Posts Tagged ‘poverty alleviation’

Whatever happened to ICDPs?

Back when I started this blog, two of my earliest posts (parts 1 and 2) concerned my criticisms of Integrated Conservation & Development Projects (ICDPs). The name got rather a bad reputation so one doesn’t hear too much about them these days, with thankfully the focus now much more on approaches such as REDD, community wildlife management and community beach management units in fisheries, that explicitly link community benefits directly with the natural resources being conserved. However, they have not gone away entirely, and any time in a community-based conservation project you hear the term (Alternative) Income Generating Activity, you should be on alert to a displacement activity covering up deep flaws in project design. That is not to say IGAs are always inappropriate, but they do need to be properly justified.

Whatever the terminology, this approach to conservation appears to be alive and kicking in the Lower Mekong Basin, and has recently been critiqued in a new book Evidence-based Conservation: Lessons from the Lower Mekong, which in turn was summarised on CIFOR’s excellent blog. Some of their conclusions echo my own previous criticisms (my comments in brackets):

  • Define clear and plausible goals and objectives from the outset. “Too many project documents … do not really articulate the overall long term goals that they seek to achieve.” (A problem that can arise when project planning starts with the premise ‘something must be done’, rather than here is ‘something that can work and should be done’.)
  • Market-based mechanisms may help marry conservation and development. For long-term conservation projects, funding is crucial. (Yes, so don’t design everything around donor funding.)

Others are more generally applicable:

  • Monitoring systems are a source for learning and change, so use them. (No kidding!)
  • Fully understand the policy context. (Ditto.)

But there are two conclusions with which I find it harder to agree:

  • Provide alternative income generating activities. “Solutions must … always be context specific … understanding and negotiating trade-offs between conservation and development is fundamental in ensuring optimal outcomes for both.” (I totally agree with the quote, but fail to see how that leads to the headline conclusion.)
  • Invest more in education, awareness and capacity building. “Scaling up such capacity-building to the national level remains one of the biggest challenges for conservation worldwide.” (I’m not against such investment in theory, but too many conservation projects invest too much in such things, and not enough in their core design. And sometimes small projects may be best off staying small, see previous posts of mine here and here.)

The bottom line: “Many ICDPs have excessively ambitious goals and they inevitably make mistakes, so it is really important to make sure that we learn from those mistakes,” says Terry Sunderland,  one of the book’s editors. Word! (And not just for ICDPs.) Maybe the best lesson we can learn from this exercise would be to consign the whole ICDP concept to the dustbin?

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Life in the Sun

Matt Collin’s recent post on the contradictions of the life of a development worker prompted me to put down my own thoughts on rationalising what I do, and how I fit my own life (poorly paid by western standards, but v well off compared to the people we are helping) with the severe poverty that constantly surrounds me. These contradictions arise precisely because we are here to help others. Someone running a business out here may occasionally feel guilty about their relative wealth (though they can also balance that against the clear need for the kind of investment they’re making), but when push comes to shove they can remember that they are here to make a profit, and a profit commensurate with the level of risk they are taking (which is often significantly greater than in the developed world).

In contrast, a development worker is here to help. To what extent should we devote our whole lives to helping? Most development workers are good people, but none I know count themselves as saints. We all need our down time when we will often enjoy pleasures denied (by reasons of wealth) to most of the population we are here to help. Cultural factors also come into play and often this relaxation takes place in different places and different styles to those which many local people do not care for. (Except for those educated overseas.) At night or at the weekend, it is rare to find me and my co-workers in the same bar, even when in a small town. Thus do the divisions between the expats and middle class locals become clear. Are we holding ourselves above those we have come to help? I don’t think so, but it can sometimes appear this way.

