Thursday, November 26, 2009

International conservation NGOs

So like a good liberal I was brousing The Huffington Post the other day. I came along this article: Ashley Judd: Please, Population Control is Not the Answer for Congo.

I posted a comment, this time with my credentials, and the author Georgianne asked to chat with me about international development NGOs working in the region. She sent me two interesting reports:

A Challenge to Conservationists


It brought me back to grad school. One of my professors, Dianne Rocheleau, used to tell us about this kind of conservation. She dubbed it “guns and fences conservation.” Erect fences, and guard the reserve with guns so none of those destructive peasants can get in. Besides being unethical, it just doesn’t work. I’d ask you all to boycott donating to these agencies, but unfortunately, these NGOs derive extremely little of their funding from private donations, so there’s little we can do as normal citizens.

I found the critiques of TNC interesting, as TNC is one of the conservation organizations in the US I respect the most. As opposed to some other big national and regional NGOs, they do work directly with local communities in the west. They pay attention to all science, not only the stuff that suits their cause, and they hardly every exaggerate or lie, which is the MO of many other organizations. They put their money where their mouth is, spending it on buying land and putting conservation easements in place instead of lobbying above the communities’ heads and suing agencies. This is how the conservation movement game is played in America. While The Wilderness Society and Colorado Environmental Coalition is hated by locals in rural Colorado (some for good reasons, some not), TNC is not viewed as a “radical environmental organization” and is (relatively) well respected by the rednecks. I definitely consider myself an environmentalist, but after working years with some of these big conservation NGOs, I’ve become quite jaded. Like international aid, it’s all about the money.

As the author Chapin infers, we must work with communities not only because building the capacity of these communities to prosper, but because no matter how many fences you put up, no matter how many men with guns guard your sanctuaries, the disenfranchised people will use their traditional resources and you won’t meet your conservation goals. I also liked the fact that Chapin mentions that the true goal of an NGO is to work yourself out of a job. This NEVER happens. That’s not the way The Aid Machine works.

It’s all about keeping The Aid Machine running. People have jobs that they want to justify. NGOs have to keep spending money, regardless of the effectiveness, or the money dries up. They take the money and hire more people. They flail around for several years because doing true community-driven conservation is hard. But they will never refuse the money and say “sorry, this project just isn’t working.” That would mean no more funding stream. This is why I call it The Aid Machine. It is self-perpetuating, always feeding itself. It hardly every shrinks, only grows. Chapin had some startling insights on where these NGOs get their money and how that relates to their mission. These groups HAVE to keep getting money to survive, and soon they don’t care where it comes from, or what projects it goes towards. They just need to spend it, or next year they don’t get any. This is the problem of international aid. It’s not about helping, it’s about spending.

As far as the assessment of the CARPE program, it seems to me working with local communities was never really a goal of this program in the first place. Sure enough, this is called out several times in the report.

“Progress in working with forest concessions and in establishing community based natural resource management (CBNRM) reserves is limited.”

“Capacity Building: The mix of NGOs and federal agency service providers has not effectively addressed the capacity building objective. NGOs have strengthened park management and surveillance capacity, but impact on Community Based Organizations (CBOs) and local NGOs has been much less effective.”

By focusing more on enforcement and less on communities, it becomes clear that these agencies are doing “guns and fences conservation.” It seems that inviting the local communities to participate in conservation isn’t even a goal of this program. Look at the second strategic design element:

“2. A set of mostly US-based organizations that work across landscapes in common thematic areas such as multiple-use planning, forest monitoring, policy and governance and uncontrolled hunting;”

More enforcement. No where in the strategic goals is anything about working with local communities; no where is there anything about poverty reduction. The people of Congo are largely ignored and forgotten.

I found the constraints that were identified quite interesting:

“The main constraints to progress at the landscape scale include: remoteness, difficult access to the sites, lack of an information base for planning/management, lack of infrastructure, lack of agreements in place to work with government agencies mandated to manage lands outside of PAs, low tourism potential, and low local partner capacity. In several landscapes, insecurity makes access impossible or dangerous in parts of the landscape.”

First, we are told it’s hard to get white people into these places, and it’s dangerous. Um, why not leverage the support of the local communities then? It is inferred that the natives are difficult. “If those damn Africans would just get with the program and build roads, quit fighting, and partner with us, we would be fine.” No sign that the program itself is the problem. To them, Africans are passive recipients of aid, not active agents in change.

It's really too bad international conservation NGOs play the game this way. No wonder aid to Africa isn't working.