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Lost in Translation: How Building “Strong” Institutions can Diminish Human Security in the Global South

30 July, 2019 by McKenzie F. Johnson

Environmental institutions have been established in the global south to improve environmental regulation and increasingly contentious extractive landscapes, but they lack in generating positive incomes on the ground. In many countries illegal mining and logging, violent conflict over resource access and distribution, and environmental degradation still prevail. This paradox exists because environmental reform has limited non-elite access to resources while it helped multinational elites consolidate control over formal legal resource extraction, says McKenzie F. Johnson from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  

In the Global South, natural resource conflict has largely been considered a consequence of poor governance and weak political institutions. The international community’s solution? Build “green” governance capacity as a way to mitigate violent conflict and improve environmental outcomes. For the international development community, this has meant introducing laws, policies, and practices based on international standards of best practice, and training local regulators to adhere to those standards.

Over the past 50 years, this strategy has helped countries like Ghana and Sierra Leone construct an impressive array of environmental institutions that closely mirror those in the United States and Europe. For example, many countries have formalized land and mineral rights through licensing processes, enhanced social and environmental protections using environmental impact assessments, and committed to transparency initiatives to enhance state accountability. These institutions have provided the necessary framework for regulators to engage in complex environmental regulation in increasingly contentious extractive landscapes.

Rise of Illegal Logging and Mining

Yet, even as “strong” institutions have emerged to manage natural resources following global standards, these countries have experienced a precipitous rise in “illegal” logging and mining, violent conflict over resource access and distribution, and sustained environmental degradation.

In Ghana, for example, the most recent estimate suggests that illegal artisanal (i.e., unmechanized subsistence extraction) and small-scale mining, which locals call “galamsey,” expanded between 1995 and 2006 from around 30,000 miners to more than 1 million in 2006. In 2014, the government of Ghana warned that “the menace of illegal small-scale mining … has become the single most important source of environmental and natural resource degradation, and constitutes a major economic, social, and national security concern that requires swift policy action.” Paradoxically, the presence of institutions thought to foster human security appears in many ways to be producing the opposite effect: greater human insecurity.

What explains this paradox?

Based on research I conducted in Ghana and Sierra Leone between 2014 and 2016, I found that insecurity—which I see primarily in terms of livelihoods and violent conflict— is a function of the construction of theoretically strong but exclusive institutions. That is, both Ghana and Sierra Leone have established the infrastructure, or rules, practices, and regulatory agencies and personnel, thought necessary to enhance human security and environmental sustainability.

However, non-elite producers, especially artisanal miners, have been increasingly marginalized in this process as regulatory structures and practices have redistributed formal legal access to natural resources according to one’s ability to conform to highly technical and costly standards, mineral licensing and environmental assessments, in particular. Environmental reform has limited non-elite access to resources critical to their livelihoods and helped multinational elites consolidate control over formal legal resource extraction.

Marginalized Non-Elite Producers

Why haven’t regulators been able to construct more inclusive environmental governance institutions to mitigate insecurity?

Many in the international development community argue that this problem relates to institutional translation. That is, global governance models need to be translated to, or reconciled with, underlying social contexts in order to make them “fit” within local culture. To many in the international development community, especially the World Bank, regulators in Ghana and Sierra Leone may not yet seem to have the capacity to engage in such translation, and thus are unable to harness functionally “good” institutions in ways that make them work within local contexts. Indeed, a refrain commonly overheard in both Ghana and Sierra Leone is that while green institutions have become strong, implementation of those institutions and overall governance capacity remains weak.  

The argument that domestic regulators do not have the requisite capacity to engage in translation misses the mark. What is actually happening is that domestic-level “translators” (i.e., environmental regulators and civil society actors) have become part of global systems of governance. They attend global meetings and conferences, consult for and work within organizations like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and essentially become part of the global “green” architecture. Through this socialization process, regulators have gained new forms of power and agency.

This, in turn, has served to make them co-producers and disseminators, rather than recipients and translators, of global practices and norms. Such individuals struggle to engage in institutional translation as questions about negotiating structural, cultural, political, and scalar differences are overshadowed by questions of appropriate conduct—that is, as local norms and practices take on good or bad characteristics according to the principles of global governance.

In short: there is, in fact, no translation. As such, environmental governance models rooted in a particular (neoliberal) logic of natural resource management are applied wholesale without considering the extent to which domestic producers can cope with the new standards.

Formal Legal vs. Informal Illegal Producers

The upshot?

The construction of strong institutions in the Global South has effectively divided the extractive landscape into two discrete categories: a formal legal sphere populated by good producers that follow the rules and an informal illegal sphere populated by bad producers that do not. In turn, this classification system has contributed to the criminalization of artisanal and small-scale producers that attempt to go around the system and engage in resource extraction without the permission of state regulators.

Over time, both the state and multinational companies have used this (socially constructed) divide to justify excluding artisanal and small-scale domestic producers from the formal sector, forced eviction of informal illegal producers from formal multinational concessions, and the violent enforcement of regulatory standards. Artisanal and small-scale actors frequently encounter state security units that destroy machinery, make arrests, or beat and forcibly remove miners—sometimes causing death. I experienced the devastation wrought by enforcement measures firsthand when a security team swept through an illegal mining camp operating in a forest reserve where I had been working in 2015. The “soldiers,” as they are called by miners, burned personal items, including money, destroyed machinery, arrested at least one miner, and confiscated costly items necessary to the excavation process. The impact on the subsistence miners and their community, which depend significantly on mining revenue for their livelihoods, was devastating. 

Not surprisingly, numerous small-scale domestic producers across a number of extractive sectors view this situation as grossly unjust. They argue that environmental regulation is “rigged” in favor of multinational companies that can more easily and cost effectively comply with global standards. Some see the state as increasingly inaccessible and out of touch with the everyday challenges of its mostly subsistence-level citizens. Further, good governance reform is increasingly perceived as a source of natural resource conflict rather than a solution for it. To the point, violent conflict in both Ghana and Sierra Leone has increased as informal illegal producers have been pitted against formal legal mining companies, and the state security forces that protect them, over the right to extract and benefit from valuable resources.

Why is this argument important?

First, it disrupts the concept that Global South regulators are simply corrupt or inept. Continuing to spin Sub-Saharan Africa’s governance challenges as an issue of capacity is not only wrong, but also perpetuates colonial systems of thinking that are unfounded and unjust. It also obscures the ways in which neoliberal systems of environmental governance actually generate social and environmental insecurity.

Second, this argument suggests that “inclusive”—rather than conventional understandings of “strong”—institutions may be more important in generating real opportunities to enhance human security. In practice, the international community will need to compromise on some functional aspects of “good” institutions to generate better outcomes on the ground.