Mark Buntaine

At a standing desk positioned next to an ocean view, with a wetsuit hanging by the wall, my first impression of Dr. Mark Buntaine was one of youthful energy and efficiency, with a definite nature-loving vibe. This assistant professor at the Bren School of Environmental Science & management. He has a  Ph.D. in environmental politics and policy research methods. His research passion lies in understanding the factors contributing to effective environmental policy, and focuses on the accountability of public organizations. 

After lowering his desk (to my relief), Dr. Buntaine settled in across from me and smiled as I jumped right into the core question: what makes effective environmental policy? And according to him, there are two challenges to implementing environmental policy: a lack of resources and poor governance. 

One of the ways Buntaine recommends tackling these issues is to involve citizens in environmental policymaking. Through his focus on supporting institutions, Buntaine works to bridge the gap that often arises between a policy that looks good on paper and the proper execution of that policy. "Institutions play a key role in determining the future of newly forged policies. Policies that seem great in theory can often go wrong when implemented." Here, he focuses on ensuring that there are “specific structures in place to enforce the rules that are set up by different kinds of policies.” Because without those, he says, “almost anything that sounds good on paper is not going to work in the real world.” 

Dr. Buntaine offers a great example of the need for these ‘bridging structures’, painting a picture of the recent happenings in his long term partnership with the Uganda Wildlife Authority. This organization, which manages the Ugandan parks system, has set up a revenue sharing program that looks great on paper: 20% of park entry fees are set aside for community development around the park. Ideally, this portion of money would benefit subsistence farmers living in the park’s neighborhood. And, if these people see benefits coming from the park, they’d support the park’s management goals, and be less likely to poach or otherwise encroach on the park’s resources. The plan falls short in its execution though, stumbling over internal corruption. The result? 80% of the community funds have gone missing, never reaching their intended targets. Sadly, this result is unsurprising: Dr. Buntaine’s research shows that misdirection or theft of funds by local officials is actually quite common.  

Local officials only get away with this kind of corruption when they aren’t held responsible by the community. Communities need institutional mechanisms in place by which to do so. Much of Dr. Buntaine’s work centers around developing these mechanisms. 

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is a dense forest in Southwestern Uganda, nestled between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda. The misty, mountainous region is known for being one of the sole remaining homes of mountain gorillas. To ensure that the community surrounding the park gets its 20% share of entry fees for their chosen projects, Dr. Buntaine has set up a response platform to hold officials accountable for delivering funds. As the theory goes, “people who know more about what should be happening are more likely to seek accountability from their governments,” Dr. Buntaine says, “and get projects implemented more effectively.” Following this logic, Dr. Buntaine and his team have created a citizen engagement catalyst of sorts, using SMS or voice messages via mobile phones. Each call sent out via this platform informs people about the planned project for their neighborhood, the implementation timeline, and the funds available. This first part, which focuses on information, is followed up by a check in: have the community members seen this being implemented? If not, this information can be relayed to higher officials, who sit above the local officials guilty of stealing funds, and whom citizens otherwise wouldn’t have the means to effectively reach. 

Through a set of randomized control trials in which Dr. Buntaine and his team rolled out this reporting platform to a randomly selected half of the villages, mixed results came through: it does not seem that more projects were delivered in the villages with access to the reporting system than in the places without access. Here’s the twist, though. “People are seeking accountability in ways that we didn’t anticipate,” Dr. Buntaine tells me. The reporting platform itself isn’t causing more projects to be delivered. It is the citizens: when they get information about what should be happening, they start seeking accountability from officials in other ways. Some write letters. Others organize community meetings calling for high level officials to audit the contractors dipping into project funds. His work in Bwindi shows that knowledge is power. When people have information, they’ll often work to hold officials accountable.  

A second way to address the issues facing proper implementation of environmental policy  is to thoroughly evaluate environmental projects before allocating funds. This brings us to environmental foreign aid, a type of environmental policy in which richer countries provide aid to poorer countries directed at some kind of environmental issue. Donor countries are usually motivated to give aid through what Dr. Buntaine calls the ‘approval imperative’. “These donor countries want to approve more and more projects,” Dr. Buntaine explains, “so they can say, ‘look, we’re doing something’ and the demand to meet ever increasing targets is detracting from the focus on effectiveness.” 
One of the biggest issues when it comes to foreign aid and its misuse or inefficient implementation is that of misaligned incentives. Governments with limited resources might care more about local environmental issues than the issue they’re receiving funds to address. This can result in redirection or misuse of funds. As a result, those governments lose the support of their donors. Often, donor countries will shift funds to the best performers who might have met goals anyway. 

Furthermore, taking money away from underperformers squeezes their budget even tighter, making it even more difficult for them to enact the strong policies.  In his research, however, he has found an alternative method that seems to work better. In addressing the allocation practices of aid donors, he recommends instead to continue providing money to the low performers, but to work closely with those low performers to help them do the work more effectively.  An example of this would be the development of the SMS response system mentioned earlier in the article. Dr. Buntaine sighs and admits, “there aren’t easy answers for this.”

In a world of growing environmental concerns, we need good policies and strong institutions to support effective enactment. Dr. Buntaine’s research shows that when institutions can provide information and resources, policies and the people they benefit thrive. 

Written By Natalie Overton, UCSB Sustainability Living Lab Intern