Assessing the role of large conservation NGOs

The Nature Conservation Society’s latest event looked at the role of large conservation NGOs, and whether or not they are a force for good within conservation. It was a well-attended event, with a good mix of people to listen to the three fantastic talks and panel discussion.

Our first speaker of the evening was Mark Avery, who was Conservation Director of the RSPB, and is now an active blogger and tweeter on various conservation topics. Mark gave an interesting metaphor comparing conservation NGOs to people, suggesting that like people, NGOs can be both good and bad, and usually lie somewhere in between. He also suggested, that like people, the size of an NGO does not correlate to its ‘good-ness’. Mark said that the problem was that there were too many NGOs, and this is difficult to change, as you can’t go round ‘shooting’ them, and more often than not they don’t go voluntarily extinct.

Mark then suggested that large NGOs have some advantages over smaller organisations as they can achieve larger projects (like the reintroduction of the red kite) more easily; influence a larger number of people (both in terms of promoting ethical considerations and in terms of spending power); have a bigger influence with business and industry and also with government and therefore policy. However, he also highlighted that because of this large NGOs have the potential to do more harm than smaller ones.

Mark concluded with a bold statement on the failing of the NGO community, explaining that NGOS are not “speaking up enough or making enough fuss”. He suggested that especially larger NGOs should engage in this more as they have larger financial reserves (which are insulated from the government) and larger membership and therefore support.

Michelle Sanders, the second speaker of the evening, is a member of Synchronicity Earth, an organisation which aims to identify priorities in conservation, gaps in funding and other problems which might prevent conservation work. The organisation aims to highlight where money will have a real impact. Michelle spoke about the intrinsic and extrinsic factors that can affect conservation, including skills and people involved, stake-holder investment, conflict, and government. Michelle also gave us an insight into the difficulties of assessing NGOs, highlighting that efficiency in costs does not always tell you how effective an organisation actually is, and how comparing NGOs is not comparing ‘like-for-like’, as they work on many different scales. Michelle also explained how conservation does not discuss failure, which means that organisations cannot learn from mistakes of others.

Trade-offs was the next topic of conversation, with Michelle describing the many decisions that conservation organisations have to make and how difficult they can be. For example, the mission or purpose of the organisation can be shifted as they try to find money, because what needs to be done vs. what donors will pay for doesn’t always match up.

After a break for drinks, nibbles and conversation, our final speaker Paul Jepson from the Geography Department at Oxford spoke on the topic of ‘big data’ in conservation. Paul gave examples of past societal transformations and how conservation was moving alongside them, and suggested that the next transformation would be one of technology; involving social media, mobile data, remote sensing and big data. Perhaps technology could even be the Third Revolution, after the agricultural and industrial revolutions of the past.

Paul said that conservation was still at the ‘err…’ stage, unsure of how to use this new opportunity that is opening up. But big social data is already being used by other sectors, like medicine, to give a dynamic service and respond to outbreaks. There is already big environmental data available, and conservation could tap into this resource.

Paul suggested that the future of NGOs was to represent empowered individuals and crowd source skills and digital tools. He highlighted the Global Forest Watch, a new project that is interactive, shows forest loss in real time, and can give ‘forest alerts’ when deforestation is taking place. And also the power of twitter, which allows analysis of where people are talking about things, and gives a platform for sharing knowledge and ideas for conservationists.

Overall, this was a very successful event, with three very interesting and engaging speakers with interesting perspectives on the role of NGOs in conservation. It left us thinking about the role of NGOs, and how these roles might change moving into the future.

One thought on “Assessing the role of large conservation NGOs

  1. Critical assessment of NGOs and the Nature Conservation movement as a whole is much needed. The work of this group ‘Common Cause’ is very relevant. (http://valuesandframes.org/). They brought out a handbook called ‘Common Cause for Nature’ which talks about the ways Conservation Orgs can do more harm than good, and guidelines for engaging people on a deeper level and over a longer term – not just ‘winning’ individual battles and scrabbling for more supporters, but changing hearts and minds. I’d really recommend it, and the workshops they run.

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