Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Equity ≠ Empowerment

What happens when efforts to create equity are at odds with efforts to empower communities? Someone recently pointed out to me that the Queensland government is charged with facilitating equity of resource access and use among residents now and in the future, but this has led to an interesting quandary when it comes to living out that mission.

Take the current situation in the Murray Darling Basin, for example. The state has been asked to help develop and support a local group in each water catchment that will have broad representation across the community. These groups are a modified version of the Community Reference Panels and other advisory councils that were created to aid water planning activities in the past. The groups have several important roles. They create an established go-to group that government officials can interact with and provide information to in order to have it better disseminated throughout the larger community. The representatives are able to gather opinions and concerns from their respective groups and create a more unified voice for their region. They are also better positioned to make quality submissions during public comment periods and negotiate with government officials over the details of the plans. A side benefit of the groups is that the different representatives learn from one another and have a mediated environment within which to build relationships and alliances across a variety of interests.

In theory, the local groups can be an effective form of community empowerment, conflict resolution, and participation in water planning at a scale that was not previously possible. If the state genuinely engages with these groups, they can have a more substantive influence and the subsequent plans will have a great deal of buy-in because they were created collaboratively. The public comment period for the draft Basin Plan will be released in the next few weeks, so these groups need to get up and running, and FAST.

The problems start when you acknowledge the different levels of empowerment in each catchment community. Some already have sophisticated structures in place and respect among stakeholders. These communities have jumped at the opportunity and formed their own local groups with limited government assistance. Other communities are not so organized or have historical divisions and tensions that make it difficult to pull representatives together. The state has simply encouraged the savvy catchment communities, but the others require much more assistance. From a government perspective, you would ideally have equally empowered and organized groups in each catchment. You can't have one or two holding all the cards because that would make for an unbalanced outcome in favor of those areas. But the government also can't necessarily represent the unorganized communities' interests well because they often do not understand the specific needs and history of those areas.

What would you do in this situation? In the name of equity the state has gone out and attempted to create groups in the less organized areas. Have their actions gone too far? At what point does it move from well-meaning organizing to coercion? The timeline the state is operating on does not allow for the needed community development that would create true ownership in the group, or for seeking out reps for interests that are not at the table and providing leadership development for them. This usually means that the usual suspects (those with an economic interest in the proceedings) come together and purport to speak for the whole community. While the limited group will be able to provide some input, it will not be holistic and may even cause further division and disempowerment within the community as a whole.

But what is the alternative? The government can't just ignore all of the local communities and make decisions unilaterally. That's exactly the paradigm they're trying to move away from. I think it's interesting that one noble cause can, in some cases, block another noble cause. What a horrible trade-off to navigate.

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