Decision making in the environmental area is required to take into account the requirements of various pieces of legislation. The foundation legislation is the Constitution (as amended) which provides at S 24 that:
[e]veryone has the right-
(a) to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being; and
(b) to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that-
(i) prevent pollution and ecological degradation;
(ii) promote conservation; and
(iii) secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development
The notion that people, the public, have a role to play in decisions that affect their life circumstances and particularly those aimed at promoting justifiable economic and social development is relatively new.
The proviso that economic development must be justifiable is also a recent development. During the 1970s the realisation that the development theories of the 1960s were not doing much to alleviate poverty gave rise to the need to reassess (Coetzee et al 2001). The critique of capitalism that First World countries had developed at the expense of Third World countries “led to a focus on basic needs and poverty alleviation through people centred approaches” (Wassermann 2001).
Wassermann suggests that there has arisen an underlying
postulate of participation, that is, the universal idea that the supposed beneficiaries of development interventions should control and own as many aspects of the interventions as possible so that they may go it alone on the development route when expert assistance is withdrawn [emphasis added] (Wassermann 2001: 172).
The difficulty with this view of participation is that, although it represents a major advance on previous approaches to development, the caveat shown in italics in the quote above continues to reinforce the view of poor people as the subjects of development. It assumes the independent existence of an outside group of (usually remote) experts who have the knowledge and wisdom, missing among local people, to discern the problem, its solution and the manner in which the solution is to be applied. For this reason a different participation paradigm is proposed.
1.2 Participation and Sustainability
Wassermann (2001) puts forward five contentious assumptions about participation by the community in development decisions, viz.
- Communities consist of harmonious interest groups;
- All communities members desire change;
- All community members have the self-confidence to participate;
- All community members may take free, democratic decisions; and
- Community leaders necessarily serve community interests.
Having ‘demonstrated’ how inaccurate she believes these assumptions to be, she proceeds to propose that
[w]ith regard to poverty alleviation (income generating) projects, an approach is proposed in which less emphasis is placed on the amorphous masses that are referred to in the literature as a ‘community’, and more emphasis placed on the individual who displays personal initiative (2001: 177)
This prescription however falls into the neo-liberal trap of putting personal advantage ahead of communal benefit and proposes escape from poverty through winning the competition for resources, which is ultimately unsustainable. The key to appropriate public participation lies in its use as a tool for discerning narratives and counter-narratives and as a method of involving a range of community representatives, often characterised as ‘civil society’. In this way issues of sustainability can be examined and the appropriate development path shaped. This is especially relevant when scarce natural resources are in contention.
There is general consensus in the international society that development and environmental protection are interrelated. However, and despite some advancements, there has been an inadequate level of integration of environmental and social considerations into the mainstream economic decision making (Ryan 2001).
Careful management of the participation process can best counter the problems that Wassermann outlines, including the problem of the inadequate voice of the marginalised or disadvantaged members of a group. Techniques to promote better participation and the inclusion of minority voices are available. These techniques provide both participants and observers with reassurance that participation is more than just token.
In this context, public participation is one of the keys to better sustainable development governance at the international – as well as the national – level. Opening the political processes and institutions to the participation and monitoring of civil society, will strengthen the presence of underrepresented interests and concerns within the decision making process, enhancing the possibilities of environment and development integration and, overall, improving international governance (Ryan 2001).
1.3 Environmental decision making as policy
Policy is defined by Pressman and Wildavsky (1973) who view “policy as a hypothesis containing initial conditions and predicted consequences. If X is done at time t1, then Y will result at time t2” (1973: xiv), i.e. describing policy as the causal link between the two conditions. This definition fits neatly into the purpose of environmental decision making, which can be regarded as gathering information about the current situation and then make a prediction about what will happen over time if certain actions are undertaken. To this extent the research around policy processes is relevant to this study.
1.3.1 Policy space
An important function of the participatory process is the way in which it opens up space for alternative views to be heard.
Participatory processes can provide a means by which ‘policy space’ (Grindle and Thomas 1991) can be levered open for the emergence of alternative interpretation of ‘needs’, and with this, alternative policy solutions. Yet processes geared at simply asking people for their views on social policy issues can serve to produce ‘echoes’ of the dominant discourses, rather than alternative framings of policy issues. The role of deliberative and critically reflective knowledge generation processes becomes crucial in enabling citizens to analyse and articulate their own concerns, which may lie beyond the frames of reference of pervasive policy discourses (Cornwall and Gaventa 2001: 14; emphasis added).
Cornwall and Gaventa’s contention that the process should go beyond providing ‘echoes’ of the dominant discourse requires a further analytic tool to expand our understanding of the policy process outlined by Kingdon (1995). This tool could be Roe’s narrative policy analysis (Roe 1994).
One of the difficulties of the public participation process is that policy makers are often constrained by their own interpretation of, and concern with, “their political interests and the policy networks they are part of ... [and] by the frames of reference within which the particular policy issue is interpreted” (Cornwall and Gaventa 2001: 14).
In contrast to this, in the context of this study the concern is with the evidence that comes from the stories told by the poor who are ostensibly the ‘subjects’ of environmental decision making. This methodology was adopted precisely because the decision makers are not in a position to assess the impact of their decisions, whereas those most affected by the decisions have first hand experience.
This approach also privileges peoples’ interpretations of their experiences, … [it] prioritizes the assumption that narrative is a way of knowing: People use stories to draw knowledge explicitly from their lived experience (Dodge, Ospina and Foldy 2005: 292).
