Countries around the world are gearing up to respond to anticipated climate change by developing plans for adaptation. In order to be effective, these efforts must facilitate participation of local beneficiaries in project planning as well as provide equitable distribution of benefits from public investments. Past experience with development initiatives has shown that effective participation is uncommon, however, and outcomes are often highly inequitable. Little is actually known about factors that enable communities to channel development projects towards addressing climate-related vulnerabilities. This doctoral dissertation research project will investigate factors that (1) encourage participation of marginal social groups in development project selection, (2) enable such groups to receive equitable benefits from project outcomes, and (3) enable citizens to design development initiatives for reducing vulnerability to climate impacts. A recent policy in India, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), provides an excellent opportunity to explore these themes. NREGA is expected to provide a social safety net through provision of minimum-wage employment generated through state-funded rural development activities. Projects are ostensibly selected at the local level through democratic deliberation. The doctoral student will draw upon a diverse array of scholarship examining local democracy, rural development, common-pool resource management, and climate change adaptation to study participation, equity, and climate vulnerability reduction outcomes in NREGA project selection and implementation. Working in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, he will employ a two-tiered analytical approach. He will use qualitative approaches to identify the processes that generate positive outcomes in a small number of case studies, and he will derive testable operational hypotheses for quantitative analysis. In the second phase, he will test the hypothesized relationships among specific factors and a suite of outcome indicators across a larger universe of cases through quantitative modeling. The student hypothesizes that more equitable and democratic project implementation is the outcome of the dynamic interactions of multiple actors traversing the state-society divide. He also will assess whether access to critical adaptation knowledge and capacity to influence development decisions are likely to be bolstered by homogeneity of endowments and interests, a vibrant civil society, human capital, access to mass media, and a local history of coping with climatic stresses.

The expected flow of resources from the global community towards climate-adaptation assistance has great potential to ameliorate the current living conditions of the world's poor while increasing their ability to withstand future challenges. The findings from this project will enhance basic knowledge regarding how the structure of adaptation policies can influence their effectiveness, and they will enable decision makers to make more informed choices about allocating scarce resources towards appropriate interventions. The project also will produce a large database that combines project-level outcomes with data dealing with sociopolitical, economic, institutional, and environmental variables. As a Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement award, this award also will provide support to enable a promising student to establish a strong independent research career.

Project Report

Prominent legislation across the developing world has given local elected governments increasing authority to direct rural development interventions on the assumption that local political institutions will be more democratic, efficient, and effective in targeting the needs of local populations. Our project examines the implementation of India’s landmark National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), which has given villages across India very significant resources to undertake small-scale development projects. Our research has sought to explore the political and institutional conditions that (a) ensure accountability of local elected leaders and equity of benefits from development projects and (b) promote responsive decision-making processes in order to generate adaptive responses to climatic and other livelihood challenges. This study included in-depth ethnographic fieldwork over 12 months in 3 local governments and a larger data collection efforts of 1600 households and nearly 850 development projects across 40 local governments in India’s northern state Himachal Pradesh. Our findings indicate that empowering local elected institutions through decentralization reforms can lead to the consolidation of local democracy. In brief, we show: (a) Granting elected village governments authority to implement development projects has made them meaningful and relevant to the public, galvanizing citizens’ engagement with them. (b) Further, it has activated new forms of local political leadership by giving elected representatives, including women and leaders from marginal groups, tools to envision and enact a developmental agenda. (c) Participation of marginal groups within formal democratic spaces remains uneven, but can emerge through the strengthening of civil society in competitive electoral contexts. (d) Participatory development processes have enabled citizens to direct development interventions toward site-specific needs, especially through the maintenance and improvement of local irrigation infrastructure. These findings suggest that democratic decentralization can enhance accountability in development practice. Importantly, however, the research also reveals that it takes time for these outcomes to emerge, as citizens gradually become accustomed to engaging openly and vigorously with elected leaders and elected leaders, in turn, become more responsive to public interests. Where these transformations occur, local participatory processes can provide an important means to generate local responses to climate risks and other livelihood challenges. At the same time, this research highlights the need for greater knowledge about the institutional architecture that is necessary to link local participatory processes to a wider range of public assistance assistance efforts in order to generate more far-reaching development transformations.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Thomas J. Baerwald
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University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
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