Posts Tagged ‘BINGOs’

Scraps from big brother’s table

“How do you find working with [name of BINGO withheld]? How could the relationship be improved?”

These questions, and others in a similar vein, were asked of me and my colleagues last week by consultants hired by a major donor of a BINGO that supports us with some of said donor’s money. The donor wanted to see whether they were getting fair value for money from the relationship.

Mismatched: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny Devito in Twins

Equal partners, right?

As with so many other ‘partnerships’ in the aid world, the relationship between a BINGO and small local NGO is far from an equal one whatever anyone claims. Indeed, just like recovering drug addicts, so for BINGOs: the first step in dealing with the problem is to recognise that it exists and that simply mouthing endless platitudes will not make it go away.

There is also no avoiding the fact that societal pressures (aka donor preferences) mean that both sides, the BINGOs and the local NGOs, are addicted to such relationships, with little hope of being weaned off. Moreover, for both sides there is often very little choice in who they partner with: at least in tropical conservation BINGOs largely try to stay out of one another’s territories, whilst vice versa the choice of capable local partners for a BINGO to work with may often be quite small. So to a significant degree partners are stuck with one another.

A more reflexive, self-critical approach will certainly help; being honest about the nature of the relationship does not have to mean being arrogant about it. As with so many things in life, that understanding, personal touch can make all the difference to the relationship. But is there anything more that could be done?

Ultimately I think it comes down to a question of how and to whom the BINGO are accountable. This echoes one of the main themes in development aid in recent years to which a leading response has been a call for more transparency, and the emergence of things like the International Aid Transparency Initiative. I think the same trick could work again here.

One of the things we found frustrating about our relationship with the BINGO was being drip fed small amounts of money that covered only a few months and were then micro-managed, e.g. budget lines of only $1-2,000. (The BINGO did not have systems that could differentiate between capable, trusted local partners, and others about whom they were more cautious.) The micro-management was a pain, but in many ways it was the drip-feeding of funds that caused the bigger problem, because they were almost impossible to plan for.

Partly, I think, the BINGO did this to remain in control, but partly also I think because it kept us in Oliver Twist mode – always asking for more but rarely seeing the bigger picture – and thus allowed them to prioritize their own management costs and strategies. I would like to see BINGOs being much more open about their own funding streams; how they are divvied up, managed and reported. The middle-man role is an important one, and for our part, those of us in smaller NGOs need to recognise that performing this role does not come cheap.

So when a big chunk of the donor money goes on BINGO bureaucracy (no doubt disguised as technical assistance) we shouldn’t bleat too much. Proposing standards for what is an appropriate slice to take is likely to be counterproductive (in the same way that misdirected focus on overheads has proven). Instead the BINGO becomes accountable to some degree to their small NGO partners (who are already have to do lots of accounting to their bigger brethren), and both sides of the partnership can better evaluate whether or not they are getting value for money from the relationship. Longer lasting commitments of funds would also help the smaller NGOs to plan better.


“Not only does such a dodgy map give a false sense of confidence, it very explicitly prioritises certain knowledge types. In my field the typical example is expert engineers rather than communities with lived experiences.”

That was Shaz Jameson commenting on my piece a couple of weeks ago that worried about the perils inherent in mapping conservation problems rather than conservation solutions. (And before you say “But conservationists are always mapping their protected areas. Aren’t they solutions?” ask yourself whether they really are solutions, or just wannabe solutions?)

I think Shaz is bang on about the power and knowledge inequities that are inescapable in such a situation.

“A few, biophysical variables are singled out by engineering ‘experts’ and mapped with pretty colours. The map is spat out and then somewhat paraded as legitimate.
Harsh, I know. It’s easy to say that ‘oh it depends on what you want the map for’, but as you say, it very easily slips into false confidence.”

The criticism can seem quite harsh, and I equivocated for a while about blogging my thoughts, but Shaz’s comment has helped reinforce my convictions. I am not saying, and I suspect Shaz is not saying either, that we should just stop mapping the challenges we are faced. Mapping is such a crucial communication tool, that it would be absolutely nuts to do without it. But when it is so critical, and you have the capability to create a map while someone else does not, even if they have more at stake, it does imply all sorts of ethical obligations upon the would-be mappers.

Be careful where you point that map!