1.4 Participation and Democracy
A further important influence on the decision making process is that of interest groups. In this connection a distinction is often made between elite and democratic forms of participation. Elite participation usually consists of people outside of government who are granted a “role in decision-making because they possess professional expertise that is needed by decision makers” (Fiorino 1996: 194). In a democratic form of participation “people take part as citizens, not as experts or interest advocates” (op cit: 195). The two forms presuppose the existence of very different types of interest groups.
One of the motives for democratic participation is to make government decisions more legitimate. However it has been suggested that
the more government agencies try to make their decisions legitimate by relying on scientific advice and analysis without the benefit of democratic participation, the wider will be the gap between the expectations of citizens and their ability to influence decisions. As that participation gap widens confidence in democratic institutions and addresses they make will decline (Fiorino 1996: 197).
One reason advanced for the importance of public participation is its contribution to the furtherance of democracy. So, for example, van der Zwiep (1994) contends that:
In a democratic society openness, and therefore, public participation are of major importance. They guarantee that the decision making process of the government is checked and thus prevent arbitrary rule.
The extent to which people feel able to, and actually do take part in decision-making about society and the environment is widely felt to be an important measure of the “health” of a democratic society. It reflects the strength of political and social institutions.
The importance of debating alternatives in a public forum, and especially debate that can influence decision making, is reflected by Furedi (undated) who argues that it is vital to explore alternatives, otherwise
[h]umanity is forced to acquiesce to a worldview that former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher aptly described as TINA - There is No Alternative. If there is no alternative to the status quo, the notion that we can control the future at all ceases to apply. Instead, it is assumed that all we can do is try to limit the damage that is threatened by a destructive system.
In a world governed by TINA, politics can have little meaning. Without alternatives, debate becomes empty posturing about trivial matters.
Participation theorists however, are critical of what they regard as an elite democracy theory and especially of its basis in group pluralism, pointing out that this approach assumes that everybody will have an opportunity to participate. This in turn, begs the question of the form of participation or the form of democracy that prevails. Mansbridge, for example, distinguishes ‘adversarial democracy’ (based on self-interest, secret voting and majority rule) from ‘unitary democracy’ (based on common interests, the search for consensus and face-to-face contact)” (cited by Fiorino 1996: 199).
The supporters of group pluralism believed that public policy is the “equilibrium reached in the struggle among competing group interests at a given moment” (Majone 1998: 610). The general consensus was that “all active and legitimate groups in society would be able to make themselves heard at some stage in the process” (Majone 1998: 612). This view has been contested, and the new emphasis on efficiency and rational policy-making has given rise to the view that policy credibility can be gained through public participation. For example Majone suggests that “unanimous agreement, freely reached, guarantees that the solution is the Pareto-efficient” (1998: 619). In other words Majone is suggesting that a credible policy, obtained through optimal public participation, will create a situation where no one person can gain any more except at the expense of another. The difficulty with this description is that it assumes that public participation and policy-making are zero-sum games. The essence of democratic participation in policy-making is that the game is positive-sum, and I propose to show that, by using the critical discourse analysis proposed by Roe (1994), it is possible to take account of the different viewpoints, in effect making it a positive-sum game.
1.5 The participatory ideal
Fiorino has described a participatory ideal, which includes the following
allows for the direct participation of amateurs;
enables citizens to participate with administrators and experts on a more equal basis;
creates a structure for face-to-face interaction over time; and
allows citizens to share in decision-making (Fiorino 1996: 200).
Given the existence of this participatory ideal, it is important to distinguish what forms of democratic participation are appropriate at which stages of policy development. Participation is possible at three stages of policy-making: “(1) setting the policy agenda; (2) developing the frameworks used to make policy choices; and (3) making policy choices” (Fiorino 1996: 203).
Majone has advanced the view that policy making has become dominated by the imperatives of efficiency, which he describes as “the process by which the diffuse, ill-organised, broadly encompassing interests sometimes succeed in overcoming particularistic and well-organised interests” (Majone 1998: 620). To this extent it is going to be important to examine the mechanisms and the effects by which these interests interact with each other in the policy-making process.
1.6 Expert vs. popular participation
When considering the type of participation, especially in the formulation of policy, a number of factors have to be taken into account. These include: quantity or quality and sampling, going to scale, how much participation is required, time factors and, frequently, the need to reinvigorate the process (UNDP 2000). Each of these factors is in fact a decision on whether participation is to be by experts or by individuals. Expert participation favours quality over quantity, smaller numbers within a shorter timeframe. ‘Expert’ participation does not always mean technical expertise; in many cases the expertise is the necessary skill to understand the policy process and participate in it.The classification of participation into expert and individual is problematic, as it does not allow for a gradation of expertise, suggesting that participants are either ‘experts’ or ‘lay’ people. In the policy process a number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), or other organs of civil society, can become involved. These groups are characterised by their voluntary nature and are not often regarded as expert in the sense described above. However they frequently possess a great deal of knowledge that goes beyond that of the ‘man in the street’ in their particular field of interest
 Maurice Allais offers a neat description of Pareto-efficiency, or a Pareto-optimal position, as an allocation between alternatives where there is an “absence of distributable surplus” (e.g. Allais 1943, p.610).
 A zero-sum game is a game in which one player’s winnings equal the other player’s losses (McCain 2002).