Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Sovereignty Claims of Indigenous Peoples

Think about it from their perspective. Assume you are part of a group that has inhabited a place for at least a thousand years. Your ceremonies and traditions date back a lot farther than those of the interlopers who now control every aspect of your life.  Your people have been connected to that particular place for all of recorded history.  Yet, now, the national government that surrounds you wants to dictate what you can and cannot do with your land and how your children should be educated.. That national government has sold the mineral rights out from under you (and kept all the money), polluted the waters you depend on, and stripped the forest that has always been your primary source of food. Wouldn't you be angry?

There are more than 300 million indigenous people in the world in this situation. There are at least 5000 different first nations in more than 70 countries. Most of these groups are fighting for their survival -- arguing that they should have control over their ancestral lands and be allowed to decide what happens within their borders.  In most instances, though, their sovereignty claims have been rejected.  In the United States, many Native Americans live in the worst economic conditions in the country.  They do not control what happens in their lives. While some Americans blame the tribes for their current circumstances, there can be no question that the American government has refused to allow the Indians to control their land and water and has not lived up to the promises that the American government has made over the past several hundred years.  In Australia, Latin America, Asia and in parts of Europe, First Peoples struggle for recognition and fair treatment.  While the United Nations has, after 25 years of discussion, finally passed a non-binding Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, all with significant indigenous populations voted against it.  While the Declaration talks about recognition, it provides no imperative for the recognition of  the sovereignty claims of First Nations.

In Canada, First Nations control the land (reserves) on which they live.  They have rights of various kinds (both through treaties and constitutional mandates) that fall short of sovereignty, but guarantee greater independence than almost anywhere else in the world.  The Sarayaku in Ecuador, the Mapuche in Chile, the Amerindians in Guyana, the Adivasi in India, and the Yonggom in Papue New Guinea have far fewer protections.  In Israel, the 46 Bedouin communities in the Negev are not even listed on official government maps and their long-standing  land claims have never been addressed by the Israeli Supreme Court. 

Sovereignty (i.e. full recognition of their status as independent states) may be beyond what
First Nations can hope for in this era, but greater autonomy -- and perhaps even independence with regard to a range of resource, education, and justice issues-- ought to be negotiable.  

I don't see, though, how the sovereignty claims of First Peoples can be resolved in the courts of the very countries that have preempted their rights.  And, I don't think it is very likely that existing national governments will agree to have these claims adjudicated in international courts. To do so would mean allowing international bodies to contravene national sovereignty. (We've heard that argument a lot in the United States whenever questions of the World Court's jurisdiction are raised). That leaves the entire burden on individual First Nations to mobilize political support (both locally and globally). Given their lack of financial resources and their unwilling to engage in domestic politics (which would put them in the same position as any other interest group in a country when what they want is recognition of their sovereign rights), this is not a promising strategy. An international mediation approach might be worth considering.  In the same way that mediation has been used to resolve war and peace issues between contending nations as well as among waring factions within a country, it could be used to provide an in informal context in which national governments and First Nations could explore alternatives to full sovereignty.   

See Lawrence Susskind and Isabelle Anguelovski, Addressing the Land Claims of Indigenous Peoples published by the MIT Program on Human Rights and Justice for case studies of efforts by 14 indigenous peoples around the world to pursue their land claims.
(This can be downloaded for free at

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Urban planning: The key is collaboration

Urban planning is a profession. People all over the world are trained to be urban planners and they have been for a long time. They study a variety of things including patterns of urbanization, land use and the design of cities, techniques for financing economic development, community organizing and mobilizing strategies, approaches to ecosystem maintenance and restoration, and the history of plan making.  More than ever, planners are viewed as generalists with a specialty.  Generalists in that they need to know about all the possible ways of intervening --through a complex web of institutions -- to improve the quality of life in places and spaces.  Specialists in that the various sub-sectors in which they work (transportation systems, housing production, waste handling systems, social service provision, green building design, information management, job creation,  ecosystem management, etc.) require increasing depth of knowledge to be effective. Above all, planners must know how to reconcile conflicting claims in the face of limited resources.  It is not possible to take action in the public arena without political support. So, planners have to know how to generate an informed constituency ready, willing and able to push for change.

If planners think they only work for whoever happens to be in power at the moment, they will quickly be pushed out as new leaders are voted in and old leaders are put out to pasture.  If planners claim to be above the political fray (working on behalf of some vague "public interest" that only they understand), they'll also be out of work quickly because they won't be able to secure the political mandate they need to be effective. If they try to argue that their role is to provide independent technical advice they'll quickly be outdone by other professionals with more in-depth technical training or greater expertise.  The only way planners can make a case for the indispensable role they play is to argue that they are uniquely skilled to broker interactions among those in positions of power, stakeholders who make up the constituencies of those who are elected and appointed, and the technical specialists who have a great deal of "know how" but very little "know why." Planners need to be "implementation specialists" who can make things happen.

Implementation specialists need three kinds of specialized knowledge.  They need to know how to frame problems in tractable ways.  The need to know how to facilitate joint problem solving. And, they need to know how to read and take action within complex institutional settings. If I try to lift a heavy object in the wrong way, I won't be able to move it, and I'll hurt myself in the process.  But, if I lift it properly I can move it anywhere I like.  Problem setting, or framing as it is sometimes called, requires in-depth knowledge of the systems or environments within which I'm operating.  Especially when there are lot of players involved (and they feel strongly about things), skilled facilitation is the key to generating informed agreement and meaningful commitments.  I've got to help people use their time wisely and deal with their differences in constructive ways. Charting a course of action in a complex setting and convincing others to follow suit requires knowing how to build trust, assume the temporary mantle of leadership and communicate effectively. All these competences can be taught, although the learning proceeds more quickly in coaching (inductive) rather than didactic (deductive) settings. 

