“LEARNING LOOPS IN EIA: Analyzing system-level learning and the contributions of the Netherlands Commission for Environmental Assessment: The cases of Ghana and the Maldives”
Jong, A.A. de
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Environmental impact assessment (EIA) practices can render learning effects on both the project level –being the physical undertaking like the construction of an oil platform or the reclamation of land– and the system level –being the EIA’ rules, regulations and capacities of the key actors (i.e. the proponent, authorities, civil society agencies and knowledge communities). These learning effects can affect the project proceedings or the organisation at the system level. In low and middle-income countries (LMCs), where EIA systems are rather fragile, donor agencies can stimulate the learning effects directly via focused assistance at the project level or via capacity development programmes aimed at the EIA system. But what about the indirect learning effects leading from EIA projects towards the system? Do donor contributions at the project-level evoke system-level changes. For an effective development of the EIA system all affecting influences should be clear, including the effects of donor interventions. Where effectiveness studies usually aim at the direct outcome and impacts, this research explores the existence of indirect outcomes in terms of system-level feedback loops. The Netherlands Commission for Environmental Assessment (NCEA) is the expert body central in this study. EIA projects in both Ghana and the Maldives were selected: these are all large-scale projects that were rather new to the local EIA authorities and subject to international attention, which scaffolded learning opportunities. The main research objective was to discover and analyse the cognitive and behavioural changes of key actors that stem from NCEA advisory assistance in these projects. The leading research question is: To what extent does the NCEA contribute to system-level learning via their project-level EIA assistance in LMCs? A case-study design was chosen to allow for a qualitative analysis which seemed necessary at this explorative stage, where little is actually known about the link between project interventions and system-level developments. A time-series reflective control design together with a treatment-control design further aided to open the black box veiling the changes at the system level and their relation with the specific contributions of the NCEA. Methods include field observations, semi-structured interviews, group discussions and document analyses. The research approach is cognitive, meaning that only interpretative data is gathered. Conclusions, consequently, are mainly based on perceptions of key actors that were interviewed or joined discussions during fieldwork. In general, research results indicate that the relation between NCEA individual project advisory services and the development of the EIA systems in LMCs is fragile, and depends to a great extent on the institutional context which either hampered or enabled the learning loops in practice. More specific, results in Ghana indicate that key actors do not believe that they learned significantly from NCEA review comments, except for some lessons about project specific aspects related to the construction phase. Results in the Maldives indicate greater learning effects, especially about EIA processes, although many did not evolve due to an impeding context where post-tsunami political games and weak institutional arrangements for EIAs determined failures in practice. Differences in learning between both countries can be explained by the status of the EIA system at the time the EIAs were performed: In Ghana basic system elements –e.g. generic rules, regulations, or EIA institutions– were already in place and key actors did not believe far going adaptation was needed, while in the Maldives basic system elements were lacking and key actors acknowledged that there was a dire need for improvement. Susceptibility and an attitude to learn seemed pivotal: the NCEA comes with the status of an international, independent expert body. This augments the trust and confidence of the EIA authorities, but does not create a learning environment per se.