Boundary partners offer critical link for influencing local policy and bridging local government and researchers in the Mekong

Rajesh Daniel By Rajesh Daniel - May 19, 2014

Policy makers, practitioners and analysts including local government agencies and SUMERNET researchers shared their perspectives on research and policy on sustainable agriculture and forestry in the Mekong during the “SUMERNET Policy Forum” and Mekong Environmental Symposium (MES) 2013” in Vietnam from 4-7 March 2013.

Local governments have achieved significant relevance for the lives of many people given that local levels of government in many countries of the Mekong Region have been acquiring new responsibilities and more resources for carrying them out.

Many public officials and public agencies assumed new roles in these local-level government bodies.

Boundary partners, as referred to by Dr. Louis Lebel, SUMERNET Senior Research Advisor, are: “individuals, groups, or organizations with whom the program interacts directly and with whom the program can anticipate opportunities for influence.”

Dr. Lebel stated that: “These actors are called boundary partners because, even though the program will work with them to effect change, it does not control them. The power to influence development rests with them.”

For SUMERNET, encouraging identifying and engaging ‘boundary partners’ is an explicit program strategy. When SUMERNET researchers are listing the specific research project’s boundary partners, the focus should be on the actors with whom the project works directly.  If the program cannot directly influence an actor, the group needs to determine who it can influence who will, in turn, influence that actor.

In the follow up discussion on the boundary partners facilitated by Dr. Eric Kemp-Benedict, SEI Asia Centre Director, the participants discussed how this relationship between practitioners and experts can take many different forms. For example, practitioners may recruit researchers to work with them and solve problems. Or sometimes, experts may seek particular practitioners to further a contested action agenda. 

Mr. Phouvieng Sikaysone, Deputy Head of the Information, Culture and Tourism Office, Vang Vieng District, Vientiane Province, Lao PDR has played an important role as boundary partner in one of the SUMERNET research projects titled “Impact of Urban Expansion on the Hinterland and Local Responses in the Mekong Region: A Study in Khon Kaen and Vang Vieng”.

His agency is responsible for providing budgets for infrastructure. He said that the main challenges in his work are to ensure the sustainable construction of buildings, environmental education and conservation. His view is that: “It’s selfish for people such as construction companies to make profit only for their own good.” 

Sometimes the socio-political boundary between rural and urban poses special challenges for local governments in these areas. 

For example, the city of Khon Kaen is facing a problem of solid waste management that affects the rural and peri-urban areas surrounding the city.

Dr. Maniemai Thongyou, Director for Research in the Center for Research on Plurality in the Mekong Region, Khon Kaen University, Thailand, has expertise in rural development and planning particularly in northeastern Thailand. In her capacity as Director of Research, she has been actively leading and contributing to the SUMERNET research project addressing urban expansion and it’s implications for Khon Kaen (Thailand) and Vang Vieng (Lao PDR).

She says that one of the issues in her work is that Khon Kaen’s City municipality is not accountable for the problems in the rural hinterland. 

Mr. Mai Tan Nhung, Commune Officer in charge of the agricultural sector in An Giang Province, has played an essential role supporting the SUMERNET research project on “Communicating Water-related Climate Change Risks to Improve Local Adaptation in the Deltas of the Mekong Region”.

Mr. Nhung discussed his local community experience through participation in a project on communicating water-related climate change risks to improve local adaptation in Vietnam and improve the farmers’ understanding of climate change.  

He said: “We have a coping capacity for floods, we are prepared. The local authorities are prepared before and during the flood events to protect lives and properties. But a new emerging hazard in the communities is saline intrusion that affects freshwater quality. As an agricultural officer, he said that they make sure information of the saline intrusion reaches farmers and local authorities to help them cope with the salinity.

Mr. Trinnawat Suwanprik, a government official from Chiang Mai Municipality, Thailand who has been actively involved in the SUMERNET research project shared the results from his project “Sustainable urban tourism through low carbon initiative: Experiences from Hue and Chiang Mai” with Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) and Hue City, Vietnam. 

“Owing to our engagement with various stakeholders such as consultation meetings, boundary partner meetings and also arranging city to city visits between Chiang Mai and Hue, we can learn a lot from each other’s experiences. As a result from the project, a pro-poor low carbon urban tourism in Chaing Mai has been developed with a focus on non-motorized traffic (NMT), starting from Three Kings Square area of Chiang Mai. This is a concrete example of how scientific knowledge can support the policy-making process.”

The SUMERNET forum discussed how effective relationships with boundary partners in research projects are more likely to arise when boundary partners:

  1. Are engaged from the start, including, formulation of objectives
  2. Have sufficient time, interest and motivation to engage researchers
  3. Have assigned roles that provide access to key decision-makers
  4. Are treated with respect by researchers willing to re-design work so it supports their functions and needs.

In the countries of the Mekong Region, local governments and local officials are adapting to new responsibilities, demands and expectations even as they are trying to manage the many and often new complexities of decentralization. 

The linkages and relationships being built by SUMERNET researchers is helping the work of these local government officials and boundary partners and positively influencing efforts towards sustainable development in the Mekong Region.

Further reflections from SUMERNET partners on policy engagement in practice, within the scope of their respective projects can be seen in the following video:

The SUMERNET Policy Forum and the participation of SUMERNET partners in the Mekong Environmental Symposium (MES) 2013 were made possible with the support of Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) and Climate Development and Knowledge Network (CDKN)

SEI welcomes inquiries from the external parties and media on SUMERNET work and topics being discussed and presented in the Policy Forum and MES 2013. For inquiries, please contact Agus Nugroho ( or Rajesh Daniel (email:

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