Archive for the ‘Ramblings’ Category

Rising out of the Dissertation – Governance in Transboundary Protected Areas

With luck I will have a new publication coming out soon on governance in Southern African transboundary protected areas, commonly known as ‘Peace Parks’.  The gist of the piece is that there are some common assumptions made in conservation and development literature.  Without going into specifics, I’d like to comment on some of these simplified arguments that often lead to erroneous conclusions.  A few of the common ones:

  • Decentralization is good and centralization is bad (or bottom-up processes lead to good results and top-down processes lead to bad)
  • It’s either about conservation or development (win-win solutions are rare)
  • Once a success (or failure), always a success (failure)

I hope to write a bit more about each of these.  For now, let me start with the first topic.  There is a tremendous amount of literature on the benefits of decentralization.  Let me comment first, that I’m an advocate as well, but my support is quite conditional.  Conditional support may be anathema to a politician, but to a scholar it seems necessary.  Unless we can understand the context in which decentralization works, we have little chance to get it to work in new arenas in the future.  There has been some wonderful work on decentralization and the conditions under which it does work as well as how it works – Krister Andersson, Frank van Laerhoven, among others.  Likewise, there has been a noticeable surplus of dogmatists that push for decentralization without a full understanding of the full notions of polycentricity and the strengths of centralization.

In my work, I look at the different outcomes between bottom-up governance structures and top-down structures.  In the cases most familiar to me, one (the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park) is often viewed as an unqualified success while the other (the Great Limpopo) is often viewed as a failure.  This portrayal presents a short-sighted, partially informed view of reality.

I also find it interesting that the “bottom-up = good, top-down = bad” view is often led by people that would be against an American conservative-style political agenda of less government/push power down to the states and away from centralized government.  That’s a discussion for another time, but a topic worth pursuing.


Complexity in Economics (and Political Science)

I’m fascinated by Beinhocker’s “The Origin of Wealth” and his use of complexity science in economics.  He demonstrates how the challenges of today can no longer be studied sufficiently using past reductionist scientific approaches.  Instead, we need a holistic, interdisciplinary approach to the questions of today – how does life originate, how do economies function and self-organize, where does consciousness come from, and so on.

Beinhocker also provides a strong critique of many of the shortcomings of traditional economics.  Without going into the details, it’s about building ever-increasingly complicated mathematical models built around assumptions that bear no grounding in reality.  In particular, the idea of equilibrium models in economics is fundamentally flawed as the economy is rarely anywhere near equilibrium.  I know that some dyed-in-the wool economists may disagree with some of this, and my point is not to engage in this wrestling match.  Rather, I find it disappointing to see political scientists falling into the same tar pit.

A preview of the latest issue of AJPS readily shows the wonderful mathematics and modeling sophistication of “cutting edge” political science.  But too many of the articles struggle with two issues.  First, they are built around many of the same shoddy assumptions of the economists.  It seems to be a crazy game where the political scientists (and I presume many of the other social sciences) are chasing the mathematical economists.  They, in turn, are chasing the physicists.  But the physicists that they are chasing are from 100 years ago, and the physical scientists have since moved on.  Second, the pursuit of mathematics as the end goal has changed the types of questions frequently being addressed by political scientists.  No longer is the question of central importance.  Instead, the question must be one that enables equations that can be readily solved.  Peruse the research questions in many of the mainstream political science journals and see if they are 1) interesting and 2) of relevance to society or to practitioners.  I think that too often the answer is NO and NO.

I don’t mean to denigrate all publications, but, damn, the field as a whole needs to step up.