Home Articles The Changing Paradigm of Rural Governance

The Changing Paradigm of Rural Governance

Sanjay K Jain
Suan-Pheng Kam
GIS Specialist
International Rice Research Institute, Manila, Philippines
[email protected]

Governance defined and redefined
The UNDP (1997) defines governance as the exercise of political, economic and administrative authority in the management of a country’s affairs. Traditionally all countries relegate this responsibility and vest this authority in the government or “the state”. At the broadest level, governments perform a number of vital functions, including making decisions and coordinating policies, delivering certain vital services and ensuring public order and safety to enable people to seek livelihoods and carry out their normal functions of life. It is also of national concern that the sum total of human activities contributes to national economic growth, hence most national governments develop economic and development strategies and plans. Planning, management and governance form a continuum, and should function in an interlinked and seamless manner. Governance is the mechanism not only to implement a nation’s development plans but also to provide feedback into planning and to ensure judicious management of the nation’s resources. In fact, good governance nurtures an adaptive approach to planning and management of a country’s resources to ensure sustainability.

There is recognition that good governance must manifest the values of effectiveness and efficiency, justice in the rule of law, accountability, participation and consensus orientation, responsiveness and equity (UNDP, 1997). However, not many countries have been able to achieve these lofty ideals of good governance. Part of the problem has been the top-down and bureaucratic approach to governance adopted by many governments, under the premise that those who govern have absolute authority over those who are governed.

Changing times call for changing paradigm of governance
Two emerging trends are gradually undermining this authority and can potentially catalyze change in the dominant governance paradigm, i.e. from the “expert/official” model of governance to a paradigm of engagement (Lacy, 2001). In other words in the new paradigm, it is not for leaders to govern the people, but for the people to let the leaders govern them (Nath, 2000).

One emerging global trend is the pervasiveness of modern information and communications technology (ICT) in penetrating all facets of human activities. Many governments all over the world are using ICT for digital governance (a listing is given in https://www.egovlinks.com/world_egov_links.html), with the intention of improving efficiency. This improved efficiency is also accompanied by more information being made available to the public in a timelier manner. In addition, modern ICT opens up channels for sending and receiving information that are not solely dependent on official channels, nor on public infrastructures (e.g. roads, telephone lines) that are woefully inadequate in many developing countries, particularly in rural areas. A few countries, like Costa Rica, even have the vision to provide all citizens and civil society organizations free access to the Internet, email and other resources through Tele-Centres located in all the municipalities.

The other emerging trend is the move by governments towards more decentralization of governance functions to overcome shortcomings of highly centralized institutional structures, such as reduced effectiveness of development investments and policies.

There is also a growing recognition that local governments have a greater stake at being responsive to local priorities and needs (Misra, 2002), especially if elected in some popular or democratic manner. However fiscal decentralization is still lagging, and as such the impact of the intended improvements has not been felt as much, especially in rural areas.

Power of knowledge, power through knowledge
Nevertheless, these emerging trends hold promise that political, social and economic priorities could be increasingly based on broad consensus in society, and that civil society and various interest groups can directly influence and participate in policy decision making, particularly with respect to allocation of development resources. Societal empowerment can only manifest from an informed public, and the widening use of ICT can potentially evolve knowledge and power structures that enhance transparency in governance. Public access to alternative information sources through ICT also means that the public can circumvent government censorship. Where governments are ineffective and governance chaotic rather than disciplined, people find their own solutions. Other groups, e.g. NGOs and civil societies step in to take the slack and void. ICT is a powerful tool that can engender stronger civil society networks that are better informed and brought together by “death of distance” (Nathikesan, 2000) and empower these groups to be more effectively engaged in national development (Accenture, Markle Foundation and UNDP, 2001).

