Governance for ecosystem services and poverty alleviation (GESPA)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: IDD


Governance matters for the condition of natural resources and for who benefits. If the governance arrangements are ineffective and unfair, or produce unsustainable and unfair outcomes, then the potential for sustainable management and poverty alleviation is limited. Governance involves decision-making over who can extract products from renewable natural resources, how much and what they can take, from where and when, with implications for ecosystem health, sustainability of ecosystem services and the potential for alleviation of poverty. Given the critical importance of such decision-making, the inclusion, participation and representation of resource users are key concerns.

The ESPA programme is in a unique position to generate lessons and insights into how governance structures and processes (formal and informal) influence the condition of ecosystems and ecosystem services, and who, and to what extent, benefits from those services. The aims of this project, therefore, are to synthesise these lessons and to draw out key findings of broad international relevance to researchers, policy-makers and practitioners.

The team formed to undertake this synthesis is uniquely placed to do so. The team members have been involved as researchers in 11 ESPA projects, bringing expertise and experience in forestry, coastal ecosystems, natural science, sociology and development studies to the study of the governance for ecosystem services and poverty alleviation.

This research will draw on the extensive research undertaken by ESPA projects in a range of ecosystem contexts through two main areas of work.

The first, supply-driven phase of the research will provide a comprehensive review of all ESPA research for their findings related to the governance of renewable natural resources. Outputs from the projects (working papers, workshop reports, conference presentations and articles) will be sought to ascertain the focus on governance, determine which, if any, frameworks have been used and collate governance-specific results. The outcomes of this mapping will inform the selection of projects from which there is much to learn in terms of how they approached governance and/or from their findings. Where appropriate and possible, original datasets, including interview transcripts, will be sought from the project investigators. From this range of data, the team will collate and thematically cluster information on:

- How governance has been understood and addressed.
- How the structures, processes and outcomes of governance have been investigated and assessed.
- How the wider political economy of governance has been considered and what has been learnt about the governance context.
- The challenges in understanding and researching the governance of renewable natural resources.

The second, demand-driven phase of the research will involve the development and application of a systematic framework for analysing ESPA findings and other related research to identify core lessons for attainment of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In particular, it will focus on SDGs 1, 10, 14 and 15 and their call for the eradication of poverty, the reduction of inequality, and the integration of ecosystem and biodiversity strategies into development processes. The development of the framework will be informed by a review of relevant analytical frameworks in ESPA and related research, together with a consultative workshop involving select researchers and practitioners from the UK and other countries who have participated in ESPA projects. A focused systematic analysis of published research on the governance of selected natural resources and poverty reduction will complement the synthesis of ESPA findings and both will feed into a briefing on how to deliver on governance of natural resources for sustainability and poverty alleviation.

Planned Impact

The project's ultimate beneficiaries are poor people in developing countries who are heavily reliant on ecosystem services, either directly or indirectly, for their wellbeing. The assumptions underlying this proposal are (i) that it is failures of governance which lead to unfair distribution of costs and sharing of benefits from ecosystem services, and (ii) that such failures relate particularly to the extent to which poor people can participate in relevant decision-making about ecosystem services. The project's findings will support these beneficiaries by ensuring that they continue to benefit from ecosystem services and perhaps even increase the levels of benefits they obtain on a sustainable basis and do not bear any uncompensated costs of maintaining ecosystem services for distant (or future) beneficiaries. For example, they might benefit from the project's findings on the kinds of governance structures and processes which can support equitable trade-offs between ecosystem services valued at global level (e.g. carbon storage and sequestration, or conservation of endangered species) and those valued or disliked locally (e.g. bushmeat and wild fruits on the one hand, and crop-raiding by wild animals on the other).

As a synthesis project, our main pathway to impact is through knowledge exchange with intermediary beneficiaries who have the power to design and implement policy solutions that tackle existing governance failures. These include government and non-government policy-makers and practitioners at local, national and international levels working in the fields of poverty alleviation, natural resource management and conservation. Local-level policy-makers may, for example, include government and non-government staff who are implementing initiatives such as sustainable forest or fisheries management projects. They will benefit from the project's findings on the importance of (and mechanisms for) ensuring fair participation of local communities and other stakeholders in decision-making about benefit sharing. By applying this knowledge, local policy-makers can improve relations between stakeholders and ensure more effective implementation of their policies. National-level policy-makers may include officials involved in land use planning such as allocating timber, mining, fishing or agricultural concessions. This group would benefit from the project's findings on, for example, how to ensure that all potentially affected rights-holders and stakeholders are recognised and enabled to have a voice in decision-making, and mechanisms for holding decision-makers to account for delivery on planned activities (including adequate compensation). They will also benefit from the project's synthesis of the different approaches for analysing governance in different contexts which will support them in commissioning and interpreting research for their specific situations. International-level policy-makers might include negotiators at international environmental conventions such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and staff of international organisations. This group of beneficiaries may be particularly interested in the project's findings relating to governance structures and processes for ecosystems providing benefits at multiple scales. Both international and national policy-makers will also benefit from the project's synthesis of lessons about the governance challenges (and how to overcome them) associated with achieving the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) related to poverty, equality and ecosystems.

Our impact activities range from those designed to reach policy-makers directly (e.g. consultative workshops and policy-briefs) and indirectly, e.g. through an academic community (reached with journal papers, conference presentations and teaching materials) and a wider public (reached by blogs) that are better informed about GESPA (Governance for Ecosystem Services and Poverty Alleviation) issues.


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Description Through the review of research projects and systematic mapping of literature, the research identified several characteristics of research into the governance of ecosystem services, or natural resources, in developing countries. These are that the term 'governance' is rarely used, with the lack of clear definition problematic given the range of interpretations and applications that can be utilized, and that a wide range of theory and analytical frameworks are used, reflecting different disciplinary backgrounds and research questions. This can make building knowledge difficult. In terms of key findings from research into natural resource governance in developing countries, the synthesis confirmed that there is limited evidence of participation of resource users being extensive or sustained, or of such participation leading to poverty alleviation or improved ecosystem health. There was found to be limited interaction and coordination between natural resource sectors, suggesting limited adoption of an ecosystem-based approach to natural resource management, and informal institutions remain critical in natural resource governance and for livelihoods.
Exploitation Route The findings can inform the planning and design of programmes, policies and plans for how renewable natural resources are governed in developing countries.
Sectors Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description Consultative workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact The purpose of the workshop was to raise awareness and interest in the research and to consult on the design of the methods. Input was received from those attending the workshop, which influenced the design of the next phase of the research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description DFID seminar 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact A seminar was organised at the UK Department for International Development, hosted by the Head of the Environment and Climate Change profession. The purpose of the seminar was to share findings from the research and discuss how the research could be of interest to DFID and what kinds of outputs they would find useful.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Validation workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact The workshop was held in Ghana, with most of the participants coming from countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Participants were either officers working in government departments or were working for an international organisation (e.g. African Academy of Sciences) or non-governmental organisation. The purpose of the workshop was to share findings from the research and seek feedback to inform the final writing up.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017