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From tactical to strategic efforts in T&A in Mexico’s natural resource management

By Eduardo Rolon, E-learning course participant

Many of us that work with transparency and accountability (T&A) tools have wondered how to pass from denouncing to policy change. The course “Fostering Strategic Social Accountability” organised by the Global Partnership for Social Accountability Knowledge Platform may have provided us with some clues where to look at, thinking more strategically and broadly in our efforts.


One of the most interesting topics in this course was the difference between strategic and tactical ap-proaches to social accountability. The topic was explained based on a text written by Jonathan Fox (2014), which provides an extended review of what conditions make T&A tools more likely to be suc-cessful. By analysing diverse cases where civic organisations used these tools as part of their advocacy arsenal, he found that those that depart from a perspective of strategic advocacy, a systemic approach that considers the different nodes of power and decision-making [1], were more likely to achieve policy changes than those that just use tactical approaches. These last ones have more limited scope, as they aim at im-plementing localised activities directed to specific decision-making points. Tactical approaches tend to not visualise overall power relations, institutional arrangements and political contexts in terms of their pro-grammed activities. They may go to the surface but not necessarily to the roots of inequalities, power dif-ferentials and institutional arrangements that make difficult policy change to occur. I would use the case of Mexico to illustrate these assertions.

Strategic approach to T&A in Mexico’s natural resource management

In Mexico, we have a past of using T&A tools for environmental activism at least since the end of the 1980s. Yet, the policy area of natural resource management remained out of this tendency. For many years the distribution of natural resources and the actions of the State in management policies had im-portant political considerations. The Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) that stayed in power for more than 70 years until the year 2000 [2] used to grant ownership, access and resources to farmer groups in time of elections so it could count with the countryside vote and support. It also favoured the formation of farmer unions and associations that were given a sit in the political party, in Congress or in elected po-sitions, in exchange of their continual support to the political regime. The capacity of the PRI to remain in power for more than 70 years in part was the result of this type of arrangements with social groups.

Despite political rotation in 2000, these practices, and the political culture that goes with them, have in part remained. And this is something that we have to look when applying T&A tools to improve natural resource management. For instance, in terms of possible allies to increase our possibility for influencing policy makers to change behaviour, we need to pay attention to the power arrangements between state agencies, politicians and resource owners. Leaders of farmer or fishers associations may favour the domi-nant arrangements on natural resource management that provides them with privileges and for whom a more transparent policy framework could be a threat.

Another element to consider is the ability of CSOs to mobilise their demands. In the case of Mexico, we see that environmental CSOs are limited in their capacities to influence policy change by their internal context: scarcity of financial resources, difficulties to ensure a permanent staff with necessary knowledge, skills and time required for successful T&A campaigns, competition for funding between groups, power asymmetries between these and donors to define the agenda of activism. Additionally, perceived pressing issues in urban centres, such as budget expending, education or security, dominate the T&A agenda of CSOs, but areas such as marine resources, biodiversity or forest conservation have a more limited capaci-ty to be activated by social groups living in urban areas.

How to advance a T&A agenda?

We need to reflect on these external and internal factors in order to define our approach to T&A for in-fluencing policy change. It is important to consider a political analysis of the different power arrange-ments that are present in the functioning of the State, such as the relation between the Legislative and Ex-ecutive, or between them and social groups and civil society, and seek windows of opportunity to move proposals accordingly. We also need to work with social groups- in our case with farmers or fishers organ-isations – that are the direct constituency of governmental policies, to increase their interest and support for T&A in policy processes and decisions. Here it is important to pay attention to issues of power that are also embedded in these groups, such as how some of them may benefit from current policy arrangements. Finally, it is important to assess our own capabilities, and seek ways to confront our own limitations, both economically and politically. A way to confront this is to find new allies with other civic groups that are active in the T&A field and to form coalitions that have more capacity to mobilise demands.

This strategic approach will aim to address power arrangements in existent institutional and social dynam-ics that at the end sustain the accountability traps that blockade change. It is also a more realistic approach to having success, than just focus on localised points of entry in tactical interventions, such as disseminat-ing research results of transparency studies that have proven at the end to be less successful. It is an im-portant challenge for many CSOs, as it entails probably an extended period of time and more resources in T&A activities, but it will be worth it.

[1] In a practical sense, this entails seeking to influence not only decision makers, using for instance, a public presentation of a social accountability report, but to review to whom decision-makers respond; who are the influential actors in policy spaces; the relation with social groups that are often excluded but to whom the policy should benefit, and to design advocacy activities accordingly. For more information on strategic and tactical approaches to social accountability, read Jonathan Fox’s paper here.
[2] This political party came back to power in 2012 and is still ruling today.

Photo EduardoAuthor

Eduardo Rolón
General Coordinator of Causa Natura A.C.

Doctor en Estudios del Desarrollo y Maestro en Ciencias del Medio Ambiente y Desarrollo por la Universidad de East Anglia en Reino Unido. Licenciado en Relaciones Internacionales por la UNAM. Eduardo ha sido asesor de la Subsecretaría de Recursos Naturales en la SEMARNAP, Director de Investigación en Análisis Institucional y de Políticas Públicas del Instituto Nacional de Ecología y Director de Política Pública de Comunidad y Biodiversidad A.C. Tiene más de 12 años de experiencia en el análisis y elaboración de políticas públicas en temas de biodiversidad, bosques e industria, así como en diseño e implementación de estrategias de participación ciudadana e incidencia en políticas públicas tanto desde el sector gubernamental como el civil. Entre los temas de su interés están la participación ciudadana en políticas públicas ambientales; el papel del marco económico e institucional para incentivar prácticas de manejo y de conservación de recursos naturales; y la democratización de políticas públicas ambientales para fomentar una mejor distribución de beneficios en el uso de recursos.

Eduardo participated to the GPSA Knowledge Platform E-learning course on Fostering Strategic Social Accountability and completed the course among the most dedicated participants.

March 24, 2015

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