Rural development – a refocus
Many international institutions such as UNDP, OECD, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have adopted the United Nations Millennium Declaration of halving poverty worldwide by 2015 (Hanmer, et al., 2000). As 75% of the world’s poor live in rural areas, this target cannot be met without giving greater focus on rural development. Recognizing that there has been declining donor support for agriculture and rural development and disproportionately high government spending in urban areas, the World Bank recently formulated a new strategy for rural development entitled “Reaching the Rural Poor” (The World Bank, 2001). This new strategy has a distinct rural focus to redress the problems of persisting rural poverty and natural resource degradation. The strategy aims at fostering broad-based rural growth by increasing productivity and improving the competitiveness of both agricultural and non-farm rural activities. To achieve this, the strategy stresses the need for policy and institutional reforms, and for developing rural physical and financial infrastructure services. Emphasis is also placed on improving social well-being and managing risks and vulnerability through human capital development, particularly on programs and projects that provide access for the poor, women, and ethnic minorities. Programs enhancing the sustainable management of natural resources by limiting land and environmental degradation, improving water management, and safe exploitation of forest resources, will also be supported. Similarly the Asian Development Bank, in its poverty alleviation drive, is placing more importance on rural development (ADB, 2001).

Rural development hinges upon use and management of the primary resource base
In the case of rural development, there is heavy dependence on the primary resource base as a source of rural livelihoods, and it is likely to remain so in the foreseeable future in most developing countries. Whether rural economic activities are agriculture, forestry or fishery based, increasing pressure to produce more using less land, water, forest and biodiversity resources raises concern that human economic activities may not be sustained in the long term when the natural resource base is being eroded.

Issues in rural development and demands on rural governance
The key issues in rural development relate to judicious use and management of the resource base on which the rural people depend for their livelihoods. This is to ensure that while present economic activities draw dividends from the natural resource base, they do not draw down on the natural capital (i.e. the ecosystem goods and services) so that future generations will continue to depend on. Rural governance has a vital role to ensure this.

The rural poor will remain poor unless they are able to produce surplus and sell it under the most favorable market conditions, or to divert their surplus labor to economic activities that are not primary resource based. Good rural governance should be able to provide services such as timely market information for producers to benefit from market changes, as well as open up opportunities for a broader based rural economy to diversify livelihood strategies.

Education, health and social well-being are crucial to human productivity, while social safety nets are vital support mechanisms to cope with crises. The role of rural governance in providing these services remains important, particularly to rural communities that are both physically and economically isolated. Lack of informal and formal education restricts the capacity of rural people to take advantage of alternative job opportunities. The incidence of chronic ill-health due to poor accessibility and affordability to health services and its effect on reducing rural labor productivity has been grossly under-estimated (Flores, 2001).

In other words, it is even more important that rural governance goes beyond mundane public administration of civil services, and should be a seamless extension of planning and management of the entire rural space.

Where are the niches for GIS in rural governance?
Almost all information to support rural development has a strong geographical context, particularly since it deals with the natural resource base over extensive areas. Therefore it stands to reason that geographical information science (GIS) plays an important role in rural development, throughout the continuum of planning, governance and management.

In this paper, I prefer to use the acronym GIS for the term geographical information science, rather than geographical information system(s), because the latter has a confined connotation of the physical system of computers, software and data used to capture, store, process and analyze geographical data. Geographical information science encompasses concepts, principles and techniques of representing and modeling real world objects and phenomena. The rapid advancements in computer, information, communications and space science offer a broad range of tools that can be deployed for GIS, which can be referred to collectively as geographical information technology (GIT).

Practically every aspect of planning, governance and management for rural development where geographical space is an important consideration would have use of GIS. Particularly given the emerging trend towards a more holistic orientation in rural development, as reflected in the World Bank’s new rural development strategy, GIS provides the vehicle for bringing together geographic information from a variety of subject matter and sources into a coherent framework. This facilitates inter-disciplinary interpretation of information for a more holistic understanding of the problems and needs, and better insight into the opportunities and key interventions in governance for improvement of the rural sector. GIS techniques and tools are particularly useful for the following broad areas of application in relation to rural governance.