Once a map has been created, it can, indeed too often will be used for purposes other than for which it was intended. On many levels that is absolutely fine: it is the great thing about knowledge that what may be a trivial output for one person may be a critical piece of data for another whose purposes were never considered by the original knowledge creator. But, as anyone who has ever been misquoted knows, knowledge users can be casual in their use of their sources.

At least in any scientific endeavour most numeric results are these days reported with a standard error or confidence limits to indicate the degree of precision with which the result should be interpreted. But maps rarely come with such cautionary notes, and even where a diligent cartographer has noted the scale of data applicability, few people will understand the significance of such a statement, and probably even fewer pay it any attention.

Take, for example, that map of carbon and biodiversity values for Tanzania that I complained about previously. At first sight it looks pretty detailed, but closer inspection will reveal the biodiversity axis is in fact reported in huge hexagons that are several hundred km across, but these are somewhat obscured under the much more detailed biomass carbon data (with a scale of 5km per pixel). Worse, if you think for a bit about what the biodiversity index itself represents you will rapidly conclude that in itself it can only be an extremely approximate measure.

Again, as with the concerns over power relations, this does not necessarily mean you should not go about creating the map. But you should certainly try to follow best cartographic practice, and assume that people will not read the accompanying small print when they decide to utilise your work. Thus, as was done with that map of Tanzania, it is not unreasonable to overlay two sets of data of quite different scales, but you definitely should beware of users who might assume that the spatial accuracy on both layers is equally high. One possible solution: consider blurring boundaries so that there are no sharp boundaries for decision makers to latch on to with undeserved confidence.

(Note: it is clear from the text of the paper in which the Tanzania map was presented that the authors were well aware of various problems and limitations of data scale, although they do not explicitly discuss the different scaled data in their sample map, which is nonetheless presented as a sample tool for guiding REDD+ investments.)

I map therefore I conserve

Another criticism I have that merits further elucidation is over the motivation of the mappers themselves. Whether it is the implied “top down planning approach” (my earlier post) or the prioritisation of “certain knowledge types” (Shaz), I get worried about not just what is put in or left out, but why some maps are created at all (the prioritisation of certain activity types).

This criticism applies not so much to academic endeavours such as that which I have critiqued in this and my previous post. Instead it is directed at the conservation BINGOs and associated entities that, of late, have developed substantial units dedicated to mapping conservation problems and their own attempts to resolve them. Precisely because they are such great communication tools (and all successful BINGOs know the importance of good communications), I fear that the maps produced can give quite misleading impressions of competence and imply levels of understanding that do not exist on the ground.

This is because, quite simply, conservation is a human endeavour: responding to problems created by people with solutions that must, necessarily, be implemented by people. Biodiversity and other physical measures are primarily just indicators of how well we are doing. (Although not without other uses in guiding management decision making.)

What worries me is that faced with exceedingly difficult, sometimes almost intractable, and nearly always highly complex conservation problems, mapping becomes a displacement activity. The motivations may be honourable: what better way to start to grapple with such complexities than by mapping them? However, even with the necessary skilled staff, producing such maps is not easy: data availability and quality can pose significant challenges. Significant that is, but not insuperable to a well-resourced institution like a good BINGO. So effort is piled into the mapping initiative, and everybody feels good because they can see progress is being made: by the end of the project they’ll have some top-notch PowerPoint slides. If only the action on the ground were half as good …

Alas dagger-in-the-back politics and brutal economic forces cannot be tamed by a GIS program.

When “on the ground” is actually thin air

Redd countries - The REDD Desk 2011-06-18 14-12-47

The REDD desk lists such “on the ground” initiatives as national REDD strategies and funding proposals.

Conservation and development agencies love to boast about their achievements on the ground. Though policy changes may be equally if not more important, nothing quite connects with the public at large as specific stories of actual conservation and development successes. These, however, can prove to be somewhat harder to pin down than marketing departments would like to admit, and so some fairly tenuous claims get magnified into complete myths.

I recall one MSc student recently visiting a nearby ‘project’. A big international NGO was involved and she’d seen some snazzy publicity leaflets talking about all the good work going on. The NGO had even boasted about its achievements at the Copenhagen summit in 2009. This project was a prime example of their good works, and therefore a ‘big thing’. Other international partners also appeared to be involved. All in all it looked an exciting subject for an MSc thesis. When she arrived in country, though, our heroine found that the substance behind these claims proved frustratingly elusive. In her memorable quote:

“The closer I get to this project, the less there seems to be to it.”

