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Kiss Here and a Kiss There: Conflict and Non-Confrontation in a Multi-Stakeholder Environmental Partnership in Belgium

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Type: Conference Paper
Author: Poncelet, Eric C.
Conference: Crossing Boundaries, the Seventh Biennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of Common Property
Location: Vancouver, BC, Canada
Conf. Date: June 10-14
Date: 1998
URI: https://hdl.handle.net/10535/2160
Sector: General & Multiple Resources
Water Resource & Irrigation
Region: Europe
Subject(s): IASC
environmental policy
decision making
state and local governance
Abstract: "While the long term effects of the 1992 United Nations 'Earth Summit' have yet to be seen, one notable short term product has been the increased promotion of multi-stakeholder environmental partnerships as an alternative tool for environmental decision-making.... These collaborative efforts, which bring together stakeholders from the business, governmental and non-governmental sectors for the purpose of achieving consensus-based solutions to specific environmental problems, have helped to institutionalize consensus-building practices and participatory dialogue into the environmental policy process (Glasbergen 1996a). "Given the diverse interests represented by the various participants and the history of contentious relations between the sectors ... one might assume, as I did going into my research of these types of partnerships, that they would be characterized by a high degree of contestation and opposition. Instead, I found antagonistic debate and overt conflict among the participants to be the exception rather than the norm. I was even left with the impression that conflict was being purposefully avoided at times. This paper asks: Why is this the case? And what do these partnerships portend for the future of environmental decision making? "A number of different analytical perspectives exist for explaining this pattern of behavior in multi-stakeholder environmental partnerships. To date, the predominant approach comes from the field of environmental politics and treats the partnership process as an encounter between competing political or economic interests. Here, decision- making is seen to be the result of zero-sum bargaining efforts among policy actors rationally pursuing their respective preferences, desires, or goals (Schwarz & Thompson 1990). While it may certainly be true that some actors choose to avoid conflicting relations with other partners as a means of achieving any of a number of personal or organizational objectives, I contend that such a 'politics of interest' perspective, though important, is insufficient to fully explain what goes on in these complex social processes (see Poncelet 1997). It suffers from a tendency to reduce the participants to one-dimensional actors mechanically acting out the Western model of rationality and a proclivity to decontextualize the assumed goal maximizing behavior from its social and cultural settings (Majone 1985). "Interjecting a more anthropological perspective, I propose that we view multi-stakeholder environmental partnerships less as battlegrounds between conflicting interests and more as sites of opportunities, within specific contexts of unequal power relations, for the production of social and cultural forms. I suggest that these initiatives produce 'partners' who tend to adopt certain ways of understanding, talking, and acting within the partnership setting. Moreover, the 'privileging' of specific discourses and practices has the effect of promoting certain types of environmental actions over others. With respect to the topic at hand, I argue that these types of partnerships encourage non-confrontational practices which have the effect of restricting or evading debate and conflict among the stakeholders. "To address these issues, I will start by describing the multi-stakeholder environmental partnership upon which my argument is based and then move on to an exploration of the practice of non-confrontation commonly encountered. Next, I will propose socioculturally-based explanations for why debate and conflict tend to get diffused in these types of partnerships and then explore why this practice of non-confrontation remains dominant. Finally, I will conclude with some comments regarding the possibilities of these new instruments in the environmental policy arena."

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