TNRC Blog Integrating social norms and behavior change approaches to target natural resource corruption

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Targeting Natural Resource Corruption

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Integrating social norms and behavior change approaches to target natural resource corruption

This blog post captures insights from a TNRC Learning Series webinar on adopting social norms and behavior change (SNBC) approaches to address corruption challenges in fisheries, law enforcement, and community-based natural resource management (NRM). The webinar was held on 12 September 2023. Speakers discussed a series of four forthcoming resources that explore the relevance of adopting an SNBC approach to problems that conservation practitioners often face, with concrete examples pertinent to fisheries, community-managed natural resources and first-line defenders (rangers). Practitioners in 32 countries attended the event. A recording of the webinar is above and a PDF of the slides can be downloaded here.

Key Takeaways

  • Adopting a social norms and behavior change approach can shed light on barriers to achieving desired conservation and anti-corruption results.
  • A behavioral lens can help to address some of the most resilient types of corruption, such as those involving collusion among a significant number of stakeholders. Approaches must be holistic and take into account the incentives, prejudices and social expectations of all actors involved.
  • Understanding social pressures and other intangible complexities of local contexts can help conservation practitioners discover innovative approaches for targeting corruption by bringing the lens closer to the needs, understandings and expectations of intended beneficiaries and involved stakeholders.

How is an SNBC approach different from other conventional interventions and what are its relative advantages?

People often make decisions in response to biases and social pressures. Examples of behavioral biases are the present bias (whereby people tend to underestimate the costs that decisions made today will incur in the future) and the conformity bias (whereby individuals align their opinion, decisions and behaviors with those that are prevalent among their peers). Decisions affected by biases may have a strong impact in perpetuating patterns of corruption that undermine natural resource management. Moreover, they result in behaviors that will be resistant to anti-corruption interventions that may be based on assumptions of conventional cost-benefit analysis.

One example is anti-corruption and conservation awareness-raising campaigns. Considerable resources are invested in such campaigns, yet we know that, for the most part, people do not change their behaviors despite being provided information about the negative impacts and costs of corruption, poaching, illegal logging, or related activities.

An SNBC approach differs from other interventions in that it helps to bring to the fore instances in which, for example, social pressures may strongly contradict formal duties, information may not be conveyed in a manner that resonates with the intended audiences, or emotional responses may be distorting the interactions between rights-holders and duty-bearers.

Which forms of corruption and associated crimes that impact conservation outcomes can SNBC approaches address, and how?

The forthcoming TNRC resources share SNBC insights and present concrete examples of why and how this approach can help to address bribery in fisheries, collusive corruption in community-managed resources, and corruption among rangers.

Let’s consider the fisheries example. Proper regulation of the fisheries sector is key to preventing overfishing and to preventing corruption. However, regulation of complex processes often results in so-called “red tape” (complicated actions or tasks that seem unnecessary but that a government requires in order to obtain services, permits, licenses and so on). Red tape is known to be associated with bribery because people often prefer to pay an informal amount rather than deal with complicated and time-consuming tasks. In addition to the obvious problem-solving goal of bribe-giving, adding a behavioral lens reveals that red tape generates strong negative emotions, erodes trust in the State and increases the likelihood of deviant behaviors. This indicates that it might take more than a technical approach to reap the benefits of addressing red tape.

Efforts at simplifying bureaucratic processes for fishermen, such as TrazApp, an Electronic Catch Documentation and Traceability System that was developed by WWF-Peru together with actors in the artisanal fisheries supply chain (including fishers, intermediaries, processing plants and government entities), might be boosted with behaviorally-informed information and dissemination campaigns that challenge conventional wisdoms about the tediousness of complying with official requirements, to enhance uptake and reduce incentives for bribery.

Collusive corruption in community managed resources may also be analyzed and addressed with the help of a SNBC lens. The forthcoming resource examines collusive corruption to rig auctions of timber from community-managed forests. Collusive corruption is one of the most complex corruption modalities to address because when all (or most) of those involved are benefiting, it is difficult to find entry points for sustainably changing their behaviors. Using an example from Nepal, the resource presents a scenario whereby community management groups, sawmills, forestry and law enforcement officials as well as contractors, collude to rig timber auctions utilizing bribes and kickbacks and reaping undue profits. SNBC insights can be applied to involve and empower community members by challenging assumptions about the normality and acceptability of corruption and revealing the future costs of abusing the common resource. Furthermore, engaging with all actors to explore incentives that can address their particular interests while priming for and rewarding integrity, can be part of the development of a holistic strategy that can help to disrupt community-level collusive corruption networks.

Corruption among rangers is a well-documented challenge around the world. They might be bribed or coerced to turn a blind eye to poachers or to provide information on patrolling activities. Increasingly, evidence is arising that suggests that in many cases, rangers are vulnerable to corruption risks in spite of integrity trainings and the existence of corruption reporting mechanisms. Furthermore, some of the pressures to engage in corruption may emanate from the communities near the parks, of which rangers are often members, for which conservation might be a priority and where the proceeds from bribes might be seen as a means to meet basic needs. Thus, it is important to devise approaches that acknowledge that rangers often must confront conflicting norms, and to devise approaches that help attenuate conflicts between social norms and professional duties. Devising compensation schemes that are contingent on maintaining ethical conduct while delivering rewards that respond to the needs and expectations of social networks can help to nurture a sense of ownership in the communities regarding the importance of upholding the ethical role of the rangers.

How does adopting an SNBC lens help practitioners to view and address corruption challenges differently?

Any SNBC-informed intervention must be feasibly integrated into existing projects and initiatives. In this regard, it is essential to design interventions that are responsive to the views, needs and expectations of the stakeholders who are directly impacted. Practitioners should consider how ongoing project participants, beneficiaries and implementers can be convened and engaged in co-design activities to identify behavioral elements that might be compromising project outcomes and to develop suitable mitigation actions that are deemed feasible and have uptake locally.

An example of a concrete entry point for the above can help to clarify further. Insights from practitioners strongly confirm the relevance of social pressures compromising the effectiveness of commonly implemented anti-corruption and integrity-building approaches. Rangers may be trained on ethical conduct and the correct fulfillment of their duties and still give in to engaging in bribery, frequently because of social pressures that they encounter. This insight bears direct implications for initiatives, such as the Ranger Code of Conduct, which has already been signed by 9 conservation organizations and 172 member associations of the International Rangers Federation. For those in charge of the oversight and implementation of the code, a mapping of behavioral influences that might affect adherence to the code could be a first step to developing complementary measures to boost compliance with this key document.

Generally speaking, adopting an SNBC lens can also help to reveal practitioners’ own biases (we all have them!) and identify new angles or understandings on targeting corruption challenges that might prove resilient to conventional measures. Delving into the role of social norms and social pressures can be helpful in uncovering difficult dilemmas that individuals in positions of public authority often encounter. The idea of a neat divide between the public duty and the private realm is often not more than an aspirational notion amid the complexities of local environments and social relationships, thus thinking in terms of social norms and behavioral biases can help bring anti-corruption closer to the realities in which NRM practitioners are immersed.

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Image attribution: © / Jen Guyton / WWF; © Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF; © Georgina Goodwin / Shoot The Earth / WWF-UK; © Hkun Lat / WWF-Aus