Theory lets you see the invisible

Photo by Marco Simola for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
Photo by Marco Simola for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

SP-12: Policy Learning for Multi-Level Governance

Developing policy regardless of level is a complicated process. When looking at governance and policy across multiple levels — local, state, national, international — the complications tend to compound. This cluster of overlapping interests, demands, regulations, etc, becomes so difficult to comprehend that it’s essential to approach the discussion through a theoretical framework, since theory allows you to see the invisible.

Ben Cashore (Yale University) took the stage first, introducing a policy-learning framework he developed to examine complex governance issues. The framework provides the ability to engage the proper instruments to address the problem issues.

There are many classical approaches to policy study. Cost-benefit analysis is often applied to governance instruments, but tends to ignore things that matter to some constituencies and gives narrow solutions. Then there are incremental approaches such boycotts, embargoes, certifications, etc. The problem is that there is often no systematic assessment of the instrument used to see if desired results are being achieved.

Cashore continued by introducing the four pathways of multi-level influence — international rules, international norms/discourse, markets, and direct access. As an example of how the pathways work he provided an example of an adoptive norm – the 1987 Brundtland Report on the World Commission on Environment and Development, which planted the idea internationally that protected areas should be doubled. These pathways are what are used to influence change.

On-the-ground change is ultimately a question of values. Deep-seated differences are commonplace, so it’s essential to choose a proper instrument that creates solutions of a synergistic nature. This is easier said than done, as humans can be confrontational by nature.

Most problems are win-lose, and while progress is achieved through compromise there will always exist a hierarchy of interests that sets the agenda and the political and governance discourse. Cashore asked, “Have we defined the problem before we have chosen the problem solving instrument?” As there appears to be a small window of instruments being applied to a small window of problems.

Gabriela Bueno (Yale University) continued this discussion by providing an example of how the learning framework was applied on the ground in the case of illegal logging in Brazil by working with local NGO partners to conduct a comparative analysis to come up with solutions in a situation where boycotts (such as those conducted successfully in Indonesia) and similar economic instruments won’t work because the market for illegal logs is domestic. As a general rule, international standards cannot be more stringent than national laws.

This led to the question of whether can we apply the pathways framework to a domestic level instead of at an international level? The answers are still being discovered, however this application seems to be promising.

In the example provided, there was also a noted lack of communication across the levels of government. There is a need for a strong coalition within the different levels building on sharing a common goal. Even with the advent of new technologies that aid communications across the sectoral divide and levels of government, there is still the question of how to get people involved and ensure that instruments used in framework are viable in the future.

Margaret Shannon (University of Freiburg) brought forth a critical policy analysis to the discussion before the Q&A portion of the session. Through postmodern policy analysis it can asked, “What preferences of values are created by the concepts of pathways of policy influence and problem typology.” Alternatively, problems could be treated like puzzles: the more information, the better.

Through bringing in local knowledge, practitioner knowledge, scientific knowledge, and having open discussion, communities can stimulate dialogue that leads to the capacity to create new ideas. “We might think governance is dependent upon uncertainty, but without uncertainty, there’s no reason to learn.

Looking through the lens new theoretical frameworks will give us new insights into age-old problems, or perhaps, redefine what the problem is.

Written by: Michael Huck

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