Pursuing Costly Reform: The Case of Ecuadorian Natural Resource Management

January 31, 2017

Between 1997 and 2008, 42 percent of Ecuador’s municipal governments (94 of 221) enacted new policies meant to improve natural resource management (NRM). These NRM reforms expanded public services and the scope of municipal government activities; made new investments in infrastructure, practices, technology, and expertise; and they created new administrative systems to combat deforestation in rural watersheds or make agriculture more ecologically sustainable, irrigation more efficient, and/or waste management less polluting. Naturally, these NRM reforms were costly, in terms of both financial and human resources.

Significantly, such reforms are also frequently perceived as politically costly. At election time, many Ecuadorian mayors feel the need to point to highly visible construction projects such as paved roads or recreation centers that advertise he or she has “done something.” Mayors we interviewed lamented that restored rural ecosystems and improved underground water systems are “invisible” to most voters. They feared voters would not credit them for undertaking projects to improve NRM conditions, though they would certainly be blamed for the costs NRM projects entailed. The electoral incentive, therefore, was often to do nothing.

Consequently, attempted NRM reforms are puzzling, not only because they were numerous and rapidly diffused despite their political and material costs, but also because they occurred in a socio-political context that conventional wisdom says should make them unlikely. These kinds of costly reforms are thought to be unlikely in countries like Ecuador that experience high levels of corruption, clientelism, weak party systems, poverty, political inequality, and other conditions associated with “bad governance.”

According to conventional wisdom (based on Western democratic models), strong programmatic parties and political competition are what provide incentives for politicians to pursue costly but socially “responsible” policy (Key, 1964; Sartori, 1976; Wilson, 1885). Scholarship on less-developed democracies — including those found throughout Latin America — show that the accountability mechanisms that are thought to derive from electoral competition and party systems often prove insufficient to prevent politicians from pursuing clientelist policies, engaging in rent seeking, and under-providing public goods like NRM initiatives (Keefer, 2007; Mainwaring & Torcal, 2006).

Given the depth and complexity of the challenges, and the fact that powerful social interests often favor the status quo, why did nearly half of Ecuador’s municipal governments pursue costly NRM reforms between 1997-2008?

Theoretically, we argue (in our recent article in LARR) that costly reform attempts should take place when two conditions are met. First, there must be a mobilized demand for policy change (e.g., from the general voting public or a special interest group). This requires more than a latent dissatisfaction with the status quo. Converting latent demand into mobilized demand requires citizens and interest groups to overcome collective action problems (Olson, 1965).

The second necessary condition is the presence of accountability mechanisms that translate local demand into action on the part of politicians. An important question for less-developed democracies like Ecuador that lack strong programmatic parties is, what institutions provide accountability mechanisms that incentivize politicians to pursue socially beneficial but costly reforms?  In our article “Pursuing Costly Reform,” we explore the hypothesis that in the absence of well-developed party systems, institutions that link politicians with a mobilized civil society — in particular “organic” parties and participatory decision-making institutions ¾ can still incentivize elected officials to pursue costly performance-enhancing reforms.

Although traditional parties were moribund in Ecuador in the 1990s (Pachano, 2007), the country saw the emergence of “organic” parties — electoral vehicles created by social movements to pursue their agenda from within the political system. As we discuss in our article, many of Ecuador’s organic parties were formed by indigenous and campesino movements in the late-1990s and early-2000s to advocate new approaches to development, including changes to local natural resource management.

In organic parties, social movements provide the impetus and transmission belt for diffusing policy reforms and holding local politicians accountable (Panebianco, 1988; Roberts, 1998). Van Cott (2008: 215)argues that organic parties therefore promote innovative policy reforms because they “channel the energy, enthusiasm, and ideas of diverse civil society groups,” and are “less susceptible to professional incentives and bureaucratic rigidity than professional parties and thus are more likely to favor institutional change.”

In addition to channeling mobilized demand from social movements, organic parties provide a formal accountability mechanism. Candidates representing organic parties create a tacit contract with social movements to which they are linked. Politicians agree to promote the movement’s interests and agenda, in exchange for the movement’s mobilization of electoral and broader political support. In theory, reliance on social movements, rather than elite-based parties or clientelist ties to established interest groups, makes mayors more responsive to popular demand for policy change, such as the NRM reforms advocated by Ecuadorian indigenous and campesino movements.

Another relevant factor affecting accountability mechanisms in Ecuador (and Latin America generally) is the presence of formal participatory institutions that involve citizens directly in decision-making processes. Since the 1990s, scholars and practitioners have argued that formal participatory decision-making institutions strengthen accountability, particularly between elections. By empowering civil society organizations to participate in policymaking, participatory institutions structure government-citizen relations in ways that increase accountability, transparency, and social trust (Fung & Wright, 2003). Findings to this effect are found across a great variety of contexts, from participatory budgeting and public policy management councils in Brazil (e.g., Avritzer, 2009; Wampler, 2007), to “panchayats” (participatory village councils) in India that improve public service delivery (e.g., Besley, Pande, & Rao, 2007; Goetz & Jenkins, 2001).

