A 'good' decision is a fair decision Tips on incorporating equity in decision-making

By Elizabeth Law and Carla Archibald

Key Messages

  • Improving social equity is important to good environmental outcomes
  • What constitutes equitable outcomes and processes is highly normative and subject to ethical deliberation
  • We encourage a more analytical incorporation of equity into conservation decision making (and provide a guide on how this might be done)
Equity is an important consideration surrounding decisions relating to ecotourism. Tourism can bring in an alternative source of income, but large numbers of tourists can degrade an area. Who should get to decide if and how much tourism should be allowed? This is La Ciudad Perdida (the lost city) in Colombia. It’s an example of ecotourism which tries to incorporate ethics into its practice by employing local guides and providing money to local indigenous groups. (Photo by Elizabeth Law)

There are many reasons to consider social equity in conservation decisions. On the one hand, it’s a nice thing to strive for – we all would like to think we are being ‘fair’ in the decisions we are a part of (both as an individual and as a society). On the other, it can help build community support and participation (social capital) which is really valuable for successful conservation outcomes.

But how do you integrate equity into conservation decisions? What does it even mean to be equitable?

Understanding the multiple ways that equity can be perceived is key to answering these questions. Exploring different ethical frameworks can help us understand some fundamentally different perspectives of what is meant by ‘good’ or ‘right’. For example, three broad schools of ethical thought in Western philosophy include consequentialism, deontology, and virtue. Consequentialism focuses on the outcomes of actions, deontology on the actions themselves, and virtue on the inherent character of the decision-maker.

But, as is common with complex problems, the multiple objectives can be in conflict. For example, equitable procedures may not lead to equitable distributions. And egalitarian distributions are rarely equitable in practice. Equity is a highly normative and multifaceted concept, where the objectives of equity may not be mutually achievable. So, as a policy goal, equity can be highly contested and problematic to implement. As such, we need to be really clear about what our motivations and objectives are for including equity.

Wind turbines on farmland across Australia have proved a vexed policy issue for policy makers. Local communities often dislike them while individual farmers who received income for having them on their land love them. Who benefits, who suffers, what’s fair and equitable? It depends on who you ask.

As researchers studying environmental decisions, how might we proceed in regards to equity? Many of the issues we deal with are controversial and politicised; and social equity is often a concern? We recently developed a framework to help deal with this challenge (Law et al, 2017). We identified motivations for considering equity (Fig 1), illustrated how alternative ethical frameworks can influence what is considered equitable, and demonstrated how alternative objectives might be in conflict.

To help overcome the challenges associated with incorporating equity in conservation decision-making, here are ten tips for better integration.

Define motivations and objectives of equity within the context of the problem:

1. Clarify ethical motivations and how this may shape the way we identify the problem, the process and decision.

2. Identify the diversity of potential issues concerning equity at the outset, particularly the opportunities that might arise from instigating, exacerbating, or ameliorating conflict.

3. Determine which dimensions of equity are important given the objectives and the context. Given the tools and available data, which of these are tractable.

Plan for a diversity of stakeholders and objectives:

4. If stakeholders are involved in the decision process, be sensitive to potential conflict. Be aware of potential biases and limitations of the processes of elicitation and negotiation.5. Determine the implications for equity of targets and objectives, and decide how to manage objectives that might be less measurable (though no less important).

6. Use informed and appropriate metrics of equity and efficiency carefully within planning and prioritisation (if this matches your objectives for equity).

7. Consider what you are asking stakeholders to do and whether this adequately compensates and incentivizes them for the duration of the intervention.

8. Consider decision models that allow a level of uncertainty due to self-determination.

Ensure equity is achieved during implementation:

9. Monitor and rigorously evaluate equity objectives during implementation, particularly when conservation actions rely on volunteer participation.

10. Expand, modify, or restrict the intervention as required.

Figure 1: Motivations for considering equity in environmental decision making. These different motivations influence which methods and actions are seen as right, appropriate, and useful to include in a conservation decision-making process. (From Law et al, 2017).

We believe there is a big opportunity for conservation decision-making to be guided by these principles of ethical pluralism, particularly in the design of more holistic measures and methods for assessing equity. There is also scope for a better understanding of the preferences stakeholders hold for equity, as well as how policies achieve equity in practice (ie, applied ethics).

Although incorporating equity into conservation decision-making adds a layer of complexity to an already challenging process, embracing this complexity will result in better more enduring conservation outcomes.

Dr Elizabeth Law and Carla Archibald

More info: Elizabeth Law e.law@uq.edu.au

Reference: Law EA, NJ Bennett, CD Ives, R Friedman, KJ Davis, C Archibald & KA Wilson (2017). Equity trade-offs in conservation decision making. Conservation Biology. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cobi.13008/abstract


Created with images by Göran Höglund (Kartläsarn) - "Peru - Machu Picchu" • Jens Lelie - "Forking forest path" • Anna Jiménez Calaf - "untitled image" • mckaysavage - "Peru - Machu Picchu 095 - feeling the power"

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