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Strengthening natural resource institutions in Africa: Applying social learning to reconciling poverty reduction and environmental management
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In the past two decades social and political changes in Africa have unmasked the underlying complexity and pluralism of natural resource management landscapes and exposed the untenable nature of linear, centralized technocratic approaches. Institutional pluralism as both reality and approach has arisen to address complexity in natural resource management by attempting to negotiate and accommodate contradictory interests and knowledge. Management increases in complexity as the geographic scale and the scope of problem situations expand and competing and conflicting stakeholder interests intensify in response to threats of appropriation, scarcity or deterioration. New institutional arrangements face a critical challenge in balancing poverty reduction, environmental sustainability and equity decision criteria in the face of uncertain and changing relationships within complex adaptive social and ecological systems. An initiative to assess lessons learned from more than 20 years of development in rural Africa reveals that social learning is vital in pluralistic settings, enabling joint institutional capacity to adapt and innovate. Drawing from the cases and from literature on social learning a practical typology is proposed for tailoring the choice and design of social learning methods to situations that are framed by varying levels of complexity and different governance regimes. The paper describes characteristics and applications of social learning in institutional strengthening, and examines implications for reconciling poverty reduction and environmental management in Africa.