NGOs should re-think activism strategies in developing world

By Chandran Nair
Financial Times

In April this year, Kenya’s President, Uhuru Kenyatta, burned over 105 tonnes of elephant ivory to protest the continued poaching of elephants. The Associated Press quoted President Kenyatta as saying that "…for us ivory is worthless unless it is on our elephants."

At the same time, he hosted the "Giants Club" Summit, a meeting of African leaders to bolster the protection of elephants. The ivory burn — the largest in history — is a reminder that conservation is not just the purview of activists in the West, but also something that is dear to the hearts of many governments and people in the developing world. It should also be noted that some African commentators have been critical of this action arguing that in the final analysis it still panders to Western arguments about how to put an end to poaching.

International conservation and environmental NGOs have invariably had an antagonistic relationship with governments in the developing world, often ironically echoing their own governments when they lecture to the former. But if activists are to preserve biodiversity in the developing world – which has the last remaining habitats of megafauna — they need to start working with the state.

They need to be more comfortable working with a political structure—warts and all—and work the levers of influence to protect the environment. They must develop a model of conservation that protects species and the environment whilst appreciating the pressures that poor populations and their governments face and not dismissing them as incompetent and corrupt. Paying lip service to the developing world by hiring a few professionals from these countries is not good enough.

Western activists typically respond that there is little use trying to talk to these governments. They argue that they are "corrupt" and cannot be trusted to follow through on their commitments. If governments take bribes, the argument goes, then conservationists could never counter the moneyed and vested interests that support environmentally damaging economic activity.

Every time the government is faced with a choice between conservation and development (greased with bribes), development would win. Activists hold this even more fervently if the government in question is not a democracy, as environmentalists cannot "punish" governments through elections.

Even if state governments were able to resist vested interests, NGOs would argue that local governments may counteract their directives, supporting anti-conservation efforts on the ground. Local NGO offices often end up reinforcing these prejudices by hiring local staff that agree with them, and then using their opinions to lend legitimacy to their concerns.

This argument, however, is not borne by the facts. China, in spite of the common mainstream view of it as a winner-take-all corrupt system, does actually respond to complaints about pollution from both civil society and the population as a whole. It also must be remembered that protection of the giant panda has been spearheaded by Chinese scientists and policymakers, not by Western attention.

In addition, the Chinese government has also done a great deal to try and protect the fragile flora and fauna of the Tibetan highlands. This is not to excuse the failures and even environmental neglect in many parts of China as much more remains to be done if China is to reverse current trends and protect is people and the natural environment.

However, China's authoritarianism does not prevent it from passing environmental protection laws and, perhaps, the argument can be made that it has helped and will be a vital part of the solution in the future.

Even if their reductive assumption that all governments in the developing world are corrupt was true, that does not excuse NGOs from refusing to work with the state. NGOs need to be comfortable and skilled working through political and policy networks in order to get something done—an action they are willing to do in the developed world.

Corruption is not the only reason NGOs may be hesitant to talk to governments in the developing world. Another is distance: activists on-the-ground may not know anyone senior and influential in or close to the government.

But this still reflects a mind-set amongst international environmental NGOs: that the state is the "enemy," or at least, is not a friend. Nor does it indicate a good set of hiring practices in the NGO world. NGOs, much like their commercial and corporate counterparts, spend far too money training and flying someone in from abroad than developing local talent and expertise and seriously looking to appoint senior local leaders.

One would think that a country or campaign head actually from the country would know far more about what is happening "on-the-ground" as well as have better access to key policy makers, than an individual flown in from headquarters who, despite working for a good cause, can be just as blinkered as any "expat" businessperson.

Instead of petitioning and cooperating with governments, NGOs have instead chosen to launch consumer awareness campaigns in the developed world, as exemplified by Wild Aid’s famous slogan: "when the buying stops, the killing will too." This is part of a larger fundraising strategy: always targeting the developing world in order to raise money from the richer developed world.

Occupying the higher moral ground is hard-wired into these strategies and mainly because it is a sure way of raising money from liberal constituencies in the West.

This strategy has limitations. For one, it ignores the true network of wildlife trade. Many of the consumers of wildlife products are now in the developing world, as their greater incomes are pushing them to buy more status symbols like ivory and fur. Targeting campaigns at the developed world misses this population.

It also ignores the central role that the developed world plays in the wildlife trade. For example, the United Stateshad its own trade in ivory, which was smaller only than the very largest markets in Asia— only recently have some states like California looked inward to completely bar the ivory trade without caveats.

Nor is it just megafauna that is being affected, as the BBC uncovered a British trade in illegally-collected Himalayan plants. The media often falls into this trap as well: compare the harsh treatment Hong Kong’s deputy environment minister received from the BBC compared to the lack of attention given to, say, the United States’ continued failure to pass a complete federal ban on the ivory trade.

Consumer advocacy has its place, but it cannot stand alone. Ordinary consumers do not know the full environmental effects of their choices and most do not care. Even if the consumer knows not to buy, say, ivory, do they know not to buy food made with unsustainable palm oil which has impacted Orang Utang populations?