Geographical targeting One challenge faced in rural development is proper targeting of limited resources for better equity, particularly given the pro-poor focus of several development assistance programs. Because the poor tend to be concentrated in areas commonly characterized by harsh living conditions, pro-poor development programs need better geographical targeting (Bigman and Fofack, 2000). The identification of geographical “hot spots” is particular relevant for determining

  1. where rural populations are most disadvantaged and vulnerable, to design strategic and emergency response;
  2. where particular problems are in relation to agricultural (including crop, livestock and agro-forestry) production, to identify research and development and extension priorities;
  3. where areas are poorly serviced, to improve infrastructure, marketing, health, education and other services; and
  4. where and to what extent natural resources are being overly exploited and degraded, to undertake prompt measures to minimize if not reverse the degradation.

Resource allocation
Not only is there need for better targeting of development resources on a sectoral basis, but also there are competing demands on natural, financial and human resources from various rural sectors. Decisions to be made on allocating limited resources to meet certain development objectives as well as the needs of rural communities need to take into consideration various factors including resource availability, quantity and quality; availability and level of technology; and human capacity. Such decisions involve having to consider trade-offs among different development objectives. For example, a resource allocation scenario based on self-sufficiency in food production can be very different from a scenario that targets profit maximization.

Various decision support tools for land and resource use allocation have been developed. Some of these tools have taken a more holistic approach in considering biophysical, socio-economic as well as policy factors, and also explicitly incorporated the spatial dimension by linking with GIS. For example, the CLUE model (Verburg, et al., 1999) analyzes changes in land use, identifies the main driving factors and simulates future land use changes subjected to various sectoral demands. Linked with GIS, the CLUE model can handle land use allocation analysis at various spatial scales. The Land Use Planning and Analysis (LUPAS) decision support system (Hoanh, et al., 2000) is one of many models that makes use of multiple goal linear programming to explore scenarios of land and resource use allocation subjected to different development objectives and resource constraints, and to determine implications and trade-offs among the different scenarios. The Vietnamese government is now adopting this decision support tool for land use planning at province and district level (Yen, et al., 2002).

Administration of land and other resources
Just as GIT has proven useful for land administration in urban applications, it is potentially also useful for land and resource administration and management in the rural sector. However, use of GIT for rural land administration is more difficult that in the urban setting because of the much larger geographical spread of land, which necessitates a decentralized system of collecting and managing land parcel and ownership records. It is difficult enough to establish and maintain a dynamic spatial land administration database in compact urban areas that have better infrastructure and a bigger pool of trained human resources to handle modern technology. Nevertheless, there is evidence of a greater awareness of the importance of spatial data by local government units, even in the rural areas. In Vietnam, the General Department of Land Administration has set up GIT facilities in provincial capitals to computerize cadastres for monitoring land use for taxation purposes. In Thailand, the Agricultural Land Reform Office uses GIT for administering issuing of land titles and to provide base maps for agricultural development projects within land reform areas under its jurisdiction. Present efforts of using GIT are still largely at the level of computerized mapping. There is much scope for developing applications using this valuable data resource for automating land administration functions.

GIT is used more widely in dealing with administrative and management of natural resources on a sectoral basis. Many countries now use remotely sensed data to map and monitor changes in land use and forest cover (Watson et al., 1998), detect illegal logging and oil spills from tankers, monitor forest fires (Liew, et al., 1998), estimate crop area (Manjunath, et al., 2000), forecast crop yields (Dhadwal, et al., 2000) and assess damage due to natural disasters (Bhanumurthy, et al., 2000; Okamota, et al., 1996); in some cases on a routine basis (NASA Earth Observatory .

Impact assessment
Much less has been done in monitoring and assessing the impact of development programs, particularly in rural areas where benefits are not equally distributed geographically. Development agencies are only beginning to recognize the importance of going beyond measuring financial impact using gross indicators such as internal rates of return of development assistance projects. The U.K. DfID now adopts the sustainable livelihoods approach to identify target assistance programs and to assess impacts, whereby accounting of natural, human, financial, physical and social capitals is required (Turton, 2001).

There is also need to rethink the purpose and function of impact assessment for rural development projects. It is more useful to carry out monitoring and ex-ante assessment of projects during implementation, especially for medium- to long-term projects, rather than ex-post evaluation. This will enable identification of bottlenecks and unexpected outcomes that would allow project redesign, and adaptive management and governance (Kam, et al., 2001).

