Based in the scenic world heritage site of New Lanark Scotland, the first ever ESPA summer school saw more than 40 fellows, PhD students, researchers and speakers from around the world share ideas together. The week-long event aimed to enhance participants’ understanding of the way that ecosystem services can benefit the well-being of poor people in developing countries. Through an array of talks, presentations and workshops, the focus of the summer school was split between the themes of theory, practice and impact. (http://www.espa.ac.uk/news-events/events/sun-2016-04-10-1400/espa-summer-school-2016)
The first set of talks presented by Ece Ozdemiroglu and Nigel Asquith gave an insight into theory and practice through the topic of economic valuation and ecosystems. Close to my own research on exploring the values of mangrove ecosystems, the presentations introduced the concept of economic valuation of the environment, the strengths and weaknesses of a valuation approach, to how environmental valuation can manifest into pro-poor payments for ecosystem services. An example used to highlight payments for ecosystem services was given by Prof. Mark Huxham of Edinburgh Napier on the case study of Mikoko Pamoja, based in the community of Gazi on the coast of Kenya. (http://www.aces-org.co.uk/portfolio/mikoko-pamoja-2/) Discussion revolved around how ecosystem services provided by mangrove forests can be valued, and how community generation and selling of carbon credits can contribute to poverty alleviation. The example ignited many questions in the room, with a few being: Are economic valuation approaches the only way forward? Does payment for ecosystem services lead to the commodification of the environment? Can value only be understood by using dollar metrics? With many of the questions not being completely resolved, the discussion however reminded me of the different approaches to looking at the links between ecosystem services and poverty alleviation. Using examples from the Sustainable Poverty Alleviation from Coastal Ecosystem Services project (SPACES) project and my own research on environmental valuation, I had long discussions with fellow participants on the theoretical and philosophical foundations of ecological economics and the simplification of values, asking what the relationship between coastal ecosystems such as mangroves might have to the wellbeing of poor people living along the coast of Kenya.
The second set of talks and workshops given by Liz Carlile, Becky Murray and Bouchra Chakroune of the ESPA directorate focused on impact and the ESPA guide to working with Theory of Change, benefits, challenges and how it could be incorporated into projects. The theory of change is essentially a comprehensive illustration of how a desired change is expected to happen in a given context. The presentations on impact and change catalyzed cynical but critical responses from many of the participants, who debated how the role of research can and in many cases cannot effect change and impact. When presenters Julian Wright representing DFID, Ina Porras of IIED and Ben Ramalingam from IDS talked about the challenges of research into policy, issues such as policy makers not engaging in research articles, overall saturation of research and the need for solution based research were raised (Presentations from the week, a selection of videos, and event report can be found here). This sparked a wave of responses from researchers working in developing country contexts who asked the question, that if this is the reality, how can change and impact be achieved? With many of the researchers themselves part of projects like SPACES, trying to instigate impact and change through approaches such as the dissemination of results and community engagement. (http://www.espa.ac.uk/news-events/espa-blog/espa-leads-way-capacity-building)
Disheartened and feeling frustrated, discussion carried on into the evening with participants debating the concepts of impact and change. After much deliberation a conclusion was reached, that as early career researchers, we would ultimately have to become active researchers on a community level, using more participatory approaches, citizen science and local activism in order to enact change and impact. Overall, the interconnection between the multiple fields, themes and positions presented were extremely engaging within the ESPA summer school. For many early career researchers including myself, the experience of gaining such an insight into the policy world and then relating it back to our own areas of research, provided an important opportunity for reflection.