The governance of agri-environmental systems poses highly complex policy challenges. Problems related to agricultural policies do not stand alone but span multiple policy domains, such as environment, health, education and the economic realms, forming a complex network of issue interdependencies. Such complex problems require appropriate integrative, multi-level governance responses, that constitute a good fit between the issues’ interdependency structures and the network governance structures set out to address these problems.
With this paper, we aim to empirically assess this question as to which governance structures facilitate an integrative management of compound, interdependent issues in agri-environmental systems. In particular, we set out to examine the implications of three distinct governance patterns advocated in the literature on integrated environmental management, i.e. central coordination, collaborative governance, and the role of bridging and bonding relations between various actors.
We examine this question for the case of the agri-environmental governance system in southwest Ethiopia. This system features multiple pressures characteristic for many of today’s agri-food systems, such as the tension between subsistence farming and cash cropping, and between food security and biodiversity conservation.
In workshops with 30 government actors, stakeholders, and experts we identified the 38 main sustainability issues in the local agri-environmental system and mapped the issue interdependencies by means of a system analysis. In a second step, we interviewed 60 actors from zonal to municipal level and assessed their roles in managing these compound issues, as well as their collaborative ties to other actors in the governance network. For the analysis, we combined in a novel way a minimal building block analysis for two-mode (two-level) networks with Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA), suggesting multiple, context-dependent causal pathways that in different ways support the integrative management of compound issues.
Our results indicate that the general complexity of the issue at hand, i.e. the number of other issues connected to it, did not determine whether the governance actors had achieved integrative governance of interdependent problems or not. That means that also highly complex issues interrelated to many other issues can be managed in an integrative manner. Further, high levels of close collaboration among actors appeared in many cases as an important condition for integrative management, especially in the absence of central coordination. This result suggests that interaction management tends to emerge from bottom-up, self-organized, collaboration among small groups of actors working on the same issue, and that this tendency towards integrative management is particularly strong when there is no central coordinator that encourages other actors to manage interactions.
With this analysis, we provide macro-comparative empirical insights that are rare in previous empirical studies on integrative governance of agri-environmental systems. These insights have valuable implications for further studies and highlight potential pathways for accommodating and structuring collaborative dynamics for integrated agri-environmental policies.