Conservation non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can lead, lobby, facilitate or terminate social and political processes involving nature conservation.
However, fingers are pointed at their often shallow modus operandi with government and businesses stakeholders, and for clumsy dealings with rural people and the impoverishment their activities can cause.
Comprehensive evaluations of their performance and efficiency are still in their infancy.
Historically, South African nature reserves, game parks and tourist lodges are associated with forced removals, displacement of communities and worker exploitation under Apartheid laws. Connotations about conflicts involving nature ideologies and poverty, equity and justice were rife, causing resentment and animosity towards nature. The prevailing sentiment was that fauna, flora and insects were elevated beyond the dignity of black people, and that conservation was explicit in its racial elitism.
Sensitivities remain. Land restitution is one of the ways to redress this.
Today, nature conservation can be a force for good. At best, it offers opportunities to enhance and improve the quality of life for millions. This is because conservation areas are tourism and nodes for job creation, enterprise development and social enjoyment.
In our urban areas, hundreds of small, community-based conservation NGOs nurture local appreciation for nature and assist in maintaining green public amenities. Further afield, the inspiration for high-profile conservation parks in demilitarised zones, such as in the Middle East, is regarded by many as a progressive means for peace-building, and globally, trans-border areas between countries sharing water catchments and mountains help to resolve disputes for the equitable sharing of natural resources by promoting inter-cultural exchange and political dialogue.
A 2010 study, undertaken by Dan Brockington, the undisputed doyen of African conservation geography, examined the operations of two hundred and eighty African conservation NGOs. The concern was the low success rates of these competitive, multi-million dollar, high investments in nature.
Their expenditure was found to average 160 million United States Dollars per year. The distribution of funds is highly unequal and concentrated in a few organisations. Expenditure on the continent is highest in southern Africa and lowest in West Africa, and only a small proportion of conservation areas receive some form of financial aid.
The majority are associated with poor financial performance, high staff turnovers, insufficient project impact, duplication of effort and a lack of transparency.
Controversies in the use and abuse of environmental information by NGOs have also been raised. The most notable, in this regard, was by Bjorn Lomborg, who was scathing in his legendary attacks on World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Greenpeace in his three hundred and fifty page work, The Skeptical Environmentalist (2001).
These negative portrayals depict conservation NGOs as ‘greener-than-thou’ Nature Lords and incompetent martinets.
Evidently, they are not getting bang for their buck, and their financial, data and human resources can be put to more effective use in resolving problems.
Perhaps conservation NGOs can learn from the business community.
Private companies are efficient at executing their objectives. Often, they have deeper and wider access to governance circles and political machinery than NGOs. So brazen is their muscle, that some even have the capacity to overpower. A disgraceful case-in-point is Shell’s collusion with the Nigerian military dictatorship that led to Ken Saro Wiwa’s execution fifteen years ago – even Mandela’s pleas to Abacha could not prevent the tragedy.
If business acumen is ethically harnessed and applied in NGOs, then, unlike Icarus who flew too close to the sun, the wax in their wings might stay intact.
The biggest need is sharing knowledge platforms and experiences through mentorship for general management and financial controls, and installing a culture of raw ambition for excellence.
NGOs are not held up to accountability as rigorously as the private sector. This is ironic, as many NGOs have fee-based memberships or depend on grant funding or charitable donations. Subscribing to corporate conduct is an obvious solution to drive up flaccid standards. Perhaps they should adopt the King III guidelines for good governance and corporate responsibility to maximise the impact.
Another need is NGO-business collaboration to improve policies and legislation that enable good governance of natural resources and business practices that are not harmful to natural environments. Businesses can help NGOs to facilitate or endorse recommendations, or test the feasibility of pilot projects for national land-use planning strategies, and they can play a pivotal role in catalysing important new legal processes.
Business participation in policy debates for national development and reconstruction will serve the long-term interests of NGOs. This will help build a culture of open dialogue, capacity building and democratisation concerning nature conservation and its development.
With the exception of a few large international NGOs, strategic business partnerships are untapped. Partnerships can leverage co-finance for projects through creative funding strategies. But there is more beyond milking the proverbial teats of the business cash cow, such as awareness-raising that can market the aims of NGOs. In turn, businesses can reap benefits by being branded as biodiversity mascots or sources of innovation.
The aim is to work synergistically and complimentarily with home-grown conservation NGOs, and to foster development of more such NGOs that are headed by committed environmental visionaries.
African governments are more likely to entrust the responsibility of thought leadership assistance to international NGOs or external consultancy consortia based in the northern publics such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden and The Netherlands. If businesses provide outspoken support of local conservation NGOs, then resident, ‘just-as-good’ talent can be put to good use.
Local NGOs possess wide knowledge networks of certain areas of a country and a long-term perspective for environmental risk mitigation during periods of conflict or economically lean times. They can help to refine technical information (community-based social and environmental data) that can be useful to a company’s everyday operations and future investments.
There is much need for these business-wise transformation in NGOs, especially now that the demand by petrochemical, timber and mining companies wishing to capitalise on Africa’s natural resource estate is higher than at any point in history. This is critical in ecologically sensitive areas, those earmarked for resource extraction, or areas that are off the beaten track and far from the eyes of corruption-free public inspectorates.
If conservation NGOs do not professionalise, then they will leave the unsavoury impression that ‘money is no object’ and that ‘money grows on trees’. At worst, the current state of the problem is that it represents a wasted opportunity that enriches lives and boosts the egos of few, and that it will cripple the lives of many. This will certainly put them out of business.
Dr Golding is an honorary research associate at the University of Cape Town’s Plant Conservation Unit and author of Extinction by Design: plant ecology, species extinction and taxonomy in south-central Africa (2010). She writes in a personal capacity.