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Lost in Translation: How Building “Strong” Institutions can Diminish Human Security in the Global South

30 July, 2019
McKenzie F. Johnson

Environmental institutions have been established in the global south to improve environmental regulation and increasingly contentious extractive landscapes, but they lack in generating positive incomes on the ground. In many countries illegal mining and logging, violent conflict over resource access and distribution, and environmental degradation still prevail. This paradox exists because environmental reform has limited non-elite access to resources while it helped multinational elites consolidate control over formal legal resource extraction, says McKenzie F. Johnson from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  

In the Global South, natural resource conflict has largely been considered a consequence of poor governance and weak political institutions. The international community’s solution? Build “green” governance capacity as a way to mitigate violent conflict and improve environmental outcomes. For the international development community, this has meant introducing laws, policies, and practices based on international standards of best practice, and training local regulators to adhere to those standards.

Over the past 50 years, this strategy has helped countries like Ghana and Sierra Leone construct an impressive array of environmental institutions that closely mirror those in the United States and Europe. For example, many countries have formalized land and mineral rights through licensing processes, enhanced social and environmental protections using environmental impact assessments, and committed to transparency initiatives to enhance state accountability. These institutions have provided the necessary framework for regulators to engage in complex environmental regulation in increasingly contentious extractive landscapes.

Rise of Illegal Logging and Mining

Yet, even as “strong” institutions have emerged to manage natural resources following global standards, these countries have experienced a precipitous rise in “illegal” logging and mining, violent conflict over resource access and distribution, and sustained environmental degradation.

In Ghana, for example, the most recent estimate suggests that illegal artisanal (i.e., unmechanized subsistence extraction) and small-scale mining, which locals call “galamsey,” expanded between 1995 and 2006 from around 30,000 miners to more than 1 million in 2006. In 2014, the government of Ghana warned that “the menace of illegal small-scale mining … has become the single most important source of environmental and natural resource degradation, and constitutes a major economic, social, and national security concern that requires swift policy action.” Paradoxically, the presence of institutions thought to foster human security appears in many ways to be producing the opposite effect: greater human insecurity.

What explains this paradox?

Based on research I conducted in Ghana and Sierra Leone between 2014 and 2016, I found that insecurity—which I see primarily in terms of livelihoods and violent conflict— is a function of the construction of theoretically strong but exclusive institutions. That is, both Ghana and Sierra Leone have established the infrastructure, or rules, practices, and regulatory agencies and personnel, thought necessary to enhance human security and environmental sustainability.

However, non-elite producers, especially artisanal miners, have been increasingly marginalized in this process as regulatory structures and practices have redistributed formal legal access to natural resources according to one’s ability to conform to highly technical and costly standards, mineral licensing and environmental assessments, in particular. Environmental reform has limited non-elite access to resources critical to their livelihoods and helped multinational elites consolidate control over formal legal resource extraction.

Marginalized Non-Elite Producers

Why haven’t regulators been able to construct more inclusive environmental governance institutions to mitigate insecurity?

Many in the international development community argue that this problem relates to institutional translation. That is, global governance models need to be translated to, or reconciled with, underlying social contexts in order to make them “fit” within local culture. To many in the international development community, especially the World Bank, regulators in Ghana and Sierra Leone may not yet seem to have the capacity to engage in such translation, and thus are unable to harness functionally “good” institutions in ways that make them work within local contexts. Indeed, a refrain commonly overheard in both Ghana and Sierra Leone is that while green institutions have become strong, implementation of those institutions and overall governance capacity remains weak.  

The argument that domestic regulators do not have the requisite capacity to engage in translation misses the mark. What is actually happening is that domestic-level “translators” (i.e., environmental regulators and civil society actors) have become part of global systems of governance. They attend global meetings and conferences, consult for and work within organizations like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and essentially become part of the global “green” architecture. Through this socialization process, regulators have gained new forms of power and agency.

This, in turn, has served to make them co-producers and disseminators, rather than recipients and translators, of global practices and norms. Such individuals struggle to engage in institutional translation as questions about negotiating structural, cultural, political, and scalar differences are overshadowed by questions of appropriate conduct—that is, as local norms and practices take on good or bad characteristics according to the principles of global governance.

In short: there is, in fact, no translation. As such, environmental governance models rooted in a particular (neoliberal) logic of natural resource management are applied wholesale without considering the extent to which domestic producers can cope with the new standards.

Formal Legal vs. Informal Illegal Producers

The upshot?

The construction of strong institutions in the Global South has effectively divided the extractive landscape into two discrete categories: a formal legal sphere populated by good producers that follow the rules and an informal illegal sphere populated by bad producers that do not. In turn, this classification system has contributed to the criminalization of artisanal and small-scale producers that attempt to go around the system and engage in resource extraction without the permission of state regulators.

Over time, both the state and multinational companies have used this (socially constructed) divide to justify excluding artisanal and small-scale domestic producers from the formal sector, forced eviction of informal illegal producers from formal multinational concessions, and the violent enforcement of regulatory standards. Artisanal and small-scale actors frequently encounter state security units that destroy machinery, make arrests, or beat and forcibly remove miners—sometimes causing death. I experienced the devastation wrought by enforcement measures firsthand when a security team swept through an illegal mining camp operating in a forest reserve where I had been working in 2015. The “soldiers,” as they are called by miners, burned personal items, including money, destroyed machinery, arrested at least one miner, and confiscated costly items necessary to the excavation process. The impact on the subsistence miners and their community, which depend significantly on mining revenue for their livelihoods, was devastating. 

Not surprisingly, numerous small-scale domestic producers across a number of extractive sectors view this situation as grossly unjust. They argue that environmental regulation is “rigged” in favor of multinational companies that can more easily and cost effectively comply with global standards. Some see the state as increasingly inaccessible and out of touch with the everyday challenges of its mostly subsistence-level citizens. Further, good governance reform is increasingly perceived as a source of natural resource conflict rather than a solution for it. To the point, violent conflict in both Ghana and Sierra Leone has increased as informal illegal producers have been pitted against formal legal mining companies, and the state security forces that protect them, over the right to extract and benefit from valuable resources.

Why is this argument important?

First, it disrupts the concept that Global South regulators are simply corrupt or inept. Continuing to spin Sub-Saharan Africa’s governance challenges as an issue of capacity is not only wrong, but also perpetuates colonial systems of thinking that are unfounded and unjust. It also obscures the ways in which neoliberal systems of environmental governance actually generate social and environmental insecurity.

Second, this argument suggests that “inclusive”—rather than conventional understandings of “strong”—institutions may be more important in generating real opportunities to enhance human security. In practice, the international community will need to compromise on some functional aspects of “good” institutions to generate better outcomes on the ground.

BlogA New Climate for Peace
Source
New Security Beat

Tags development environment featured Guest Contributor security

Topics

Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Cities

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

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Co-Benefits

Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Development

Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

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Energy

The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

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Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

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Finance

Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.

Forests

Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

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Gender

Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

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Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

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Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

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Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

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Security

Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.

Water

The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

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Regions

Asia

The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

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Europe

As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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