Do they even know how to recognise products made with sustainable ingredients? Supply chains are long and complicated, and expecting consumers to know how to parse them puts too much faith in their ability to make environmental judgments.

This is not to say that consumer advocacy never works, but NGOs need to be honest about its limits. It has a role when targeting clear animal products like fur and ivory, where the link to endangered species is clear. It is far less useful when it targets products with subtler impacts on conservation: either in products made with unsustainable ingredients, or in limiting environmentally damaging economic activity. The trends that affects consumer behaviour are so complex that it is hard to say whether any particular campaign has any effect at all.

Take the revival of wolf populations in Central Europe: a rare conservation victory. This happened not because consumers decided not to buy (non-existent) wolf products. Instead, wolf populations regrew because Europeans in post industrial societies started living different lifestyles that did not require the destruction of their habitats.

Conservation is when the killing stops, plain and simple. In Central Europe, the killing stopped because of a fundamental economic transformation. But the world’s rhino, elephant, orang-utan, and other populations of megafauna cannot wait that long for the world’s consuming classes to be enlightened.

Their populations are already so small that even a miniscule portion of the world’s population can wipe them out. Even more importantly, the line of those wanting to join the consuming classes worldwide, to keep the world economy churning, is never ending. The maths does not add up and does not favour the strategy of changing consumer behaviour to save these endangered species. This is why the state has to be an essential partner, as it only can stop the killing.

There are a number of assumptions that environmental NGOs hold that limits their willingness to work with developing world governments. First is the assumption that all developing world governments and their officials do not care about conservation. This is clearly not true! The recent good news about the small increase in tiger populations is evidence that the developing world, like China and India, are taking serious steps towards conservation.

Even if you take a cynical view of governments in Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia, it is clear that protected habitats are an economic asset by bolstering tourism and development in rural areas. Thus, these governments have an interest in conservation even if they have not been very successful in achieving it.

A related assumption that NGOs should leave behind is that governments in the developing world are corrupt in their entirety. Even when corrupt elements exist, there are still significant numbers of good and sincere officials who want to do the best for their country, and NGOs would do well to recognise this fact and seek them out. Of course, whether or not an expat constantly at loggerheads with locals, could achieve this is, is at the very least, unclear.

However, what governments in the developing world do not appreciate is unconstructive criticism, especially if it comes from a foreign group. This is an understandable response, but NGOs and the media often see it as validation of their position and proof of insincerity, making it the fuel for greater publicity and fundraising in the West.

Governments in the developing world know that NGO criticism can be used against them, and be tied to political positions in the developed world to deny important and necessary changes in foreign policy. The developed world prickles whenever it is put under constant criticism, so it is understandable if the developing world will sometimes do the same.

The risk for NGOs is that an overly aggressive attitude can backfire. Take Greenpeace India, which organised protests against coal mines and protests against the government. To New Delhi, this looks like a foreign organisation agitating inside the country—agitating in favour of something that you and I may think is correct, but agitating nonetheless. Few developed world governments would take a benign view of a developing world organization coming in to do something similar. Imagine the outcry if a Russia, China or even an India-based NGO tried to protest against large-scale environmental damage and abuse of aboriginal rights in Australia’s mining areas.

Look at this from the point of view of a developing world official. He or she understands that there is a problem with conservation and, all things being equal, would prefer a solution that preserves habitats.

However, he or she also knows that there are plenty of other factors to consider that make a perfect solution difficult—factors that are ignored by environmental NGOs, who criticize without understanding the challenges that make developing a solution difficult. One can understand why such an official may cast a dim view of a Western environmental NGO, even if they want the exact same things.

The final assumption is that corruption makes any work towards conservation impossible. It would be naïve to claim that corruption does not exist, but NGOs would do well to understand wherecorruption exists, who is engaging in it, and how it is manifested.

There is a world of difference between the state leader that funnels money to an offshore account and the local underpaid park ranger that looks the other way when poor farmers engage in slash-and-burn agriculture or poachers shoot an animal. Understanding why local officials engage in corruption is an extension of understanding why local communities destroy their environment—it is due to a lack of economic opportunities in rural areas outside of destructive, unsustainable agricultural and industrial business models and even unfair trade rules and agricultural subsidies in the developed world.

A better strategy for NGOs may be to work with governments, rather than work against them. If an element of conservation is building alternate paths to economic development, then the developing world state has to be involved in any conservation platform.

Developing world governments would clearly prefer to have better conservation than environmental damage, but may not yet have the models of regulation and development as well as institutions and in some cases the expertise that allow them to improve the quality of life for their poorest without damaging the environment. Environmental NGOs can help to provide those models, or at least help governments build them. Conservation efforts need to be built around mutual respect, not mutual antagonism.

A partnership will present its own risks. NGOs will be taking ownership of solutions, some of which may not work. Some partnerships between NGOs and other entities, like the more business-oriented Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, have had mixed results. But the state is the only actor in the developing world with the power and the resources to implement and enforce conservation measures. There is no other way to solve the problem.

NGOs need to ask themselves this question. Do they want to attack and criticize non-Western governments: a move that may appeal to wealthy donors: something that may preserve their moral bona-fides but will do little to actually solve the problem? Or do they take a risk in working with governments: an act that may actually get something done?