Managing Power Inequalities in Policy Making: An Encouraging Case

Those with the power make the rules, and with a few notable exceptions, the rules usually benefit those with the power. This is a general truth in human affairs.

For those of us who live in democratic societies, this often means living with the contradiction of nominal equality before the law and in political power (“one man, one vote”) versus reality: the few who wield economic power have a disproportionate voice in the political process through their lobbyists, and extra protection before the law with the help of their high-end lawyers.

Requiring that everyone have a seat at the table, and thus a voice in the process is a common way to assure that actions in the public arena do not neglect society’s less fortunate. But even if the less fortunate are able to make it to the table, just a seat at the table doesn’t make you an equal, and certainly doesn’t guarantee that your interests will be represented in any final decision. Power dynamics have a way of playing themselves out around a table, too.

Here’s an interesting case study of how existing power dynamics were dealt with inside a specific participation and collective learning case in the highlands of Thailand. While the ethnic minorities in the highlands of northern Thailand have long been blamed by the Thai majority for the degradation of major water basins, they have also been denied any significant voice in decision making for those basins. A new policy making framework which strengthened decentralized decision making and favored greater public participation in natural resource management offered a unique opportunity to bring these minorities into the management of the resources on which their livelihoods depended.

The case concerns a specific village in which an approach that used a combination of role playing games and agent based modeling (the Companion Modeling approach) was used to facilitate collective learning and decision making between the local administrators and villagers of different wealth and status. The researchers developed a critical approach to the power dynamics at play, and this was necessary because, despite the new policy framework favoring greater public participation, there were a number of factors that favored keeping the status quo to the benefit of existing economic elites.

Characteristics of farming households (Barnaud et. al. 2010)

Characteristics of farming households (Barnaud et. al. 2010)

As we can see in Table 1, there were three types of farmers in the village. The “type C” farmers were often the wealthiest, the most well represented on local elder councils and in the local government administration, and asserted a principle of first come, first served access to water rights which benefited their water intensive and profitable lychee and Oolong tea crops. These farmers also asserted there were generally no water management problems in the village. The two representatives on the local government administration in charge of constructing small-scale water infrastructure came from this elite and their accountability to the community as a whole, as opposed to their clan’s interests, was questionable. Given that the Akha and Thai people of the area also oppose open confrontation, it was believed by the researchers that any early consensus, would likely favor the status quo that benefited economic elites.

The elites were not left out of the participatory process, however. One of the above mentioned representatives of the economic elite, one who had just completed a deal to plant very profitable and water intensive Oolong tea, was one of the key leaders in the facilitation process. The other key leader was the religious leader of the village Christian community which made up 60% of the village population. He had generally pro-poor views and supported innovation in agricultural matters, in fact he had originally suggested using the facilitation process that was applied.

What happened in the role playing game the researchers developed and the villagers played, mirrored what happened in reality. Well-off farmers moved quickly to install pipes and assert the first come, first served rule to preserve the resource for profitable and water intensive crops. But the game provided a more constructive environment than the real world for discussing and dealing with the issues. It provided some distance and fun thus allowing people to discuss the issues more freely and through this safer environment build their confidence in their decision making abilities and come to a common understanding of the problem. Notably, the less well-off farmers realized their common problems arising from the first come, first served rule, and how they could collectively make their voices heard. And at the same some of the well-off farmers came to realize how the first come, first served rule, combined with expanded irrigation of Oolong and lychee, would lead to increased social tensions.

In terms of decision making in regards to infrastructure, the process facilitated moving away from a large single new reservoir which less well off farmers worried they would not get access to, to a system of small weirs built in several creeks. The small weirs were seen as a win-win solution which would increase overall water supplies and at the same time disperse tensions in the community. Ten months after they first began to collaborate, the leader representing the elites and the Christian leader together presented a project to the local government council. The proposal took into account the needs of those farmers with no access to water.

Cecile Barnaud, Annemarie Van Paassen, Guy Trebuil, Tanya Promburom, Francois Bousquet. Dealing with power games in a companion modelling process : lessons from community water management in Thailand highlands. The Journal of Agricultural Education and Extension, 2010, 16 (1), pp.55-74. <hal-00609678>


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