At the "Reinventing Governance" conference in Boulder, Colorado, earlier this month I learned about a participatory method that made a lot of sense to me: community-based research. In principle, this is a partnership between experts in some technical area and members of the community in which some project is supposed to be carried out. Boyd Fuller and Ora-orn Poocharoen from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy reported how members of the Phrak Nam Daeng community in Thailand took on dam building engineers and public water management and in a series of public meetings with community members, experts, and authorities found a solution for a watergate on the local river that would benefit the communities in the area while at the same time maintaining high technical standards.
Long story short, the Mae Klong River receives freshwater from the north and seawater from the south, so the locals have to adapt their livelihood according to the tides and salt level of the river. Hydro-electric power plants, a highway, and several droughts disturbed the salt- and freshwater levels the locals had learned to live with and the Royal Irrigation Department (RID) was called in to rectify the situation. The RID built a watergate - which in the eyes of some communities made the problem worse. Conflict arose between the communities over when the watergates should be opened to supply different areas along the river with either fresh- or saltwater, and how much of it. Frustrated by the long simmering conflict and its negative effects on the local industries, a local shrimp farmer, Panya Dtogthong, initiated a community-based research project. A local research team held many meetings, which brought together members of the community, dam experts, and local authorities. With "local wisdom and expert knowledge," as Fuller and Poocharoen coin it, a proposal for a new dam gate was developed that was supposed to benefit all communities in the area while also being of high technical standard. Another long process ensued, but in the end the gate was built with the approval of the experts of the RID and is now in place on the Mae Klong River.
Several lessons are relevant here. First, top-down governance alone is rarely adequate to solve very specific local problems. Second, a combination of local wisdom and expert knowledge is likely to solve those specific local problems in a responsible and community-sensitive way. Third - someone has to start the process and needs the persistence to see it through. Panya went through a process that lasted several years, dealing with different local interests, engineering problems, and government offices to ensure that the communities along the river were able to maintain their businesses and livelihood. Change agents and coalitions, dear CommGAP friends.
Picture credit: Flickr user matluckins