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To accelerate conservation progress in Africa, improve support to African civil society organizations (commentary)

Few regions of the world today face the complex array of threats and challenges as does sub-Saharan Africa. Home to an unmatched diversity of landforms, terrestrial and marine wildlife, and the world’s second-largest expanse of tropical forest, the African continent is undergoing a suite of social, economic and institutional transformations that are creating complex challenges for conservation efforts.

At the same time, these changes can bring opportunities to align investment and development with sustainable natural resource use. For example, tourism is a major industry and source of employment in many countries across eastern and southern Africa, and a key factor driving the establishment of large protected area networks as well as community initiatives that support wildlife conservation. There are also largely untapped opportunities related to forests and fisheries, which if developed sustainably can also align conservation measures with economic opportunities. And similarly, addressing land tenure conflicts by strengthening local property rights and establishing more transparent governance regimes has the potential to drive economic development while also promoting community-based stewardship.

Gorilla rangers in Uganda. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

African civil society organizations (CSOs) have a critical role to play in ensuring that the changing social and economic landscape aligns with conservation efforts. This is in part because African CSOs tend to have the strongest roots and experience with local communities, the political savvy and legitimacy to engage with their governments and other decision-makers, and the culture of commitment and dedication to bring about positive change in their societies, which makes them best placed to bring about transformative, sustainable and long-term impacts.

Yet African organizations in the conservation field face a range of fundamental challenges that constrain their performance, impact, and sustainability. In contrast to developing countries with more established civil societies, such as Brazil, India or Mexico, many African countries, particularly smaller states with a recent history of civil conflict, tend to have much lower human resource pools to draw on in terms of skilled and experienced leaders and personnel. The operating environment is also challenging, particularly with a wave of new laws in many African countries, such as Kenya, that attempt to limit access to funding and information on the part of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Moreover, external forces and relationships often exacerbate the challenges that African organizations face. For instance, short-term project-oriented funding cycles, along with limitations on core organizational funding and overhead costs, trap organizations into planning cycles that constrict their ability to invest in their own capacity, particularly in terms of the recruitment and retention of skilled staff. Also, many African organizations depend heavily on funding from development aid agencies that tend to have particularly demanding grant compliance requirements, which further stretch organizations’ internal capacity. As one East African CSO leader said during an interview when reflecting on these capacity development issues, many funders “only want to know that money is being spent in the way that they want and are not interested in you as an organization.”

The African conservation arena has also long been dominated by international NGOs. This can create challenges for African CSOs, whose priorities and motivations do not necessarily align with international groups. African CSOs can face pressures through competition for resources or access with international groups. Yet at the same time, some international conservation organizations have served as key supporters and long-term allies of African groups. For example, Birdlife International and Fauna & Flora International have explicit strategies to work through partnerships with African organizations and in turn have made long-term investments in strengthening their core capacities. The Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund focuses explicitly on investing in the capacity strengthening of African civil society groups that work in global biodiversity hotspots, and include organizational capacity as one of their core metrics for evaluating impact.

Despite these promising models and experiences, and the widely recognized importance of African CSOs in bringing about long-term positive changes to conservation outcomes, these organizational capacity issues and the internal and external forces that shape them remain relatively sidelined within the African conservation agenda. For example, there is very little documentation and information exchange about successful models and impacts of long-term investment and capacity support to Africa organizations, which impedes the development of both good practices and more relevant and targeted investments by funders. It also leads to many organizations reinventing the wheel in terms of capacity development, or being inconsistent in their approach to strengthening African groups.

In order to confront major challenges and design effective solutions to African conservation initiatives in a rapidly changing context, more concerted, consistent, and informed approaches to strengthening African organizations are needed. A starting point could be to improve documentation and analysis of existing practices and models within the conservation field and to facilitate greater dialogue between African CSOs, their international partners, and funding agencies. Another entry point could be to reflect upon and improve the partnerships between international conservation organizations and African CSOs, so that they more explicitly emphasize the importance of building the long-term capacity and sustainability of African organizations. Greater investments in leadership development should also be a priority so that talented African conservationists receive the training and coaching they need to manage and grow high-impact organizations. Such investments, and a general increase in attention and reflection on strong local organizations as a critical component of the African conservation landscape, will be essential to negotiating the array of challenges facing African societies and biodiversity today.

A local researcher using radio telemetry to track lemurs in Madagascar. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Fred Nelson is Executive Director of Maliasili Initiatives and Emily Wilson is an Organization Development Practitioner with Well Grounded. Both organizations focus on strengthening leading African civil society organizations, networks, and social entrepreneurs. Their joint report entitled Strengthening African Civil Society Organizations for Improved Natural Resource Governance and Conservation was launched at a conference on Building Capacity for Conservation and Resource Management in Africa, which took place in Nairobi, Kenya from July 27-30, 2015.