Whenever we pay for any kind of product or service here we have to bargain for a good price. If I paid the same price as one would in UK every time I would be swiftly bankrupted, but, for the most part, I can easily afford to pay more. We disdain the tourists and the ignoranti in their embassies who pay way over the odds most of the time (indeed it is often an opening gambit in the bargaining to demand that I am not paying the ‘tourist’ price), and feel a kind of duty to other Whities* to drive a good bargain whenever possible so as not to queer the pitch for the next person. (Equally I despair when I find prices fixed ridiculously high just because some people have conceded too much before me.) Though I confess sometimes I am too tired and pay 10-20% more than I know I should for a taxi: sorry, guys!

But, of course, paying over the odds distorts the economy. For the odd taxi ride this is not a big problem, but anyone who’s had to rent home / office space in a development boom town, knows the extremes this can reach. (I’m thinking Maputo after the end of the civil war; I assume a similar problem pertains in Kabul right now.) Indeed this is exactly one of the criticisms levelled at development aid by people such as Dambisa Moyo. Every other taxi I take the driver asks me if our project needs a driver. Why? Because the UN and many BINGOs pay about twice the going rate in the private sector. Many of these drivers are very good, but so are plenty of taxi drivers, and I’ve also come across my fair share of poor, overly-aggresive drivers working for big institutions, so I’m not entirely convinced value for money is being had. In countries with small economies and large aid contributions – Malawi is the classic example – a significant portion of the economy is basically just geared to servicing the aid industry.

So, whenever I buy some fruit and veg down the local market, call the plumber to fix the tap which has broken for the nth time, hire a maid, negotiate with someone to collect our rubbish, or jump in a taxi, I feel almost duty-bound to negotiate a price that is not just fair to me, but in line with the local going rate. And, any way, nobody likes to look a fool by paying more than necessary. This approach extends to our fieldwork. In common with many other development projects we pay small per diems to the supposed beneficiaries to participate in relevant meetings (the ethics of which I will explore in another blog post), and we are as keen to obtain ‘value for money’ (whatever THAT is in this context) on this as any other cost element of the project.

Taken a step further, I believe that one of the reasons I can justify my meager salary is that, having spent a fair bit of time here, I know what’s what and how to get things done, including knowing what is a fair price. Thus I am partially paid in order to drive a harder bargain with the very people I am supposed to be trying to help! No wonder many development workers find the need to make more direct, more personal interventions, even if we know these may be just as doomed (in terms of sustainability and creating false incentives) as so many of the other projects which we are so ready to criticise.

All of which means you had better really believe in the project(s) on which you are working! A subject for my next post

* Here (and several other African countries I have visited) is by far the most racist place I have ever been. Not in an abusive way, indeed it is often inverted; quite simply the colour of your skin is a primary factor in determining many other peoples’ initial reactions to you. Sometimes this works against you, e.g. higher starting price when bargaining, other times in your favour, e.g. no questions asked when entering some classy joint, to which you may or may not have a ticket. This is slowly changing but if you want to see racism alive and well come to sub-Saharan Africa!

What’s wrong with ICDPs? (Part Two)

Integrated Conservation and Development Projects (ICDPs) were discredited a long time before I took aim at them, and so you won’t find too many proponents of them today. However, they haven’t entirely gone away, they’re just not called ICDPs any more. In order to understand why one needs an insight into project design as practised by donors and BINGOs (Big International NGOs), and quite a few smaller NGOs too. They will identify a conservation problem, either that has been specifically highlighted by others, or which has come to their attention through strategic mapping of biodiversity values and threats to highlight priority areas for intervention. They will then note that the location of this conservation problem has lots of poor people living there. These days the big operators probably have a policy which says they have to consider local livelihoods etc, and, as I noted in my previous post, local people and poverty may well be root causes of the conservation problem.

So the donor/NGO decides ‘something must be done’ about poverty in the area. Indeed this stems almost directly from their decision that ‘something must be done’ about the conservation problem. Richer protagonists will, at this point, commission one or reports from ‘expert’ consultants to assess local livelihoods and what are the options for intervention. Such consultants know very well who is paying their bill, so will almost always propose at least one way to try to tackle the problem. (Entirely negative report = no future business.) And thus it is determined what ‘something’ must be done.

