Professor Fiona Nunan

The College of Social Sciences was delighted to host the inaugural lecture of Professor Fiona Nunan, Professor of Environment and Development.

The lecture took place on Wednesday 22 January, and saw over 225 staff, students and members of the community join Professor Nunan in the Alan Walters building to discuss how outcomes can be achieved to protect the environment and improve lives.

Professor Nunan’s lecture was introduced by Professor Richard Black, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Social Sciences. Professor Black spoke of Fiona’s academic background and her interest in the governance of natural resources.

The lecture began with a discussion on natural resource governance and building a narrative around how ‘win-win’ outcomes in protecting the environment and saving lives can be achieved. Fiona explained that she would be drawing on her own research, and the experience and work of others, to explain why it may be difficult to achieve the ‘win-win’ outcomes, but also why there was the argument to remain optimistic about the future.

Professor Nunan addressed the debate on whether we can improve the environment and deliver on developmental outcomes at the same time. She began by explaining how the relationship between environmental degradation and poverty is often portrayed as a vicious cycle – with those living in poverty having no choice but to overexploit the environment, leading to further poverty, and the cycle beginning again.

Fiona explained how she was not comfortable with this depiction, believing it to detract from the role and influence that wealth and consumption play on environmental degradation. There was, she noted, some truth in the cycle, however it is too simplistic and misleading.

Aversion to this portrayal led Fiona to challenge this through her first book, Understanding Poverty and the Environment: Analytical Frameworks and Approaches, which demonstrated how a variety of complex factors can affect the relationship between poverty and the environment – these include power relationships, formal and informal rules, social relationships and governance.

Given the importance of governance in mediating relationships between poverty and the environment, Fiona’s research increasingly became focused over time on natural resource governance. In the lecture, Fiona used the following definition of natural resource governance: “how power and responsibilities over natural resources are exercised, how decisions are taken and how citizens secure access to, participate in, and are impacted by the management of natural resources”.

To introduce natural resource governance, Fiona explained that from the 1980s, in low-income countries, there was a shift away from government-centred management to increased participation of resource users in community-based or collaborative arrangements. This was influenced by decentralisation being implemented widely, notably through the formation of local governments, and by an increasing uptake of participatory approaches in international development work more broadly. As a result, this then led to community-based natural resource management – with communities taking the lead in management or working with government through collaborative arrangements. Fiona noted that this has been far from a perfect initiative, rarely organised from the bottom-up in practice.

Fiona went on to describe good examples of community-based natural resource management, including community forest management in Nepal and community conservancies in Namibia. She also noted that in many locations, customary systems and rules also still exist, such as through traditional authorities and local rules. Fiona gave an example of the Wechiau hippo reserve in northern Ghana, where the traditional authority formed a reserve which aligned with government policy and regulations whilst also being embedded in customary management systems.

So, what matters in order to achieve win-win outcomes through natural resource governance? Professor Nunan explained that having a supportive government, enabling legislation, good accountability and ongoing funding were all important to achieving success. Despite there being much research and knowledge about factors that can help arrangements succeed, it remains difficult in many cases to deliver on these win-win outcomes. From reviewing those factors, Fiona reminded the audience that there is no simple, one-size-fits-all solution, that in practice there are often multiple governance structures, systems and rules in place at any one time, so the governance landscape is complicated, and the rules tend to be adapted to fit local practice so it is difficult to predict how things will work out in any location and over time.

Fiona also highlighted that it is important to remember gender norms and expectations when thinking about governance arrangements, as trying to create inclusive systems can be challenging. She also reflected on how the wider political and economic context affects the systems and practice of natural resource governance. This includes the political regime in place, the prevalence and practice of corruption and the status of the local and national economies.

Professor Nunan ended the lecture by summarising how “win-win” outcomes could be achieved. She suggested that the following are important:

  • Need to allow for different arrangements between locations and greater flexibility;
  • Encouragement of local ownership;
  • Acceptance that managing natural resources needs ongoing financial support;
  • Investment in relationships between governments and communities, to build trust and communication;
  • More attention should be given to the role of government and politics in collaborative and community-based arrangements.

A final thought was given to the effect of our decisions and actions on those who depend so directly on natural resources throughout the world, now and into the future, with Fiona advocating that we have a responsibility to educate ourselves about climate change and keep up-to-date with knowledge and evidence, as well as campaign for more action to tackle climate change.

Professor René Lindstädt, Head of the School of Government, then closed the lecture and gave his thanks to Professor Nunan, praising her impactful and inspiring work before speaker and audience mixed in a canapé reception.

Find out more about Fiona’s research in her new book Governing Renewable Natural Resources.