Is small really beautiful? Community-based natural resource management in Malawi and Botswana


Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM) remains a long-established and still popular policy with International Funding Institutions (IFIs), NGOs and recipient governments, especially in Africa. The notion has had a long and varied history. Its promised benefits to people and environment is well supported by theory and attractive populist sentiments, and the label itself is a powerful discursive force, which combines the promise of poverty reduction, local empowerment and technical knowledge with sustainable natural resource management. Outcomes on the ground, however, are mixed and often poor. Why, then is it still so popular? The politics of IFIs and their clients require that CBNRM programmes have to be seen to remain successful, and indicators of “success” can easily be found in a complex, multi-faceted development process with a variety of disparate goals. At the same time, reflection by the academy upon poor performance has suggested that the supporting theory of CBNRM should be re-examined (better theory leading to better CBNRM policy), and the pre-conditions for success and suitable characteristics of communities should be more carefully defined. Further, there are enduring problems of manageability of diverse communities and conditions of natural resources, of final control of decisions about resource management (who decides, upon what criteria, and who decides upon these?). The ways in which they are resolved - the practice of CBNRM - usually frustrate its stated goals of participation and local management. However, two political contradictions between IFIs and recipient governments further impede effective implementation. The first is that CBNRM threatens control of valuable resources hitherto controlled by political elites, especially when land tenure reform is on the CBNRM agenda. Also, the flow of patrimony from local sources, via chiefs and other local leaders to the centre, is potentially interrupted, allowing new political entrepreneurs to enter at the local level. Secondly, CBNRM dis-empowers professionals (in forestry, fisheries, and agricultural extension). Their training enables them to instruct, to control and to meet local production targets, not to become social engineers and local problem solvers. Various strategies of acquiescence and foot dragging on one side and the provision of neo-patrimony in terms of training, counterparting, funds etc on the part of IFIs. Examples are drawn from two contrasting African countries (Botswana and Malawi).


Blaikie, P. Is small really beautiful? Community-based natural resource managementin Malawi and Botswana. (2003) 19 pp.

Is small really beautiful? Community-based natural resource management in Malawi and Botswana

Published 1 January 2003