PODCAST: What is multilevel governance and why is it important?

Expanding beyond vertical government to look at horizontal governance.

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At a glance :

  • Vertical component of governance includes central government, regional government, other local governments including provinces, districts, etc. Horizontal component of governance includes different ministries, different departments of regional governance.
  • If you look at the entire landscape, different levels of government and different departments of those different levels of government have different powers and responsibilities over different land use classes.
  • The principal benefit of REDD+ at the global level (carbon) is actually an ancillary benefit at the local level. This indicates a potential mismatch between local needs and global realities.

Ashwin Ravikumar, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), talks to ForestsClimateChange.org about what multilevel governance is, the research being conducted and efforts underway to close gaps between levels.

This is an edited transcript.

Q: How many levels of governance does a country typically have?

A: Well, we’re talking about just the government. When we’re talking about governance, we mean it more broadly than just the government. There is almost always at least 2 levels. Usually the central government plays a role in land use and then if there is a regional or local government, they will also have a role.

And this varies between countries, depending on the degree of decentralization. Some places have 3, 4 maybe even 5 levels that have some relevant powers related to land use, and going into the future potentially relevant to REDD. There is always at least 2 levels that are going to be important when we’re talking vertically.

Horizontally, at even a single level there is multiple government entities that also might be important. For example, you might have an agricultural ministry that is responsible for land use and you might have an environmental ministry that is responsible for moving conservation agendas forward – managing REDD+ strategy, for example. So what you end up seeing is that there is multiple levels that might be important and also multiple government actors within levels that might be important.

So you have this vertical component of governance. You might have the central government, the regional government, other local governments including provinces, districts, etc. And you have this horizontal component where you have different ministries, different departments of regional governance. All of which may play different roles for mitigating land use and also related to REDD+.

Now if we expand the definition of governance to look beyond just the government and use governance to refer to who is making decisions and how are they making those decisions, which sort of what we mean when we say governance, the situation becomes even further complicated, because non-governmental sectors start to become important. Community groups, NGO’s, civil society, at large can all play a role. The private sector, for sure, can all be important. And all of these different actors again can operate at multiple levels and multiple scales. So what emerges is a pretty complex picture of multilevel governance and a fairly complex matrix of actors that are all operating across sectors and across levels.

Q: So how do those different levels, horizontally and vertically, interact with one another and what are the barriers and opportunities to each interaction? 

A: One of the greatest challenges that we’re finding through some of our ongoing research is coordination between actors. It’s pretty widely acknowledged by government actors that coordination between sectors, between ministries, between departments, and also across levels is quite challenging. And understanding who has what power where can in itself be challenging and governments themselves may struggle with the lack of clarity around these issues.

There is coordination issues between levels and there is also coordination issues across sectors. And when you start to look at the entire landscape that includes forests and also other land uses (mining potentially, agriculture, plantations), you start to have a very complex picture.

Essentially, if you look at the entire landscape you see that different levels of government and different departments of those different levels of government have different powers and responsibilities over different land use classes. So there is 4 variables really wrapped up in just that one sentence that I just said, which is the level, the sector, the land use type (what type of land use, what type of sector we’re looking at) and the type of power, the type of responsibilities and powers that different actors might have. So, unpacking all of that is quite challenging. And even though it is sort of understood, coordinating these potentially overlapping powers and responsibilities across the landscape can be very complex and quite challenging.

But at the same time having multiple levels and sectors involved can also present an opportunity. Local governments are uniquely positioned to represent, at least in theory, the interest of local people. So having formal bodies in civil society that can represent these different interests from these different sectors and levels is potentially an opportunity for better democratic governance that includes the perspectives and reflects the perspectives of the diversity of actors that are relevant across the landscape.

Q: What are the main multilevel governance questions that you are tackling in your current research?

A: Our current research module is called “multilevel governance and carbon management at the landscape scale.” I am speaking primarily about our questions related to governance, as that’s my focus. Markku Kanninen from the University of Helsinki is coordinating the side of our module that deals more explicitly with carbon, but I’d just wanted to mention that as that I’m speaking a little bit less of that side of it.

But we aim to answer several questions.  First is “What types of multilevel governance arrangements exist, what’s out there?”. To understand what exists is kind of a first necessary step, reason to multilevel governance, particularly in this constant land use of REDD+, of benefit sharing, is relative new. So taking that first step to kind of lay out the land is our first, one of our first priorities and that’s the first question.