To test our hypotheses, we constructed an original dataset of canton-level Ecuadorian NRM reform attempts during 1997-2008, based on primary documents and nearly 230 expert interviews conducted during 25 months of fieldwork in Ecuador. Using various statistical methods (e.g., logistic analysis of attempted reform, event count models of reform attempts, and survival analysis of time to first reform attempt) we examined various plausible explanations why mayors in some cantons pursued NRM reforms while others did not.

Specifically, we estimated the effect of a mayor’s membership in an “organic party” and whether the canton had a participatory mechanism deemed legitimate in surveys. We compared the magnitude of these estimated effects against alternative explanations related to citizen participation, social trust, electoral competition, patronage ties between local and national politicians, political conflict in the municipal government, and various demographic and socio-economic factors.

Across our models, we consistently found that a mayor’s membership in an organic party (which ties him or her to social movements) was the strongest positive predictor of costly NRM reform attempts. The presence of legitimate participatory decision-making institutions similarly increased the incidence of reform. In contrast, we found that variables from the literature on developed democracies — including the intensity of electoral competition and common party affiliations among mayors and local council members — did not increase the likelihood of reform. Our findings provide support for the idea that in less-developed democracies formal political accountability mechanisms do not function as theorized for developed democracies. Nevertheless, institutions that tie politicians to a mobilized civil society can still spur politicians to pursue costly policy aimed at improving government performance.

Our findings have several interesting implications. Empirically, the conditions thought to incentivize politicians to improve public goods provision are largely absent in less-developed democracies like Ecuador. In fact, conventional wisdom says that in such countries electoral inducements and party systems often incentivize perverse outcomes. Because traditional parties are clientelistic rather than programmatic and have weak ties with society, politicians often under-provide non-targetable public goods (Mainwaring and Torcall 2006; Keefer and Khemani 2005; Keefer 2007).

Our study suggests that even in such environments, alternative institutions ¾ such as organic parties and participatory decision-making institutions ¾ can build strong institutional ties between local politicians and society. Thus, while organic parties in Ecuador tend to be weakly institutionalized compared to traditional parties in advanced democracies, they operate according to a similar logic, and produce similar results. Because they emerge from social movements, they have strong roots in society and become associated with a programmatic agenda. Where society has mobilized around a reform agenda of greater public goods provision, these institutions provide important mechanisms for holding politicians accountable. When organic party candidates win elections, they are therefore more likely to buck the clientelist norm and increase the municipality’s provision of public goods, including those related to natural resource management. Legitimate participatory decision-making institutions provide an additional mechanism for holding leaders accountable between elections.

These findings speak to several literatures. First, they support the small but growing literature pointing to the political significance of organic parties for reform movements in Latin America (Van Cott 2008; p. 7, 98-101; Roberts 1998; Panebianco 1988). They provide further support for the efficacy of participatory decision-making institutions. Third, our results complement recent case studies from other parts of the developing world that emphasize the importance of institutions other than highly institutionalized, programmatic parties. Tsai’s (2007) work on grassroots political reform in China, for example, suggests that elections and a strong party are not sufficient conditions for improving village governments’ provision of local public goods. Tsai’s work shows that civic institutions — specifically village temple and “lineage” institutions — can compensate for low levels of party competition and incentivize politicians to produce more public goods. Rural China and Ecuador are thus alike in that elections by themselves fail to incentivize improvements in public goods provision, but institutions that generate strong ties to civil society can nonetheless spur local officials to undertake costly reform.

Kauffman, Craig M. and Will Terry. 2016. "Pursuing Costly Reform: The Case of Ecuadorian Natural Resource Management." Latin American Research Review 51(4): 163-185. DOI: 10.1353/lar.2016.0054




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Image Attribution: Unión de los Ríos Negro y Upano, Morona Santiago, Ecuador

About Author(s)

Craig Kauffman
Craig Kauffman is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Oregon, where he specializes in environmental and Latin American politics. He holds a Ph.D. from The George Washington University and was formerly a Visiting Research Professor in FLACSO-Ecuador. Kauffman’s research investigates how the interaction between actors at the global and local levels determines policy responses to environmental challenges such as climate change and ecosystem degradation. He is the author of Grassroots Global Governance: Local Watershed Management Experiments and the Evolution of Sustainable Development (Oxford University Press, forthcoming) and has published in Global Environmental Politics, World Development, Environmental Research Letters, Agricultural Water Management, Peace Review, and Encyclopedia of Political Theory (SAGE, 2011).
William Terry
WILLIAM C. TERRY, Ph.D. (University of California, San Diego, 2010) is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Oregon. He was previously a visiting fellow at the Centre for Research on Peace and Development at the Katholieke Universeteit, Leuven, Belgium (2013), a predoctoral fellow at Princeton University (2008) and an assistant analyst at the Tax Analysis Division of the U.S. Congressional Budget Office (2000). His previous work has appeared in Legislative Studies Quarterly, State Politics and Policy Quarterly and elsewhere. He has a book under contract dealing with the policy consequences of democratization in the post-Voting Rights Act U.S. South.