How do conservation NGOs respond to criticism?

I am pleased to present my first guest post. The author is as anxious to conceal their identity as I am mine. I’ll call them GL. I will post my own thoughts in response shortly.


We are all well aware of the growing body of critiques of conservation in the developing world – MJ’s earlier posting “Shoot to Kill” being one of the latest examples. However it’s about time we thought more about the ways in which conservation organizations deal with criticism, because it is in understanding and improving such reactions that things will hopefully change for the better. The work of a group of scholars known as the displaced and disobedient knowledge group which deals broadly with the social impacts of conservation resonates very much with my own experiences and understandings of the social impacts of conservation and how conservation NGOs deal with criticisms that their interventions don’t have as squeaky clean a record in this area as their publicity makes out. The disobedient knowledge group has produced three most interesting publications thus far, all well worth reading: the first is a very lucid report from a conference they held in 2008, the second a Special Issue of Current Conservation which was published earlier this year, the papers within are excellent, and the third a special issue of the journal Antipode titled Capitalism and Conservation. I thoroughly recommend all three. The group, which includes scholars such as Jim Igoe, Sian Sullivan and Dan Brockington, are particularly concerned with the displacement of people, economic activities and knowledge about these dynamics by the biodiversity conservation movement.

Anyway, down to the meat of this posting – how do conservation organizations actually respond to criticism? What follows are some ideas compiled from readings, testimony from colleagues from across the global south, and from my own personal experiences. The conclusion emerging suggests that some of the more powerful actors in conservation have unconsciously evolved a common set of approaches to dealing with criticism and questions which challenge their programs and approaches to conservation. Some of the approaches adopted by these particular conservationists to received criticism may include a selection of the following strategies:

1. Claiming devotion to the cause, having suffered personal hardship and low pay in order to try and achieve conservation. (One could term this to be an environmental missionary argument of sorts).

2. Making debates personal – and steering them towards polarization of views, and portraying them as personal/institutional attacks. Staff of Conservation Organizations and Researchers can and do take things personally in these difficult debates.

3. Using various non-specific (opaque) terms to describe how interventions are actually well designed and have people at the centre (Participatory, Consultation, Empowerment, Alternative Livelihoods, Development, Success), when such success is actually contested.

4. Confounding efforts to achieve successful alternative livelihoods with actual results in doing so. Or said in an other way – diversion of claims on factual matters about success in relieving poverty or improving human well-being towards emotional claims of caring about people and trying hard (i.e. good intentions).

5. Claiming that “we all want the same thing” (the ‘we’ being conservationists and advocates of environmental justice). Perhaps overlooking the fact that biodiversity conservation organizations are not the same thing as research bodies or organizations/individuals working on social justice, human development and human rights. This could be said to be a failure to recognize that those questioning the social impacts of conservation may actually have different fundamental world views and priorities than conservationists!

6. Calling into question the accuracy and validity of researchers’ claims through informal and gossip channels, without issuing formal responses/rebuttals.

7. Deliberate efforts to bully and marginalize critical researchers by questioning their authority, competence or capacity to ask questions or make comments about the given conservation intervention/policy.  This extends to excluding such critics from field sites or attempting to silence them or censor what they are allowed to talk to local communities in the conservation intervention areas.  Similar exclusion at the level of policy processes is common as well.

8. Undertaking post hoc rationalizations of debates which were deliberately avoided or cut short by conservationists. This is done in such a way so as to suggest that those critiquing conservation didn’t want to enter into debates with them, or that critics of conservation deliberately tried to set up one sided debates.

9. Simply ignoring the findings of critical research or pretending they are unaware of it.

10. Attempting to deflect attention by suggesting that critics of conservation are wasting their time by focusing on conservation which is inherently good (although dysfunctional), when there are others (mining and industrial agriculturalists for example) who are doing much worse things, and with larger questions of how things like neo-liberalism/capitalism/globalization/western consumption really drive many of our environmental problems.

There are of course many individuals and organizations working in conservation who do actually engage constructively with critics and critical researchers, discussing together practical solutions and adopting research findings in order to improve the equity and effectiveness of conservation interventions, but this posting is intended to stimulate debate about the parts of conservation which don’t do as well as they could.


3 responses to this post.

  1. […] Why Anonymous? « How do conservation NGOs respond to criticism? […]


  2. Posted by Skeptic on November 2, 2010 at 7:03 pm

    What is a “conservationist” and how will I recognise one in the street? The stereotype developed here does not reflect the character or behaviour of all individuals engaged in the broad range of activities covered under the ‘conservation’ umbrella. It makes some interesting points, but ultimately, like any debate based on stereotypes of “-ists” it is largely pointless.

    The key issue to my mind is why does the institutional organism, be it conservation, development or academic, so frequently fall down on the cultural hubris and fascism of leaders and ‘superstars’ supposedly doing ‘good’? This to me comes down to human personality types, and points to the fact that project ‘impacts’ are never truly assessed by properly measured indicators, but inevitably rely on PR spin and pleasing donors above project recipients/victims in country. This stems from the way that funds are raised to do such work, how organisations grow, and which personality types succeed in playing this game and how they retain the personal influence and status they achieve from their successes in PR and fundraising. It is no different to any other economic enterprise, except the customers receiving the ‘service’ are not those paying for it, and the same sort of personality keeps a conservation NGO together as keeps a multi-national corporation together. Stereotyping is a bit weak when the real social issue requiring attention is missed.

    Like in evolution and economics, things simply happen because they can, and the ironies of conservation and development and academia not really helping or changing anything in developing countries won’t change without critical self-examination from those involved in the game. Non-players shouting from the sidelines really never changes anything in any game, it just makes those doing the shouting feel like they are important.


  3. […] with the Blattman. Indeed this blog has covered NGO unconstructive responses to criticism before (here and here). I also like the study design which reminds me of those experiments where identical CVs […]


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