TNRC Blog Whose reality counts? Understanding actor perceptions in project development to better target natural resource corruption

Whose reality counts? Understanding actor perceptions in project development to better target natural resource corruption

Effectively addressing corruption’s impact on natural resource management (NRM) outcomes requires carefully managed coordination and multi-level governance of stakeholders. Without a commitment to addressing stakeholders' interests and incentives, and power differentials among them, fostering sustainable resource use often proves complicated. The specific problems of unsustainable resource use include the threat of overexploitation of natural resources, corruption, and dispossession of local communities and indigenous peoples. To address these challenges, natural resource management and conservation projects need theories of change (ToC) that identify the logic and assumptions underpinning programs and clarify how interventions are expected to lead to intended results. Because development interventions and their target beneficiaries have multi-faceted needs, those needs must be incorporated into the process in a supportive, collaborative way. According to one review, such a participatory approach will benefit all stakeholders, improve relationships with partners by identifying opportunities for dialogue and collaboration, and provide a unifying framework for strategic decision-making, communicating, and reporting.

However, even a participatory process of developing a project’s theory of change has risks, despite aiming to meet the needs of all stakeholders. ToC processes are not conflict-free. Even as bright spots have emerged in conservation projects that developed their ToCs collaboratively (see here, here, here, and here), those processes are still subject to the influences of power relations between stakeholders and the practicability of reconciling the interests of stakeholders in NRM.

ToC processes are prone to capture by elites who can then manipulate the goals and priorities of the NRM project to reinforce existing power relations and lead to a skewed distribution of project benefits, as observed here, here, and here. The ToC process for NRM projects can also be explicitly political, requiring reconciling the interests of project proponents and beneficiaries to create a shared vision that might lead to desired NRM goals. Interventions in NRM have frequently failed to accomplish this reconciliation, as reported here and here. Stakeholder consultation processes can take a “tokenistic” approach of “informing” rather than consulting, leading to project designs that favor the interests of project proponents at the cost of the interests of beneficiaries. For example, powerful implementing agencies can use ToCs to validate certain policy narratives, which squeezes out space for learning, reflection, and adaptation. This can also translate into limited cooperation in project design, lost opportunities for synergistic actions, and damage to local interests from corruption. Conflict of interest and power imbalances may also emerge within beneficiary groups and can promote elite capture and corruption in NRM, as highlighted here.

Alongside reinforcing existing power relations and stakeholder inequalities, ToC processes can be driven by project designers who lack an understanding of the complexity of natural resources across various scales, which risks oversimplifying real-world challenges. In theory, ToC processes can formulate and articulate “win-win” strategies in NRM, but these can be challenging to implement in biodiversity conservation contexts. For example, NRM practices preferred by beneficiary stakeholders may conflict with global environmental values preferred by conservation organizations. Reconciling these conflicting goals usually involves making choices and trade-offs between them. Recognizing the critical insights that project beneficiaries can provide underscores the importance of understanding and giving voice to community perspectives. Recent positive examples of this can be seen in the ToC approach to engaging communities in tackling the illegal wildlife trade (IWT). However, when ToC development and implementation process are a top-down process managed by a few, the priorities of beneficiaries risk being excluded in how NRM project objectives are framed and defined. Widely-used ToC participatory methodologies may similarly be inadequate in overcoming the entrenched power of state actors and local elites, especially in contexts where they hold discretionary decision-making powers over natural resources, and may lead to perverse outcomes.

In light of these insights, practitioners developing NRM projects must give significant consideration to how beneficiaries frame and prioritize their own goals with the formal goals and logics of programmatic interventions. Rigorous, participatory ToC methodologies have shown great potential to achieve broader community-based NRM benefits beyond the specific project objectives they were designed to achieve. As a recent TNRC brief emphasizes, NRM's political context requires practitioners to work with approaches that help better analyze politics and power dimensions in a given NRM context and integrate nature into this political understanding. While providing practical guidance for designing and implementing more inclusive NRM programs, ToC processes are permeated with power and interests that, if unaddressed, can have repercussions for project outcomes and priorities for underserved communities. To build appropriate ToCs for NRM projects, a U4 paper notes that it is essential to distinguish between preconditions that can be addressed by the program design and those that cannot. Addressing power inequalities and the interests of diverse stakeholders by focusing on the NRM context can assist stakeholders in making ToCs more appropriate, transparent, and more robust in their effectiveness.


