Understanding learning in natural resource management : experiences with a contextualised responsive evaluation approach

T.A. Kouévi

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


This dissertation may be located in the wide debate on the effectiveness of policy interventions in developing countries, in the field of natural resource management (NRM). It is especially concerned with contributing to the understanding of the limited effectiveness of fishery management interventions in the municipality of Grand-Popo in Benin, where fishing people face fishery resource depletion and livelihood degradation. It looks at this topic from a learning perspective, and explores a way of stimulating learning and effectiveness with an action research approach. Building on Argyris and Schön (1976), the study contributes to discussions on learning in NRM by regarding learning as changes in action theories operationalized as the integration of specific micro-theories or micro-assumptions underlying stakeholders’ actions. Also novel is the experimentation with and evaluation of a responsive evaluation (RE) as an action research approach in the fishery context of Grand-Popo.
To account for the research process and findings, this dissertation is structured around six chapters. Chapter 1 is the general introduction which discusses the background information justifying the research choices, the research objectives and questions, and the methodology that was used to answer the research questions. It explores possible reasons for the limited effectiveness of interventions in natural resource management (NRM). The conclusion is that NRM interventions are affected negatively by various limitations in the sphere of perspectives and understanding. Limited understandings of NRM complexity, limitations in interactions for exchange among stakeholders, differences in management action theories and practices, multiplicity and lack of coordination of interventions explain among others the ineffectiveness of NRM interventions. Therefore the study proposed to explore whether the limited effectiveness of generations of interventions in Grand-Popo is indeed related to limited learning. As there appeared to be scope to enhance learning, the study continued with the design, experimentation with and evaluation of a RE process.
To deepen the understanding of the learning related to the problems faced by the fishing people and interventionists in the case study, the process of learning in generations of interventions was investigated and discussed in chapter 2. To redress fishery resources’ depletion and improve the fragile livelihoods of fishing people, successive interventions since the 1950s continued to propose solutions such as income generating activities’ diversification and the establishment of fishing rules. This chapter reveals that fishery interventions were repeatedly ineffective, because of limited learning which was interpreted as repetitive discrepancy between espoused and in-use action theories of the interventionists. Therefore, we suggested to facilitate learning interaction among the stakeholders towards more effectiveness of the fishery management interventions.
To develop a good action research approach to stimulate learning, in chapter 3, the study was extended to the unfolding of the action theories of the interventions’ beneficiaries, for the sake of comparing them with those of the interventionists. It shows ambiguity in the fishery problems solving action theories of the interventionists and the fishing people; power differences among the stakeholders; and, the absence of learning interactions among the stakeholders.  RE was chosen, since this is an evaluation approach that addresses such conditions. However, this approach needed to be adapted to the study context. The main adaptations compared to ‘regular’ RE related to the operationalization of learning in terms of changes in action theories, the investigation of action theories in-use in addition to those espoused, and the inclusion of an analysis of the history and the intervention system to deal with routine and complexity of NRM, and to stimulate high level learning. These adaptations led to what is called the contextualised RE approach in this chapter.
In order to assess the relevance and performance of the proposed RE approach, we experimented with it in the fishery case study of Grand-Popo. Chapter 4 reports on how and the extent to which it contributed to learning by and among the interventionists and fishing people involved. This chapter reveals the occurrence of single-loop, double-loop, and social learning, but also a remaining gap between changes in espoused theories and theories in use. The single-loop learning concerned changes in action strategies like the extent of the fishing people’s demands, and the intervention resource raising strategy of the interventionists. The double-loop learning addressed the underlying reasons for action such as the redefinition of the roles played in intervention processes. The fishing people redefined their own roles as more active to show concern for solving their problems, to diversify their intervention partners, and to lobby for solutions. The interventionists suggested that they needed to empower the fishing people to lobby with politicians and financial partners in collaboration with interventionists about their problems. The social learning concerned emergent congruence in the action theories of the two stakeholder categories with regard to the need for mutual commitment to the effective solving of the fishery problems. The gaps between espoused and in-use action theories related to the complexity of NRM in this case and survival threats. We concluded that it may be difficult for RE to stimulate learning in NRM and provided some suggestions to improve its use.
Chapter 5 goes into depth about exploring the reasons for the limitations in the learning notwithstanding the RE process. It discusses which issues were sensitive for the interventionists and the fishing people, and how they presented them in different interaction settings of the adapted RE approach (interviews, meetings). It discusses which discursive strategies the stakeholders employed to put their issues on the agenda in the meetings with the other stakeholder groups. It shows that some sensitive issues that were mentioned during the interviews, were not discussed at all, while others were discussed with indirect discursive strategies. The sensitive issues were: expectations of the fishing people unfulfilled by the interventionists; prevalence of material interests of the interventionists and the fishing people over concerns of effective interventions; compliance of the interventionists with the electoral concerns of politicians; corruption practices of the interventionists; and physical and occult aggressiveness of the fishing people. The discursive strategies used by the interventionists and the fishing people were silence and indirect discursive strategies. This chapter suggests the necessity of paying attention to discursive strategies and sensitive issues that may hinder learning in natural resource management (NRM) facilitation settings.
Chapter 6 recalls the research questions, summarizes and discusses the major findings, and concludes the dissertation with lessons and implications for policy and practice in NRM and monitoring and evaluation (M&E). The reasons for the limitations in learning by the interventionists and the fishing people were explored on the basis of relevant literature. They related to the opportunities to learn offered by the environment, the motivation and the capacity to learn of the interventionists and the fishing people, and to the level of complexity of the NRM context. Based on the analyses of the reasons for the limitations in learning by the interventionists and the fishing people, this chapter suggests a two track approach. The first track relates to working towards a more conducive learning environment, and the second to further improving the design of RE. It suggests to create and institutionalize incentives and mechanisms to train and raise awareness about the importance of, and to support feedback generating, exchanging, capturing and learning by stakeholders. This chapter suggests also to create incentive structure for implementers of policies and projects that rewards effectiveness and sanctions a lack of performance. In the second track, flexible learning strategies are seen to help improving the performance of the design of further RE in NRM context. To these ends, inclusive monitoring and evaluation, audio-visual learning stimulation strategies, action oriented learning strategy, and the training of evaluators on strategies to get sensitive issues on discussion and learning agendas are suggested.
In all, the thesis demonstrates that limitations in learning are prevalent in Grand-Popo, and likely undermine the effectiveness of (series of) NRM interventions. It makes clear that we should not have naïve expectations about the potential of systematic approaches and methodologies to foster learning, and that creating more conducive conditions for learning should be a first priority.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Leeuwis, Cees, Promotor
  • van Mierlo, Barbara, Co-promotor
  • Vodouhê, S.D., Co-promotor, External person
Award date18 Apr 2013
Place of PublicationS.l.
Print ISBNs9789461735164
Publication statusPublished - 2013


  • evaluation
  • methodology
  • responses
  • social research
  • learning experiences
  • natural resources
  • resource management
  • development economics
  • natural resource economics


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