Top-down and bottom-up approaches in rural governance
Most attempts to use GIS in planning, governance and management for rural development are largely focused on developing applications or systems that are to be handled in a top-down approach by both public and private agencies. This tendency is based on the premise that GIT is sophisticated technology and its deployment is data-intensive, skills demanding and dependent on good infrastructure support.

Even so, not many of the tools and systems developed have gone beyond the pilot stage or beyond realm of the researchers to be used on an operational basis. Those that have become operational require considerable resources, organizational arrangements and institutional support, not to mention political will to sustain these ventures. Real impacts in terms of making a difference to people’s lives or to the way that rural governance is conducted are not well documented.

The development and implementation of automated, comprehensive, georeferenced databases is not easy, even in data-rich developed countries. In developing countries, this is a daunting task faced with many obstacles that are even more formidable in the rural context. This is despite the increased opportunity for collecting more timely and accurately georeferenced data using remote sensing and global positioning system (GPS) technology. Where such databases have been established, largely by government institutions using public funds, there is a prevailing reluctance to make these databases available and accessible for public use. This brings to question the feasibility of generating and maintaining comprehensive databases and undermines their utility in the service of those who are in greatest need for knowledge. In the spirit of greater public participation in rural governance, GIT need not remain in the realm of those who govern.

Social empowerment
In many countries the poorest of the rural poor tend to concentrate in the marginal lands, where they are most vulnerable and are caught in the poverty trap. Barring major land reform, which many governments are not inclined to undertake, there are few exit paths from poverty for these marginalized groups. One path is through social empowerment, i.e. giving voice to the poor and enabling their participation and entry into the mainstream of national economic development. Eventually only the poor can improve their lot through their individual and collective actions by self-organization. Presently the poor are faced with powerlessness in the prevailing social structure. They need to build self-confidence through enhancing their self-image and self-worth. It has been shown that having knowledge is one way of attaining self-esteem.

Being able to use modern technology to attain knowledge further enhances self-confidence. The poor deserve the best that modern science and technology can offer to help them get out of poverty, and ICT has this potential to leapfrog technological advancement into the reach of the rural people. The availability of satellite facilities, WAP and other mobile connections facilitates the expanded movement of information to the most rural and remote villages. For example in Bangladesh, the mobile phone has placed international communication in the hands of “telephone ladies” in rural villages -illiterate housewives in rural areas who not only use it to supplement their household income, but also found their social standing upgraded and their self-confidence boosted (Ahmed, 2000). The possibilities are limitless for rural people to use ICT to break away from their isolation and to improve their lives and livelihoods (Mohan, 2000). Over time, it will be possible to set up extensive people’s networks with immense capability for sharing of information, knowledge and learning for, by, among, and of the poor – to combine radio, TV, print, Internet and even geographic information tools.

GIT, as a facet of ICT, is potentially an enabling technology for social empowerment. It is not only a vehicle for accumulating and disseminating knowledge, but it can also be used as a communication and negotiation tool. GIS principles are not new; they are grounded in age-old geographical concepts and are highly intuitive. People who live off the land (or the sea) have good spatial awareness. Researchers and scientists may be surprised to see illiterate villagers use sticks to sketch maps on the ground, demonstrating possession of intrinsic mental models about space and spatial relationships. The power of visualizing space, using GIT, can be used creatively to offer georeferenced data and tools for spatial interpretation in ways that local people can easily relate with and can use to represent their local knowledge (Castella et al., 2001; Gonzalez, 2000). Their spatial perceptions can be formalized and transferred into georeferenced and scaled spatial integrators, such as maps, printed or digital, spatial models, including 3-D models (Rambaldi and Callosa-Tarr, 2002) where it can be analyzed and interpreted together with formal data.

