Ashwini Chhatre’s research is broadly focused on democratization, economic development, and environmental governance, all topics expected for a professor who teaches courses in geography and political science. But when he talks about his perspective on these topics, Chhatre sounds more like a faculty member in biology.
“I believe that I am the first one to talk about those terms, to think of democracy, as an emerging property of a complex system,” Chhatre said. “It’s not something that can be imposed through constitutions and laws, which we have tried to do in many countries and hasn’t worked. It’s something that comes out of millions of people interacting through a large number of institutions that are connected in a network.”
Chhatre is a faculty member in the Social Dimensions of Environmental Policy strategic initiative, a campus-wide effort located at Beckman that seeks to “improve management of earth’s environment through research on social and policy dimensions of sustainability.”
At the University, Chhatre is Assistant Professor in the Illinois departments of Geography and Geographic Information Science, and of Political Science. His background includes, going back to his undergraduate days in his native India, working with trade unions and poor agricultural families, to post-Ph.D. work with local communities and social movements on governance of natural resources.
Chhatre said all of that work informs his current research and perspectives.
– Ashwini Chhatre
“My interest is this: under what conditions do politicians respond to the preferences of citizens that they have been elected to represent?” Chhatre said. “Because sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t, and there is a lot to be learned in that area.”
What Chhatre has learned over more than two decades of research is that top-down solutions for solving environmental problems in developing countries should give way to organically grown solutions. He believes that nascent democracies can be cultivated by empowering local populations through existing networks of local institutions.
“It is the flows of information and feedback through these connections within the network that make democracy possible,” Chhatre said. “It also means that it can go away if some of these connections are not nurtured.”
Toward that end, Chhatre’s work on issues such as climate change adaptation has included field work in developing countries worldwide, doing interviews, gathering data, and taking environmental samples. That work has led to several papers, including a 2009 paper titled Trade-offs and synergies between carbon storage and livelihood benefits from forest commons. That paper reported on data from several countries across Africa and Latin America regarding the benefits forests provide when it comes to carbon sequestration, as well as contributions to people’s livelihoods.
“We found that you can have high carbon storage and high benefits to local people from forests under certain conditions,” Chhatre said. “Those conditions are that these people should have autonomy in making rules about how to manage the forest.
“If centralized bureaucracies are in charge of forest management, it doesn’t work. What you have are either, high carbon storage and low benefits, or vice versa. It follows up a debate that has been going on now for 20 years about the benefits of decentralization and whether local communities should have greater powers in management of local environmental resources. I have consistently argued that, yes, that is a good thing and we should do more of it.”
Chhatre has produced several papers on these issues, and is working to finish a book on what he calls the complex interdependence between environmental development and democracy, and how that evolves over time. The topic is especially relevant to the area of climate change adaptation, an issue he has been working on for some time.
“All of the debates on climate change, whether mitigation or adaption, are focused on technical, managerial, administrative solutions,” Chhatre said. “Ultimately we will have to find democratic institutions that can make the right decisions on behalf of people. But nobody is talking about democracy. The poorest people live in the most undemocratic conditions. So, we should be investing in democracy so that they can participate in decisions that affect their lives. I hope that I can intervene in a positive way.”
As far as interventions by institutions or countries, Chhatre would like to see non-government organizations (NGOs) and government programs like the United States Agency for International Development play less of a role than local governments in creating democracy and adaptation strategies.
“What aid projects do – bilateral ones like USAID or multilateral ones like the World Bank – what they do is strengthen bureaucracies and create parallel institutions when elected authorities are already present,” he said. “By empowering these parallel or private bodies we weaken democracy. If you have to give aid, you don’t have to create a new organization to do it. You can give it to existing governments and then work with them to strengthen their credentials and capacity to deliver.”
Chhatre said there will be problems such as corruption with this approach but that it has been shown to work, for example, in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union.
“A lot of Scandinavian aid, for example, that has gone into Russia has worked with municipal governments in the autonomous regions in Russia,” he said. “A lot of EU aid in countries in eastern Europe – before they were in the EU and after they came out of the Soviet Bloc – a lot of aid went to local governments. The benefits are there for everyone to see.”
Chhatre sees those interventions as a model for addressing climate change adaption and democracy in developing countries.
“We need to intervene, but we need to intervene smartly, and we haven’t done that,” he said. “What we have done is intervene for other objectives, for development, for the environment, for oil, timber, and for good or for bad. But we have not invested in, and not intervened for democracy. That has been a side-product and when we have done that, we have done that in a slightly imperial fashion, like exporting democracy to the Middle East, and it hasn’t worked. But without external interventions it is foolish to assume that poor people who have been in positions of domination and hegemony for a long time are just going to do it themselves. It’s not going to happen without help.”
Chhatre’s field work involves interviewing local populations in rural and agricultural forestry areas, taking environmental measurements of those areas, and plotting the landscape on GPS instruments for spatial analysis.
“Most of my work has been in India,” he said. “I have collaborators who have worked in many places and I have gone with them in Mexico, Thailand, Nepal, Kenya.”
Chhatre came to Illinois in 2007 after a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard, and joined SDEP and Beckman in 2009. He had worked with SDEP leader Jesse Ribot before coming to Illinois.
“I’ve known him for more than 10 years now,” he said. “We’ve worked together, published articles together. It was natural for me to be there.”
The work in SDEP is geared toward outcomes that will benefit not only the environment, but also the people who live in those environments.
“I have witnessed the evolution of climate change debate with concern,” Chhatre said. “I now worry that the poor people of the world are at greater risk of being hurt by interventions to prevent climate change than by climate change itself.
“Because of the political economy of how the world works, there is going to be an adaption complex. There are contractors, agencies, consultants who are all getting together with billions of dollars at stake and I’m afraid that they do not have concerns of the poor people in their hearts. In the absence of democracy at the local level, where people can actually make decisions on their own, I just don’t trust bureaucrats and consultants to make the right decisions.”
Chhatre said that his work has played a role in influencing policy.
“There is empirical evidence, there is this data and these are the results and, it works,” he said. “So there has been I’m glad to say some positive outcomes and a lot of actors in the policy arena, both internationally and nationally in different countries, have used those outcomes very productively in their actions. I hope I will be able to intervene in shaping the adaptation debate so that local people get to have more influence in the decisions that affect their lives.”
And that means, Chhatre said, creating true, sustained democracies that are essential to addressing problems of climate adaptation.
“It’s very difficult for me to imagine how we can make the right decisions without the people being able to influence those decisions,” he said.