Eventually she reached the field site where despite over a decade of dysfunctional attempts to engage the communities, there were zero concrete achievements, and communities had no more rights or powers than they had twenty years ago. The guilty BINGO was actually a relatively late arrival on this scene, so cannot be entirely blamed for all these failures, but their marketing puff certainly was a signal distortion.

I don’t believe the BINGO ever meant to act fraudulently. In fact much of the publicity was generated early on in their project, and spoke about what the project was going to do; 2-3 years later any outside observer would tend to assume that at least some of these goals had been achieved. Naturally no BINGO is going to loudly announce such delivery failures.

Although in this case I think the BINGO concerned did not manage their project well, we should be realistic: not all conservation and development projects are going to be a success. NGOs, big and small, and other development agencies, who know this should not be so quick to rush out the publicity. That way, when they claimed successes on the ground we could be rather more confident that they really existed outside the marketing department’s fervent imagination.

CI’s Defence

Conservation International have hit back at their accusers over the ‘scandal’ of their engagement with big business with CI’s CEO Peter Seligmann’s robust defence of their approach. I note that Seligmann raises many of the same points I did last week.

Seligmann also points fingers of his own, accusing the investigators of using all the usual journalistic dirty tricks of taking things out of context, thus highlighting the supposedly inappropriate elements of the conversati0n without the balance of the safeguards that Seligmann claims CI always seek. There is a simple solution to this; Don’t Panic TV should release the entire recordings and other correspondence that they had with CI, then others can decide for themselves.

On CI’s side, though, they could do with highlighting what specific improvements to business practice have they been instrumental in achieving through their money-spinning engagement with big business. What do they mean by their “expectation that our partners will pursue best environmental business practices”? Without a bit of substance to this CI might appear to be just spinning around the same old greenwash they’ve been accused of providing.

My guess is that the business improvement aspect might have been a bit weak, and that CI and other conservation BINGOs that engage with big business may need to tighten up their acts a little bit. If that happens then this storm in a teacup might have been no bad thing.

CI screws up

I couldn’t ignore the big scandal about Conservation International’s apparent willingness to greenwash the biggest arms company in the world. That this story should break just after my post In defence of BINGOs is unfortunate.


The scandal raises many issues, but let’s start with the notion of greenwashing. The allegation is that a seat on CI’s ‘Business and Sustainability Council’ somehow absolves a corporation of all their eco-guilt. Whilst to a certain extent CI’s corporate relations officer was clearly peddling that line in the video, I don’t think that anyone really believes that. Just sponsoring a few conservation projects around the world did not give BP a free pass on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. It wouldn’t surprise me if the greenwashing value of membership of that council is not far off from CI’s price of under $40k per year.

Should we take these guys’ money?

Next up is the question of whether conservation organisations should take big polluters’ money. I’ve been part of groups faced with this question several times. Each time our answer has been: “Yes. We can do something good and worthwhile with this money, and that outweighs any minor symbolic good we would achieve by rejecting it.” As above, we have tended to believe that the greenwashing value of our individual projects is fairly minor, although when put into a portfolio maybe that is less true. But then to overcome that problem we need to face down the tragedy of the commons; my guess is that there’ll always be conservation projects out there will to take the polluters’ grubby cash.

Certainly some organisations, especially campaigning outfits such as Greenpeace, need to steer clear of dirty money lest their campaigns be tainted and undermined. But for on the ground conservation work I am not so sure. What I can tell you is that corporate donors tend to be much more flexible than institutional donors with their myriad rules as to how we can and cannot spend money. So just as the greenwashery may be worth more to the polluter than they are paying, so can the financial support provided be worth more to a conservation project than the headline dollar figure.

Should we even be talking to them?

This kind of suggestion, which unfortunately comes up far too often from deep green types, I find most disappointing. I am very happy that the likes of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are out there screaming from the rooftops about all the eco-crimes being committed around the world, many of them by these big, bad corporations. They are there to keep everyone on their toes, although sometimes they have been known to get it wrong, as with Greenpeace’s complaints about Shell’s plans for disposal of a North Sea oil rig ~15 years ago.

But equally we need to engage with these big companies on less emotionally charged levels and to understand their issues and their concerns. Most people working for these companies are not inherently evil, they are just working from a different starting point than we are. (If environmental degradation externalities are ever priced properly into accounting standards maybe this will change.) Some people work to change from within (the Gorbachev approach), others from without. I think it is right that conservation BINGOs talk to big business. When Greenpeace or someone else gives a company a PR beating (which they probably deserve), then they need to be able to turn to someone to advise them on how to fix it (and not just the PR but their underlying failings too). Importantly, big business needs to believe they can trust this organisation.