Unfortunately, in this problem driven process, the priority is on doing something, rather than identifying a solution that is actually feasible. This is a difficult paradox to resolve since prioritising conservation funds on the severest and most urgent problems most definitely make sense in a world of limited resources. Sometimes the problem may be so big and/or urgent that it is reasonable to argue that ‘something’ is at least worth trying.

However, the reality is that I see far too many conservation projects that are ‘working with local people’ but achieving precious little development or conservation, and where the link between the two strands of the project are not clear. Talented and imaginative project staff may, to some extent, be able to overcome this problem, but even then there can be serious concerns about overall sustainability. Elsewhere such projects simply descend into box-ticking exercises devoid of a coherent strategy. ICDPs are unfortunately far from dead.

What’s wrong with ICDPs? (Part One)

In my introduction to this blog I criticise Integrated Conservation & Development Projects (ICDPs) without going into much detail, but recently I have been queried on the subject, so here’s the fuller explanation. ICDPs first started appearing about 20 years ago and were a response to the criticism that traditional conservation projects did not take into account the needs and livelihoods of  local people, despite those same people often being central to the problems that the conservation projects sought to address. Poverty was often identified as a root cause of habitat destruction or unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, so conservation practitioners were challenged to try to alleviate this poverty. Unfortunately, as the mainstream development sector knows all too well, poverty alleviation is a deuced tricky thing to pull off, and a bunch of conservation biologists whose primary concern was the critically endangered <insert flagship species> were not likely to succeed where others had failed.

That, of course, is not a reason to abandon hope. If poverty really is the root cause of a conservation problem, and there is enough money behind solving the conservation problem, then it ought to be possible to make at least some serious inroads into local poverty concerns. The bigger error was in designing projects in which the only real integration between the conservation and development work was in the project title. (And presumably some overlap in intervention sites and resource commitments.) So, to take an example, the project might urge the community to protect a local forest, and offer a ‘bribe’ to gain the community’s support in the form of support for alternative income generating activities (which didn’t need forest land or resources) and/or new village infrastructure such as a new school. Now I don’t know about you, but if I was a poor farmer who was given an extra means of earning income, and/or a better school for my kids, I might be grateful, but if that small patch of forest was still the cheapest, easiest and closest source of firewood, then I would still go there to collect my wood fuel. In order to keep the project staff happy I might make some marginal attempt to utilise other sources and/or refrain from blatantly marching out of the forest with a pile of firewood when project staff were around, but unless you directly incentivise me to get my firewood elsewhere I am unlikely to change my practices*. And if you incentivise me negatively I am unlikely to have such a rosy view of your project any more, whilst both positive and negative incentives may well not be sustained beyond the end of the project, assuming they are dependent on external funding.

The fundamental error was committed at project design stage when the conservation and development elements were decoupled. For poverty alleviation to make a meaningful contribution to conservation, it has to be directly in the interests of local people to follow the conservation path. Hence why I have much more faith in the various flavours of Payment for Ecosystem Services strategies (watershed, REDD and biodiversity protection can all be directly rewarded), and community management of hunting concessions (e.g. the much discussed CAMPFIRE project in Zimbabwe). Also in forestry, FSC certification and bee-keeping can be combined with participatory forest management to deliver real benefits to forest conservation, whilst in fisheries, no-catch zones have been shown to increase catches overall by giving target species safe areas in which to reproduce. (Though convincing fishermen of this fact can be rather more difficult.) All of these approaches also contain within them some of the necessary ingredients to address the sustainability problem. But ICDPs as originally developed belong in the dustbin.

* This is the same kind of problem which face anti-corruption drives. Low pay may be a major cause of corruption in the first place, but simply raising peoples’ pay now is unlikely to put them off a lucrative additional earner.

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