Adams, W.M., et al,, 2004. Biodiversity conservation and the eradication of poverty. Science, 306(5699), pp.1146-1149.

Agrawal, Arun, and Clark C. Gibson. "Enchantment and disenchantment: the role of community in natural resource conservation." World development 27, no. 4 (1999): 629-649.

Armitage, D., Arends, J., Barlow, N. L., Closs, A., Cloutis, G. A., Cowley, M., ... Weins, C. (2019). Applying a “theory of change” process to facilitate transdisciplinary sustainability education. Ecology and Society, 24(3), 20.

Armitage, D., Mbatha, P., Muhl, E. K., Rice, W. S., & Sowman, M. (2020). Governance principles for community-centered conservation in the post-2020 global biodiversity framework. Conservation Science and Practice, 2(2), e160.

Balfour, D. et al., 2019. A theory of change to grow numbers of African rhino at a conservation site. Conservation Science and Practice, 1(6), p.e40.

Biggs, D. et al., 2017. Developing a theory of change for a community-based response to illegal wildlife trade. Conservation Biology, 31(1), pp.5-12.

Endamana, D. et al. (2010) ‘A Framework for Assessing Conservation and Development in a Congo Basin Forest Landscape’, Tropical Conservation Science, pp. 262-281. doi: 10.1177/194008291000300303.

Ensminger, Jean. "Corruption in community-driven development. A Kenyan case study with insights from Indonesia." U4 Issue (2017).

J. Sayer, D. Endamana, A.K. Boedhihartono, M. Ruiz-Perez, and T. Breuer "Learning from Change in the Sangha Tri-National Landscape," International Forestry Review 18(s1), 130-139, (1 October 2016).

Johnsøn, Jesper. "Theories of change in anti-corruption work: A tool for programme design and evaluation." U4 Issue (2012).

Lampert, A. Over-exploitation of natural resources is followed by inevitable declines in economic growth and discount rate. Nat Commun 10,1419 (2019).

Larson, A., & F. Soto. 2008. Decentralization of natural resource governance regimes. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 33:213–239.

Le Billon, Philippe, Päivi Lujala, and Siri Aas Rustad. "A Theory of Change for the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative." U4 ISSUE 2020:11.

Lucas, A. Elite Capture and Corruption in two Villages in Bengkulu Province, Sumatra. Hum Ecol 44, 287–300 (2016).

Maconachie, R., Srinivasan, R. and Menzies, N., 2015. Responding to the Challenge of Fragility and Security in West Africa. The World Bank, Washington, DC.

Persha, L. and Andersson, K., 2014. Elite capture risk and mitigation in decentralized forest governance regimes. Global environmental change, 24, pp.265-276.

Poudyal, M. et al. 2016. Can REDD+ social safeguards reach the ‘right’people? Lessons from Madagascar. Global Environmental Change, 37, pp.31-42

Ribot, J.C., 2003. Democratic decentralisation of natural resources: institutional choice and discretionary power transfers in Sub-Saharan Africa. Public Administration and Development: The International Journal of Management Research and Practice, 23(1), pp.53-65.

Rice WS, Sowman MR, Bavinck M. Using Theory of Change to improve post-2020 conservation: A proposed framework and recommendations for use. Conservation Science and Practice. 2020;2:e301.

Roe, D., Nelson, F. and Sandbrook, C. eds., 2009. Community management of natural resources in Africa: Impacts, experiences and future directions (No. 18). IIED.

Roe, D et al. (2016) Engaging communities to combat illegal wildlife trade: a theory of change. IIED Briefing, London. See:

Salafsky, N., 2011. Integrating development with conservation: a means to a conservation end, or a mean end to conservation?. Biological Conservation, 144(3), pp.973-978.

Sayer, J.A., Margules, C., Boedhihartono, A.K. et al. Measuring the effectiveness of landscape approaches to conservation and development. Sustain Sci 12, 465–476 (2017).

Skinner, D., Dublin, H., Niskanen, L., Roe, D., and Vishwanath, A., 2020. Exploring community beliefs to reduce illegal wildlife trade using a theory of change approach. In Pangolins (pp. 385-393). Academic Press.

Vogel, Isabel. "Review of the use of ‘Theory of Change’ in international development." London: DFID (2012).

© Georgina Goodwin / Shoot The Earth / WWF-UK


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