Urban planning fails whenever designs, policies and programs are imposed on unwilling or unsuspecting stakeholders.  And, phony commitments to participation or consultation don't fooled anyone. Decide-announce-defend has been the mantra for far too long (and it still is) in a many  urban planning settings.  Serious consultation requires that problems be defined jointly, options be considered together (in light of information collected in concert), decisions be made transparently and accountably; and monitoring, adjustments and learning be truly collaborative.  Decision-making responsibility and political power may be asymmetric, but it is nevertheless in the interest of those in positions of authority to find out what they can and should do that will win the broadest possible support. Planners can help. Urban planners needs to know how to build informed consensus, especially in situations where the wrong policies will put lives in jeopardy. 

The urban planning field is going through one of its periodic crises of confidence.  While the majority of the earth's population is now living in urban areas, planners wonder whether they have an important role to play.  Given the claims of other professions (like civil engineering, management, architecture and applied social science), planners wonder how they can compete. As it turns out, there is no other profession better equipped to build informed agreements on what ought to be done (to improve the quality of life in all kinds of places and spaces). There are no other professionals with a clearer sense of the kinds of changes that are important or how to build consensus regarding the most effective ways of realizing them. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Governance: What does it mean? And, what is good governance?

We hear the term governance all the time. Sometimes it is used to characterize corporate relationships among stakeholders, stockholders and boards of directors.  It is often used in international circles as a way of characterizing relationships among sovereign nations -- who are not obliged to defer to a higher authority -- or among governmental and non-governmental organizations who interact, but are on very different levels. Sometimes governance is used mistakenly as a synonym for government; but, government refers to the structure while governance refers to the style or method by which decisions are made and conflicts among actors are resolved. Politics is related, but different.  It refers to the exercise of power within governance. Governance is about hierarchy, custom, style of interaction and decision rules. When organizations or groups of actors are chided about the way they govern themselves, it often means that they are not paying enough attention to the way they involve (or communicate with) their members prior to making decisions.

Imagine a large trade association made up of hundreds of members who have chosen to join because membership guarantees them a range of direct and indirect benefits. As members, they expect to have some say about the policies, standards and rules by which the association governs itself.  They may try to be appointed to sub-committees or volunteer to join a working group to draft a report or suggest changes in policy. The full assembly, though, or an elected Executive Committee must make the final decisions.  Regardless of the size of the group, they will rely on explicit rules to control how decisions are made.  They may develop parallel unwritten customs by which certain tasks are handled (and the formal rules are by-passed with the tacit concurrence of the membership).  And, over time, every group or assembly  needs a process by which it can amend its formal rules and informal customs. Above all,  members want to be able to be able to hold their elected and appointed leaders accountable for operating "according to the rules."

Most organizations rely on some combination of voting and informal conversation.  They might appoint task forces or sub-committees to produce proposals by consensus, but require a majority (or even a two-thirds) vote of their Executive Committee or the full membership to make a formal decisions.  They might use weighted voting to ensure that there is a minimum level of support from various sub-categories of the membership before any action to be taken. The combination of formal decision rules (like majority voting) and informal procedures (like an informal commitment to continue talking until consensus is reached) constitute an organization's governance style.

I often wonder why more groups, organizations and associations (at every level) don't formally adopt a consensus building approach to governance.  I presume they rely on voting because they are worried that consensus won't guarantee a clear result when they need a decision.  But, these same organizations are likely to expect their task forces, working groups and sub-committees to operate on an informal consensus building basis. Their worry, I guess, is that factions will form and internal politics will make it impossible to take formal action if they operate on a consensus basis.  There are three ways of heading off such problems.  First, important problem-solving and group decision-making efforts should be facilitated or mediated by trained professional neutrals. Most people don't realize that skilled mediators can help with consensus building long before an impasse is reached.  Indeed, their involvement can be the key to avoiding a confrontation. When someone who knows what they are doing (and is not trying to steer the group toward a particular outcome) is managing the conversation, it is much easier for a group to reach agreement.  Second,  the facilitator or mediator should undertake confidential and not-for-attribution conversations with as many of the participants as possible before any important meeting.  This will make it easier for the neutral to help the group set an appropriate agenda, manage time, make sure that everyone is heard, and think ahead about how fundamental conflicts might be re-framed for the good of the group or organization.  Third, the way that decisions are posed has a lot to do with whether or not consensus can be reached.  If a group is given a package of proposals (or a set of contingent alternatives) to consider at one time, it is much easier to get the group to accept what is being proposed.  It is when agenda items are considered one at a time, and each becomes a knock-down, drag-out battle that consensus building becomes difficult.  Rather than fight about who is right regarding an uncertain future, "if-then" options can allow the group to proceed with contending sides each certain they have gotten their way.  Once participants know that issues of greatest concern to them will be addressed in a manner they find comfortable, they are much more likely to let others in the group "win" on issues they find most important to them.  

We know all this, yet, most governance processes are not professionally facilitated or mediated. They do not begin with an agenda, time table or neutral manager working to ensure that the important concerns to participant will be addressed.  And, they tend to take issues up one at a time, exacerbating conflict and making it harder to reach agreement. A great many groups say that are committed to collaborative governance, but they are not.  If they make decisions by majority voting, then they are not committed to collaborative governance.

Governance that relies on a consensus building approach is more likely to satisfy all its members.  (Their interests are guaranteed to be met.)  For those concerned about the efficiency of collaborative governance, there are simple ways of ensuring that even the most divisive issues can be framed and discussed in ways likely to yield informed agreement in a relatively short time.