Besides the data and knowledge generated, the process itself is an effective way to evoke active participation of the local people, such as in identifying conflicts in the use of management of resources. The tool becomes a communication and negotiation platform for them to articulate their needs and seek solutions either among themselves or with their local authorities. Used in this way, GIS helps facilitate the bottom-up approach to rural governance.

Challenges for GIS development
GIS used in top-down and bottom-up approaches to rural governance need not be mutually exclusive nor mutually incompatible. On the contrary, these two approaches should complement each other, to bridge the gap that often occurs between the intentions of the people who govern and needs of those they govern. The increasing decentralization of rural governance would increase the possibility for this to happen.

However to enable it to happen, the local authorities must have the capacity and capability to use these tools, and also the tools must be made simple enough for their routine use. This poses new challenges for GIS development.
Handling “imperfect” data
Present geographical information systems are designed for capturing formal, scientific data, and are fastidious about topological integrity and geographical completeness before spatial analysis can be performed on them. Good, quantitative georeferenced data about rural space are very sparse, especially in developing countries, and are difficult, time-consuming and expensive to collect. A lot of information about rural space, including local knowledge, lacks the precision of representation that is required to be captured into and used in computerized geographical information systems. There is still scope for developing more “intelligent” GIS software that can mimic the visual recognition flexibility of human observers, who are more tolerant of and can still derive useful knowledge from “imperfect” data. One can conceive of geographic data capture software that allows someone to sketch out on-screen a mental map, however imperfect, ask a few simple questions, and is intelligent enough to translate the sketch into a spatially coherent representation of the real world as interpreted by the user.

A step further is GIS development would be then to combine the information content from sparse quantitative (or “hard”) data with that from qualitative and informal (or “soft”) data that are relatively inexpensive to collect and may have high local relevance. For example it is expensive and time-consuming to collect sufficient good quantitative data that can represent the spatial heterogeneity of rural environments, which is an important and relevant characteristic that people who are dependent on natural resources recognize, have to live with and manage. This sparse quantitative data can be augmented by local knowledge if techniques are developed to use these two sources of data meaningfully (Oberthur and Kam, 2000). Further developments to facilitate the combined use of hard and soft data would contribute immensely to building knowledge about rural space relevant for effective governance.

Lastly, present geographical information systems are also still not good at handling uncertainty in data. Software that do, by incorporating probabilistic statistics and fuzzy mathematics (Simonovic, S.P., 1997), are still cumbersome to use. Intelligent systems that use fuzzy logic and produce outputs that are easy to understand and interpret have yet to emerge.

Bringing the science to the rural poor
It is important to demystify GIS in order to bring it within the reach of the rural poor. It is necessary to dispel the notion that GIT can only remain in the realm of highly trained experts, to be looked upon in awe by the uninitiated and the illiterate. This requires a change in mindset of GIS practitioners to recognize that their role is to facilitate the use of GIT as a tool to address practical problems of people. There can only be effective use of the tool if the people who are to benefit get a better insight on how it can be of relevance and use to them; or better still, if they gain confidence in using it themselves. In applications for rural governance, the target users come from all levels of institutional and social hierarchy, from government and from civil society. It is important that GIS practitioners know how to offer this technology appropriate to each of these levels.

As demonstrated by a wide range of applications, GIS can play an important role in rural governance, particularly given the new focus on a more broad-based rural development approach to redress the persisting problems of poverty and natural resources degradation. While technological advancement has reached a level that the potential of GIT is largely realized, there are still many obstacles to upscaling the numerous disjoint applications and successful pilot cases into effective operational systems that can truly enhance the well-being and livelihoods of rural people. However, this should not deter continued efforts to make GIS more relevant to the needs of rural people, especially by capitalizing on recent and continuing rapid advances in computer, communication and information technology, as well as the gradual but steady changes in policy and institutional reform relating to rural governance. There is much scope for GIS practitioners to work with people at all levels of the social hierarchy to effectively complement the application of GIT through both top-down and bottom-up approaches in rural governance. In fact, a strong case can be made that a portion of rural development assistance should be spent on enhancing the impacts and benefits of rural development efforts to the rural poor through innovative, effective and socially-relevant use of ICT, including GIT.
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