ALLIES OR ADVERSARIES? THE AUTHORITARIAN STATE AND CIVIL SOCIETY IN ENVIRONMENTAL GOVERNANCE: A CASE STUDY OF THE MEKONG DELTA
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Natural resources are collective goods that the state has the authority and responsibility to protect from overuse and overexploitation. In order to achieve this protection, the state must rely on the actions of local actors, experts, and business leaders who are most closely connected to the natural resource base. The dependence of the state on local actors to implement resource-protection policies makes the conduct of environmental management within authoritarian regimes a particularly interesting area in which to observe the state’s strategic choices concerning its relations with civil society. The potential threat to state control posed by an emergent civil society means that the state must weigh its interests in maintaining its authoritarianism against the benefits provided by civil society, such as the ability to analyze and implement the state’s policies effectively.
This dissertation focuses on how the government of Vietnam manages these apparent tensions between allowing participation on a critical issue area and maintaining its control as an authoritarian state. I argue that the state does not respond uniformly or consistently to all types of civil society actors, even within a single issue area such as natural resources protection. Prevailing explanations of why the authoritarian state has shown permissiveness toward civil society actors fail to account for variation in the state’s response to different actors and across levels of governance. In this paper I present an alternative framework that provides a more nuanced understanding of the state’s interests with respect to various types of civil society actors. I argue that the state’s engagement with various civil society organizations depends primarily on three characteristics: 1) the organization’s mobilizing capacity; 2) issue independence; and 3) the external strategic value of the organization. These three characteristics shape whether the authoritarian state of Vietnam views the organization as a threat to be subverted and repressed in order to maintain its own authority, or a cooperative partner in the management of the state’s natural resources. In addition, this dissertation discusses the implications for successful water management in the region.