In addition, we need to remember that, as with the Asian sweatshops supplying multinational sports good companies, that often the risk aversion of big business, especially with respect to corporate reputation, tends to ensure that they are often far from the worst environmental offenders. Chinese mining and oil companies tend to cause more environmental damage than their western counterparts. We want everybody to improve, but if you beat up on the not-so-bad guys too much, they’ll just pull out leaving the field to the even-worse guys.

The fallout

I have previously discussed NGO accountability on this blog. It seems there is now a new kid on the block to keep us accountable. Overall I think this is probably a good thing. Suggesting, as one commenter did on the Ecologist article, that this is undermining the environmental movement, and that we should instead seek solidarity misses the point: such thinking leads to arrogance and poor responsiveness by BINGOs.

But, nonetheless, apart from the damage done to CI, and, by extension, other conservation NGOs, I am sad about the implications of this exposé. CI were naïve in how they responded to the journalists’ approach. Next time they will be less so, but more caution comes at a price. Lawyers and managerial checks get inserted into the system, gumming it up; conservation BINGOs will be less open in future.

Conservation International clearly need to clean up their act a bit, and I guess the ‘Business and Sustainability Council’ has now lost all credibility. Other conservation NGOs will learn important lessons. But I really hope that after this storm has blown over conservation NGOs continue to engage pro-actively with big business, balancing positive and negative, and that, as a result, big business continues to improve its environmental performance.

UPDATE 25/05/11: See my discussion of CI’s response here.

Exit stage left

Apparently Amref are struggling to see through their exit strategy in northern Uganda; ‘volunteer’ health teams are refusing to work without the per diems to which they have become accustomed. Amref have countered with the usual response that the VHTs don’t work for them, but for the government. It would be nice if the Ugandan government could find the funds to continue supporting the VHTs, but we all know that is wishful thinking. Surely Amref cannot pretend they didn’t see this one coming?

Why is this happening? Well I don’t know any more than what the Guardian Katine blog is reporting, but we can make some educated guesses. Firstly Amref sourced a fixed length grant from a donor. The donor – anxious that they weren’t about to embark on an open-ended commitment – would have required Amref to describe their exit strategy, and Amref would have duly obliged with the usual bla bla. Both Amref and the donor are to blame; the donor for enforcing such requirements, Amref for meekly assenting, and the donor again for believing the b******t that Amref wrote.

If Amref were smart and truly dedicated to the project, they would have prepared well in advance for the impending cut in funding, and sourced alternative support from elsewhere. This is easier said than done, but large NGOs like Amref have the resources and plenty of options.

Maybe, in future, and after a gap of some a year or two, if the Katine project is judged a success, Amref will be back with a follow-up. Except that in the meantime they will have lost a lot of credibility as long term supporters of health care provision in northern Uganda. Now the problem of per diems will be twice as bad; the VHTs will know they can only get these payments for a few years, and so now is the time to capitalise. By showing their lack of serious commitment, Amref will have provided the worst kind of example to their ‘volunteers’.

All donors need exit strategies – that is both clear and understandable – but they need to be a lot more flexible and distant than is presently the case (try 10-20 years rather than 3-5 years). Meanwhile BINGOs should stop launching projects just because they can get the funds, and concentrate on providing lasting, sustainable benefits. Communities never just exit stage left; neither should those seeking to support them.

Calendar Blag

This in an email just in from one of our BINGO partners:

“[BINGO Country Office] is making our annual fundraising calendar and this year’s theme is [our sub-sector]. On one of the months we would like to feature a photo from our joint project…”

My reply:

“Photos can be downloaded from … What proportion of the proceeds from calendar sales can [our NGO] expect to receive?”

Their response:

“As you may be aware [BINGO Country Office]  has been going through economic difficulties. In fact we were insolvent for a  couple of months. It is vital that we balance our accounts. So I am afraid there is nothing in it for [our NGO and other local partners].”

What I want to know is; since when was your insolvency our problem? (The BINGO concerned is not a critical donor for us, indeed the hassles on the small grants they’ve given us make them barely worth the effort.) Once again a BINGO publicity machine will suck up all the credit for a project on which they can only claim peripheral responsibility.

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