approaches produce such inequalities, and the institutional arrangements that resource users may design and enforce to foster more equitable governance outcomes. We examine community forest management groups in Nepal and India and focus on three questions: How do inequalities influence collective action? How does inequality influence the sustainability of forest commons? Which governance interventions reduce inequality? We answer these questions through four randomized controlled trials, each of which tests the effects of inequality-reducing interventions implemented by local governance NGOs based in both countries. The villages (N = 360) are selected using matched-pair cluster-randomization. Pre- and post-treatment household surveys (N ≈ 20,000) measure participation in governance activities, environmental behavior, benefit-collection, and household consumption. These data are to be supplemented with satellite imagery and detailed ethnographic data.

When Do Disadvantaged Groups Participate in the Decentralized Governance of Natural Resources and Public Services? Evidence from India, Nepal, and the Global South

(Doctoral dissertation.)

Abstract: In recent decades, countries across the Global South have pursued participatory decentralization reforms—initiatives which transfer management and policymaking authority from governments to local community groups—in order to improve governance in policy areas such as natural resource management, infrastructure development, and public service provision. Because the capacity for participatory decentralization reforms to improve living conditions depends in part on the degree to which traditionally excluded groups participate in the local governance institutions created under these reforms, I examine the institutional factors that allow or constrain this participation. 

First, I use impact evaluation methods and a nationally representative household survey across two decades in Nepal to explore ethnic patterns of participation in the community forestry institutions created under the Forest Act of 1993. The Nepalese case highlights the conditions under which decentralized resource governance arrangements can encourage members of traditionally excluded ethnic groups to participate more actively in the local institutions created by the reform (compared to members of the traditional elite). Second, I use a global comparative survey and data on local governance institutions from 16 countries across the Global South to examine wealth disparities in participation in village councils for the management of natural resources. The global analysis points to the importance of external actors, such as governments and NGOs, for providing checks on local elite capture, pressuring local councils to adopt pro-poor initiatives, and ultimately ensuring that poor households have incentives to participate. Third, I use a large-scale randomized policy experiment in rural India to examine the effects of ethnic reservations—a quota system that mandates representation of minority ethnic groups in village councils for the governance of public goods—on mass participation in village council meetings and the targeting of public services managed by the village council. The Indian case suggests that reservations can discourage the voluntary participation of minorities in local governance when they are designed without the prevailing incentives for participation in mind, even under conditions where minority groups do not appear to gain access to public good benefits as a result of reservations. Findings indicate that institutional context and the social position of potential participants interact to shape the incentives for participation on the part of members of traditionally excluded groups. 

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