Ghostbusters: just more likeable than the Federal Bureau of Exorcism.
Musing further on my post yesterday on the beauty of small projects and human resources constraints, it occurred to me that I left out an important additional consideration. It’s a major advantage of NGOs over government agencies: not only are their staff likely to be better trained and more flexible, they’re not also tasked with enforcing the law.
This issue occurs especially in community conservation projects.* Twenty years ago, if you were a wildlife, forestry or marine biology geezer working in a developing country then chances are you worked for the government. So when the community conservation revolution broke out many advocates naturally assumed that they’d have to retrain the government officials.
This is certainly not impossible; I’ve worked with some excellent current and ex-government natural resources officials who are capable of establishing great relationships with local communities. But I think they are more the exception than the rule. Picture yourself as a poor farmer: yesterday a game ranger turns up to arrest your neighbour for a naughty spot of poaching in the nearby national park, then today he turns up all smiles to preach to all of you that the national park is your friend, and that everyone can – and should – work together peacefully, and for the betterment of all. How are you going to feel?
Trust is absolutely central to successful community engagement in conservation. Despite our various more concrete achievements in the projects I help to run, establishing trust is one of our successes of which I am most proud, and frequently find myself returning to it when people ask us what they think is the secret to our success. Without trust, you’ll find community members just turn up to meetings for the per diems, with trust you’re often preaching to the choir (though they still appreciate those per diems, thank you very much).
I can readily appreciate how different the tropical conservation landscape looked 20 years ago, and that there might have been little alternative to working with government agencies and staff on community conservation. But with plenty of alternatives now available (in most tropical countries) I think a reappraisal is called for: if we were to design a system from scratch we would never dream of combining the role of policeman and community facilitator.
Donors should take note, and place themselves in the position of rural communities wanting to engage in conservation. Who you gonna call?
* Although I think the wider principles are more generally applicable to other community development projects: poor farmers may not have much respect for government-employed agricultural extension workers.