Why are Co-operative Approaches Essential?

Having worked our way through some of the common terms used for working together and considered key underpinning dimensions, we turn our attention to why co-operative approaches are essential.

The ‘command and control’ approach conventionally employed by the state has been successful in many aspects relating to the environment and sustainability. For example, regulations in many jurisdictions led to reduced pollution and in some instances even better biodiversity outcomes, at least in the short term. While necessary in some situations, command and control approaches have also been shown to, at times, have steep social and environmental costs (Armitage et al., 2011).

Holling and Meffe (1996, p. 328) observed that this situation has led to the ”pathology of natural resource management”, which they describe as “…a loss of system resilience when the range of natural variation in the system is reduced encapsulates the unsustainable environmental, social, and economic outcomes….”  In reflecting upon how to address this pathology, Armitage and colleagues (2012, p. 2) argue that “decision making must now accommodate diverse views, networks and hybrid partnerships among state and non-state actors, and must include opportunities for shared learning.”

Co-operative approaches, which collectively signal increasing participation by civil society in management and decision-making, are especially well suited to navigating the contemporary problem domain for several reasons.

The contemporary problem domain is characterized by complexity, uncertainty and change. Co-operative approaches have been highlighted in response to these characteristics because they can be flexible, iterative/adaptive, and learning oriented (Folke et al., 2005; Armitage et al., 2009).

Knowledge to meet complex and uncertain circumstances is widely distributed and “the emphasis on collaborative process is intended to help overcome the institutional (e.g., power differences among actors) and epistemological challenges associated with the ”integration” of traditional and scientific knowledge” (Armitage et al., 2012, p. 7).

As identified previously, the contemporary problem domain necessitates a mechanism to accommodate a variety of actors who hold diverse perspectives as well as distinctive (and often contrasting) interests. Co-operative approaches provide just such a mechanism. Backstrand et al. (2010) explain the rationale for greater involvement includes increased legitimacy, enhanced effectiveness and equity, and greater access to expertise. In fact, Grêt-Regamey et al. (2021, p. 290) have recently demonstrated that “ … the number of actors (actors richness) and the diversity of the abilities and skills that characterize their management capabilities (actors’ functional diversity) are key determinants of the resilience of social-ecological systems to global change.”

Finally, expectations regarding legitimacy and accountability are changing (Armitage et al., 2012). Mutual accountability is integral to co-operative approaches. Legitimacy stems from both the actors involved as well as the integrity of the process. Beyond formal regulatory mandates, both accountability and legitimacy comes from informal relationships of trust (Brinkerhoff, 2005).


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Building Sustainable Communities: Collaboration by Ryan Plummer; Amanda Smits; Samantha Witkowski; Bridget McGlynn; Derek Armitage; Ella-Kari Muhl; and Jodi Johnston is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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