The second set of questions deal with legitimacy. How legitimate are the processes of land use decision making? That is to say, are all relevant actors included? Do they all have a seat at the table? Who has a voice? And who ultimately has power in these systems.

The third question is: What are the multilevel governance dimensions of benefit sharing? So we have a specific focus on how the benefits associated with these different land uses, with these different initiatives. Particularly initiatives that will move towards lower carbon-emissions land use options. How the benefits from these initiatives are being shared, and how are they being shared across levels, across actors from different levels?

And finally, what are the main incentives that shape land use decisions through multiple levels? Is REDD+, for example, making a difference in terms of these incentives? And if so, how is it making a difference? So these are the big picture questions that we have, the central questions. We have many subquestions, eligible subquestions that are kind of attached to them, but these 4 questions capture the sort of crux of what we are trying to do.

Q: So who is making the decisions that affect land use (and hence emissions) and how are they making those decisions?

A: Well different actors are important in different contexts. So far we don’t have any formal results, only some preliminary results, but what’s clear already is that different actors from different levels and sectors have an interest in land use.

So it’s very clear that the decisions are made by a variety of actors and decision processes are already fundamentally multilevel in nature. Local farmers, regional governments, national governments, NGO’s, private sector actors across levels are all involved in land use decision making, depending on the context. In Peru for example you have the ministry of agriculture at the national level playing an important role and many aspects of land use decision making and planning. Meanwhile the ministry of environment is playing a leading role in the forest conservation program and also in advancing other REDD+ and low emissions land use, low carbon emissions land use initiatives. So you have multiple agencies that are in the government involved.

As you move down to the local level you start to see perhaps even more complex array of actors that are involved. You have ultimately local farmers, local people making decisions about what crops to plant, whether or not to remain growing crops for subsistence or converting to cash crops. You have private sector actors and firms that might be engaged in oil palm. You might have small actors that are engaged in mining and across this entire landscape of multiple land uses, multiple actors engaged in different economic activities, you have governments. Regional governments and national governments advancing different agendas. So it really does depend on where you are, but what’s very clear is that multiple actors from multiple levels are important in terms of land use decision making.

Q: Decisions about land use are often made at the local level but these have global impacts. And this is very true, especially in decentralized countries right across the tropical forest belt. In what ways can local realities better align with global needs in making land-use decisions in the future?

A: Well first of all I would say that indeed local realities often perhaps miss some of these global needs, especially related to climate change mitigation. Because carbon is simply not always that important as a decision making criteria at the local level. And this occurs for a variety of reasons, including the lack of a robust international carbon market and uncertainty about carbon financing.

But one sort of interesting, maybe telling issue here is that when you look at what people are talking about at the global level, the global discourse around REDD, the global conversation about REDD+.

The full benefit of REDD is considered to be carbon. Other benefits such as livelihoods, infrastructure, biodiversity even are considered the so-called co-benefits. And as you go from this global level to the local level the situation reverses almost. At the local level it’s livelihoods, it’s locally relevant ecosystem services, it’s infrastructure that are considered the principal benefits of REDD+, whereas carbon is almost considered an ancillary thing or an outside source of money or an outside driver of these benefits. Something that generates some of these other benefits.

So the co-benefit at the global level is actually the principal benefit at the local level. This is telling us how there is potentially a mismatch between the local needs and the global realities and global needs.

I can’t in this stage proffer a grand solution for aligning local realities, including livelihoods with global needs, including climate change. But one solution that has been on the table as potentially promising is advancing this idea of jurisdictional REDD. Jurisdictional REDD is when formal government jurisdictions coordinate programs, like harmonized MRV, standards for social safeguards, and coherent policies for benefit sharing, is considered theoretically advantageous in terms of integrating REDD+ with broader development goals because it houses the purview of environmental sustainability, the purview of development, and accountability mechanisms and legitimacy in the same place: government.

But at the same time, it can be very challenging to implement, because of just what these jurisdictions are is not really so trivial. There can be multiple levels of government involved, there can be multiple sectors and multiple ministries involved, multiple departments that are involved. So this is a potential solution to bring together local needs for development livelihoods, etc., with global needs related to climate change mitigation and carbon. But there’s is still quite a long way to go.

Transcript produced by Lieneke Bakker.

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