Behaviour, Communication, Natural resource management, Policy

23 – Capacity building? The role of communication and education in NRM

I can remember the bemusement I felt when I first heard the term “extension” used to describe communication and education. It seemed an odd usage of the word, and it still does, but I am habituated to it now. These days in Australia there is a new dominant euphemism for these activities: “capacity building”. In theory capacity building is apparently meant to be a broader term than “extension”, but in practice when you look at what gets funded it seems to amount to much the same thing.

Education and communication are commonly used tools in environmental programs around the world, including Australia. Their attractiveness to politicians in understandable: they are relatively cheap, they have a high “feel good” factor, and, compared to other policy tools, they are less likely to require tough decisions that result in winners and losers. Capacity building is absorbing a substantial share of the funding in Australia’s two largest environmental programs, the Natural Heritage Trust and the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality.

Education and communication are not the only tools available to attempt to achieve desirable changes in the environment, so the question arises, in what circumstances are they among the most appropriate responses?

For capacity building to be a wise investment for the environment, there are two conditions that ideally should both be met.

  1. The capacity building should be expected to result in changed practices or actions “on the ground”.
  2. The anticipated changes or actions should be sufficient to make a real difference to environmental outcomes.

Too often, environmental programs have fallen back onto communication and education without considering whether either of these conditions is met.

Within agriculture, meeting the conditions will be more or less likely for different environmental problems in different regions. Paying attention to this will allow much better targeted usage of capacity building.

To satisfy condition 1, the action or innovation being advocated to the target audience must be “adoptable”. That is, if people knew all about it, they would choose to adopt it. There are many factors that influence how adoptable a practice is, but if the intent is for it to be taken up by commercial business operators on a large scale, the most crucial factors are the economic costs and benefits of the practice.

Evaluating condition 2 requires us to take the anticipated scale of adoption that is likely to result from capacity building (condition 1) and compare that to bio-physical evidence about the scale that is required to generate the desired environmental benefits.

For dryland salinity, in particular, evidence about the two conditions has been growing in recent years. In 2003, a crew of economists across Australia reviewed the economics of high-water-using perennial plants, the main preventative option for dryland salinity, in grain growing areas. Their results were variable, but they found many cases where planting a small to moderate area of a perennial species is economically attractive. If planted on larger areas, the existing perennial plant options can result in major economic losses. Considering condition 2, there is wide variation in the responsiveness of groundwaters to perennial vegetation, with “local” groundwater systems being the most responsive. The larger “regional” groundwater systems have low responsiveness to perennials, even if they are planted at large scale. Combining the two aspects, in most locations the scale of plantings that would be needed to fully contain salinity is substantially larger than the area that would currently be adopted as a result of capacity building (that is, the area that would currently be economically viable for farmers).

So, within salinity alone, as well as between different environmental issues, there is considerable variation in how adoptable existing environmental practices are (condition 1), and considerable variation in how responsive the environment is to those practices (condition 2). Common sense says that, to be effective, capacity building would need to be targeted to locations where the available practices are adoptable, and where the environment is responsive to the likely level of adoption.

This clearly isn’t happening. Indeed, it often appears that neither question is asked before capacity building is embraced. At least in the case of dryland salinity, much of the current money that is being spent on capacity building does not meet either of the conditions.

There is apparently some concern in policy circles that the investment in capacity building may not be paying off. Unfortunately, the mind-set of some involved seems to be that if we could just do the capacity building better, it would be more effective. Of course it may be possible to improve the processes or techniques used, but far more important is to address the fundamental question of whether any form of capacity building is the appropriate response to a particular problem in a particular location. There are plenty of readily identifiable situations where it is not.

If not capacity building, then what? There is a range of other policy responses that can be appropriate in particular circumstances, including economic policy instruments, regulation, direct funding of works, do nothing, acquisition of land, and R&D to generate improved management options (e.g. better species of plants) that would be more likely to satisfy the first condition above. The latter option, in particular, deserves much more attention than it usually receives.

All this is not to say that capacity building does not have a role, just that we need to be more systematic in determining what that role is and when it is appropriate. In some ways, the emphasis on funding for capacity building has come out of sequence. It would have been far better to invest in the generation of more adoptable practices first, and only then to encourage their adoption through communication and education. We have been putting the cart before the horse.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Postscript, 29 Oct 2004. I am referring above to capacity building for land managers. There is also capacity building for policy makers and catchment management organisations (CMOs), for which the issues are somewhat different. The logic, though, is the same. For example, the capacity building would need to be expected to change the decisions of CMOs, and those changes would need to matter environmentally. Ironically, successful capacity building for CMOs might result in them relying less on capacity building for land managers.

Further reading

Kingwell, R., Hajkowicz, S., Young, J., Patton, D., Trapnell, L., Edward, A., Krause, M. and Bathgate, A., 2003. Economic Evaluation of Salinity Management Options in Cropping Regions of Australia. Grains Research and Development Corporation, Canberra.

Ridley AM and Pannell DJ (2005). SIF3: An investment framework for managing dryland salinity in Australia. SEA Working paper 1901. CRC for Plant-based Management of Dryland Salinity, University of Western Australia, Perth. Available at SIF3 project page

Pannell, D.J. (2001). Dryland Salinity: Economic, Scientific, Social and Policy Dimensions, Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics 45(4): 517-546. Final journal version (212K pdf file) also available via the Journal homepage:

Pannell,D.J. (2001). Explaining non-adoption of practices to prevent dryland salinity in Western Australia: Implications for policy. In: A. Conacher (ed.), Land Degradation, Kluwer, Dordrecht, 335-346. full paper (49K).

Pannell, D.J. (1999). Social and economic challenges in the development of complex farming systems, Agroforestry Systems 45(1-3): 393-409. full paper (65K)