Collaboration – a panacea!?

For several years now, more collaboration between different types of stakeholders has been suggested as a contribution to solving various environmental and sustainability problems. Recently, this trend of pointing out that more collaboration would make things better has increased, at least in my perception: In many of the presentations I heard at the 12th IFSA Symposium at Harper Adams University, UK it was suggested that people need to collaborate to solve this and that problem. Just now, I read yet another article arguing that farmers need to collaborate to find common ground for land stewardship and, based on this, discuss future redesign of agri-environmental schemes (Raymond et al. 2016) – aside from countless other publications putting forward similar arguments. To exacerbate this, I myself am deeply involved with collaboration: In my PhD, I myself have used the collaboration argument (Velten et al. 2015) and am working on finding out what makes collaboration for sustainable agriculture successful. Additionally, in the project MULTAGRI, of which I’m part, we seek alternative governance approaches that enable farmer collaboration for more meaningful biodiversity management in agricultural landscapes.

Having said that, I have my doubts about the power of collaboration to solve seemingly all (environmental and sustainability) problems that there are and I’ve become a bit frustrated with this concept. There are (at least) three sides to these doubts and frustrations: First, collaboration does not automatically lead to sustainable outcomes. I recently heard an example of farmers with neighbouring fields who collaborated to get rid of the strips of natural vegetation separating their fields: They agreed on an alternating ownership of these strips so that in one year one farmer would be allowed to plough under the strip and add it to his field, in the next year the other farmer would be allowed to do the same. Thus, in this case collaboration did not foster sustainable land management, which would preserve or even enhance biodiversity, but rather served the self-interests of the farmers. One could say that this happened because only farmers and with that only one type of interests were involved in this collaboration. And indeed, there is evidence that if stakeholders who are inherently interested in the preservation of ecological assets are involved in collaborative decision-making processes, the generated outcomes are of better environmental quality (Brody 2003). However, involving ENGOs, for instance, is not a guarantee for sustainable outcomes because groups representing environmental interests may be co-opted while collaborating with groups dominated by other interests (Kochskämper et al. 2016). Thus, even bringing together different types of stakeholders does not necessarily prevent collaborative decision-making processes from bringing about outcomes that contribute little to overall sustainability.

Second, collaboration is easy to suggest but hard to do. While collaboration certainly has great potential to help identify common ground, complement resources, increase innovation potential, improve social capital etc. it also is very time and energy-intensive. If we all followed the suggestions for more collaboration that have been made, we literally would not be doing anything else than sitting in different groups of people and discussing what we would like to do in our neighbourhood, in our children’s schools, about the forest next to our city, about infrastructure in our city, about water management, about the agriculture and food system in our region, about energy generation in our community etc. Furthermore, finding common ground and agreeing on goals, plans, and measures with people whose mental frames and dominant values are very different from one’s own can be very stressful and sometimes impossible. So, what I am saying here is that collaboration may be one way to find solutions but people’s restricted time and other resources set a limit to it.

Third, making the point for more collaboration seems to be very fashionable at the moment. Thus, if we just argue in our publications that collaboration can help solve the issues we identify and address in our research, this seems to be good enough as a conclusion. Of course, that does not really prevent us from thinking more thoroughly and deeply about other solutions. Yet, having the ‘obvious solution’ of collaboration at hand already, we have little incentive to look into different directions. Maybe it is just my personal impression, but I cannot lose the feeling that we are missing out on something as most of our attention is drawn towards collaboration.

Despite my doubts and frustrations with collaboration, I still think that having different, relevant actors solve a problem together can be very useful to tackle certain environmental and sustainability problems. However, in dealing with the concept and the practice of collaboration we should keep some things in mind in order to address the above-mentioned issues:

First, all collaborative efforts need an explicit normative framework that defines their purpose and overall goals, thus guiding the decisions and actions of the involved actors. Of course, we can hardly prevent the occurrence of merely self-interested or even malevolent collaborations. But at least for the collaborations that are established in order to foster sustainable outcomes, this purpose should be made clear to the involved actors. Thus, there is a chance that the outcome of the example of the collaborating farmers above would have been different if from the outset the explicit goal of this collaboration had been to bring preservation of biodiversity into accordance with agricultural production.

Second, we should generally not be too quick to present collaboration as the wondrous cure to whatever the problem may be. Rather, for each problem we should thoroughly weigh all kinds of (marginal) costs against all types of (marginal) benefits of a collaborative approach as well as all possible risks against all likely gains. And only if we come to the conclusion that collaboration could be worth the effort, we should go for it.

Linked to this is, third, that we should try to look beyond collaboration and think of different, maybe new solutions. At the moment, I do not know what these ‘different, maybe new solutions’ could be. But so it is even the more important that we keep our eyes and minds open for them.

References

Brody, S.D., 2003. Measuring the Effects of Stakeholder Participation on the Quality of Local Plans Based on the Principles of Collaborative Ecosystem Management. Journal of Planning Education and Research 22 (4), 407–419.

Kochskämper, E., Challies, E., Newig, J., Jager, N.W., 2016. Participation for effective environmental governance? Evidence from Water Framework Directive implementation in Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom. Journal of environmental management 181, 737–748.

Raymond, C.M., Reed, M., Bieling, C., Robinson, G.M., Plieninger, T., 2016. Integrating different understandings of landscape stewardship into the design of agri-environmental schemes. Envir. Conserv., 1–9.

Velten, S., Leventon, J., Jager, N.W., Newig, J., 2015. What is sustainable agriculture? – A systematic review. Sustainability 7 (6), 7833–7865.

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