Natural Resource Management (NRM) and similar bodies face an ongoing challenge and tension to build their engagement and influence on NRM knowledge and practice. Experience says that there are no simple solutions, but evidence from the field provides powerful insights. These could prove useful for industry bodies too, given the rising influence of the community on agricultural industries.
Case studies we prepared in 2011 as part of a wider review of the effectiveness of Community Skills, Knowledge and Engagement (CSKE) under the Australian Government’ Caring for our Country initiative show that two different perspectives have driven thinking and strategy within regional NRM organisations: a community development model of engagement and an investor-provider model.
The community development model sees the development of community knowledge and skills as the primary challenge for NRM given the link between the current problems with resource health and resource management decisions across the community. A community development approach emphasises that everyone is important in NRM change and prioritises relationships and learning as the crucial short-term outcomes from CSKE. Understanding and responding to community identified needs is the driver for initiative implementation and design.
The direct results of a community development approach may be harder to measure immediately as the causal link between learning and on ground action is difficult to establish. However, in the longer term a focus on developing people is expected to result in a sustained improvement in NRM and less need for public investment to ameliorate biophysical problems. The influence of the Landcare movement on resource management in agriculture is one of the best and longest running examples of this kind of community development driven change.
The alternative emphasis is an investor-provider model which takes a business-like, results focussed perspective to CSKE.This approach is primarily focussed on achieving biophysical outcomes in the short-term and utilising corporate-style organisational structures and planning for Program design and decision-making.
Here, CSKE is positioned as a facilitator of efficiency and effectiveness and is primarily used as one component of integrated Programs seeking to catalyse specific change. General engagement activities and capacity building may be incorporated in the suite of initiatives but at a lower level of priority. In this approach people are primarily seen as intermediaries in the change process and longer term attitudinal and broader practice changes as something that will flow from ongoing results-focussed effort that catalyses and leads practical change.
Both approaches have some important similarities in that they:
- require the fostering of a strong learning culture supported by a robust internal evaluation protocol and feedback process;
- focus on achieving results that are valued by stakeholders as well as investors;
- recognise the value of people in NRM (in the organisation, as operational intermediaries and on the action front in the community); and
- require that the NRM body become a central hub or connector of information for NRM practitioners as well as the custodian of regional NRM planning responsibilities.
Each of the case study organisations we examined was actively seeking a middle ground that balances the advantages of both approaches. The community development orientated organisations seek to be more business-like and results focussed in the future and the more business-like seek to develop their mechanisms for broader engagement and inclusiveness. The relative emphasis of each organisation’s approach is driven by its leadership, regional context and organisational history.
The experience of NRM bodies provides useful insights for how rural industries could strengthen engagement with communities and complement their efforts to engage with farm businesses.