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Sustainable Communities

murray darling river

Full Project Title: Building adaptive and sustainable communities in the Murray-Darling

Theme 3 : Better governance, planning and management - innovative approaches for the Murray-Darling Basin

This project was led by Professor Mark Evans and Professor David Marsh

A snapshot of research results: Supporting alternate futures for Murray-Darling Basin communities

NSW country townThis project interrogates the role that local institutions, formal and informal, can and do play in enhancing the social, economic and environmental wellbeing of Murray-Darling Basin communities through policy and delivery networks. It encompasses an investigation of the roles (real and potential) such institutions could play in this space and their adaptive capacity.

A focus will be placed on place-based service delivery in:

  1. economic development labour market policy;
  2. education;
  3. health;
  4. culture, sports and recreation; and
  5. structural adjustment, social rehabilitation and recovery.

The aims of this research project are therefore fivefold: (i) to use quantitative network mapping tools to identify formal and informal network participants and their resources, norms and beliefs in the five policy arenas; (ii) to use qualitative network analysis to evaluate the capacity of formal and informal local networks of institutions to promote social cohesion and sustainable development; (iii) to identify exemplars of better practice; (iv) to use a Delphi matrix to generate a set of policy recommendations for identifying technically and politically feasible, fiscally sound and legitimate cohesion mechanisms to promote social, economic and environmental wellbeing; and (v) to evaluate these recommendations against better international social cohesion experiences in communities under stress with the aim of identifying good international practices which may be useful in the Murray region.

The research design is therefore organised around three tasks: network mapping network analysis; and, prescriptive analysis for sustainable development.

Three core research questions underpin this research:

  1. Do institutions matter in sustainable development?
  2. How do institutions at the local scale influence the degree of social inclusivity or polarisation within social development strategies?
  3. Does place matter and in what ways?

What do we mean be institutions in this context? Formal institutions are normally established and constituted through the rule of law and prescribe the character of human agency. Informal institutions, on the other hand, are constituted by conventions, norms and values, whether economic, political or social; these are often embedded in traditional social practices and culture and can be equally as binding. Tensions can often exist between the 'rules of the game' in formal and informal institutions. For example, nepotistic practices or the dominance of regressive ideas in informal institutions can undermine attempts to forge meritocratic practices or progressive ideas in formal ones. In the MDB context such tensions can provide a major barrier to structural adjustment.

The interrogation of these questions requires an exploration of a range of subsidiary questions:

  • Who governs the MDB communities in these policy areas and in whose interest do they govern?
  • Who are the key partners in local policy and delivery networks in these areas?
  • What type of networks are they?
  • What resources do they possess?
  • What core and policy based beliefs underpin them?
  • What roles do and could formal and informal local institutions play in building sustainable and resilient communities in these areas?
  • Are there any institutions that should be playing a role not playing a role? Why?
  • When evaluated using indicators of organisational effectiveness how effective are they?
  • How can the capacity of these institutions be built?
  • How do local networks in these areas build linkages with regional networks and with what implications?

All of these concepts stress the importance of issues of togetherness or community, social solidarity and redistribution as well as inter-dependency or mutual support. Indeed, social cohesion itself can be used as a concept for understanding the virtuous inter-relationship between these variables in which social development is partly understood as the outcome of the interaction between community, redistribute social solidarity and mutual support. Hence the notion of social cohesion provides a good starting point for our investigation of the potential role of local networks in the Murray region.

Photo taken by Dr Peter O'Brien in 2012 whiles on a field trip in country NSW.


MDBfutures is supported by the Australian Government's Collaborative Research Networks program.