Wednesday, 4 April 2007

The future of conservation NGOs - A bit of provocation from an Indonesian perspective

This year something remarkable and unprecedented occurred. Both the presidents of the United States and Australia mentioned global warming and environmental conservation as a key concern to society. And many of the world’s political leaders seemed to agree. So far these are mostly words, but I can’t escape the feeling that within the next 5—10 years environmental issues will become increasingly prominent on the world’s political agendas.

This is a major achievement for the environmental conservation movement which has been fighting for many decades to get this level of recognition. Still not many seem to be celebrating. There is a healthy sense of skepticism. Words are just words after all. And the deeds are not there yet, or at least not to the extent that we wish for.

I wonder whether there is also a bit of a ‘now what?’ feeling among environmental NGOs. If this is indeed a victory, what will we do next? We don’t need to worry too much yet. There is still a considerable need for conservation expertise to help turn political words into sensible environmental management.

But are conservation NGOs the right organizations to do this? I suspect that with increasing political attention to environments our advocacy role will rapidly diminish. What remains is our knowledge of conservation and how to make conservation work in the field. The question is whether environmental NGOs will experience increasing competition from other conservation groups, including governmental, as well as commercial groups. This might happen because with conservation becoming politically more mainstream the amount of funding for environmental management might go up rapidly. Funding increases might occur through direct government budget allocations or through market-based mechanisms like avoided deforestation, carbon sequestration, and payment for environmental services; and of course our traditional private donors will chip in too.

But are we ready for the competition? The problem is that we do not really know. If we had been more diligent in our program monitoring and evaluation we might have been able to answer that question. Now it is hard to say what the status of conservation in Indonesia would have been without the input from conservation organizations. We lack the counter-factual evidence. We also don’t really know what aspects of conservation we are really good at: area management, advocacy, communication, research, or any of the other strategies that conservation NGOs normally use?

I foresee a future of commercialization of environmental conservation. Conservation will become big business. This may not happen today or tomorrow, but this change is almost inevitable. And in that changing world we will need to reinvent ourselves and our roles. An organization like TNC Indonesia needs to identify its particular niche and make sure we are stronger than, or at least as strong in the execution of that role as our present and future competitors. If we don’t, I expect that environmental NGOs will become increasingly marginalized and in the end largely redundant.

This might seem a hypothetical and rather pessimistic scenario. But looking outside our own traditional role indicates that similar processes have taken place in other issues that were of concern to society. I wonder what happened to organizational structures and inter-sectoral competition after, for example, wind energy transformed from a hippy’s LSD-induced day dream to a vibrant commercial industry, or once clean water became something not only NGOs cared about. Maybe other examples can be found among issues as diverse as suffrage and women’s rights, workers’ unions, and sustainable forestry. All these matters were once pushed by small groups of non-governmental activists, but once they became generally accepted in society, they were taken over by commercial groups or firmly embedded in every-day politics.

So, is this what the future of environmental NGOs will look like? Maybe we shouldn’t worry too much. If that prediction turns out to be correct and environmental issues become everyone’s concern and are effectively addressed by competent organizations, there would be less of a need for environmental NGOs. I am looking forward to that day when I can sit back in my rocking chair and look out over a world that has become responsible and manages to take care of its environments while still giving people a conformable life. I don’t really expect that day to be very near—and I don’t actually regret that because rocking back and forth in a chair gets tedious rather quickly—but I have started thinking what new skills are going to be required in conservation. What will “the new conservationist” look like in 10 years from now, and what do I need to do to be one of them?

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