Posts Tagged ‘protected areas’

Public v private, principles v practice

Over at Duncan Green’s Poverty to Power blog there’s a bit of a ding-dong (parts 1, 2 and 3) between Justin Sandefur and Kevin Watkins over whether donor money for education in developing countries should be invested in state or private schools. Both have data and research findings to support their positions, and both make the point that a bit of both should have a place in any sensible education donor’s portfolio. So far so good, so why the all the fuss and strident opinions? One doesn’t have to be a psychoanalyst to suspect that attitudes to private education in our own countries – a fraught subject if ever there was one – are spilling over into the international development sphere.

If that is the case then I should at least declare my own loyalties; I was lucky enough to go to a private school, and very possibly would not be working in conservation and development today if I had not had that chance. But except for the economists and the religiously inspired, development is a decidedly left-of-centre vocation, and so the balance of commenters and voters in Duncan’s poll appear to be against donor funding for private schools.

My only experience of education systems is as a consumer and employer of other consumers, but you do not need any special insights to agree with the primary assertion made by both that there is a big problem of education quality in many developing countries, and a significant issue of access in at least some countries, e.g Pakistan. The essential quandary is how to practically improve the quality of education without compromising on principles of access and fairness. Private schools by definition cost people money and so are likely to be less accessible to poorer people.

But there are lots of essential public goods for which we are accustomed to paying for. Many, e.g. power, water and telecoms, are tightly regulated as a result, and rightly so. They do not, however, come for free. Yet access to information on market prices via a mobile telephone might potentially be more useful and important to a poor farmer’s children than a questionable education would be. Food is an even more fundamental requirement for life than education, and yet just about everybody has to pay for what they eat.

So just because education is a vitally important public good, I do not buy the argument that it needs to be provided directly by the state. As with, say, generating electricity, you may find that private operators are able to do so both better and more efficiently. On the other hand, given the situation in most countries that the state is the dominant provider of education, and that this generally embodies principles of universal access (at least in theory), I am quite open to the argument that funds for education might best be spent improving that system …

if such funding can actually lead to significant and cost-effective improvements. Lots of newly-built but empty classrooms (paid for by donors) coupled with miserable educational achievement in rural areas around here even when there are teachers present suggests there can be a flaw in this assumption. So if better results can be achieved by supporting low cost private schools then I am all for them. The same ‘if’, of course, applies, and outside of American tea partiers I imagine there are few people who would support private schooling as a matter of principle; the evidence base if their favour needs to be there. (In the absence of sufficient evidence either way funding some pilot projects would be reasonable.)

Ultimately, in my view, it is better to educate some people well, rather than everyone badly. For all the problems with elites and elitism in developing countries, without an elite you do not have anyone to run your country. (Something, it seems, South Sudan is struggling with.) The principle of universal access only becomes a concern when the thing being accessed is actually worth something, or at least when we are able to fix the problems so that it is worth something. As stated many times before donor funds are sometimes quite good at delivering concrete outputs (more classrooms) but much less frequently successful at delivering less tangible outcomes (better educational achievement).

Is opposition within the development sector to private schooling based upon prejudices founded in developed country politics or actual realities in developing countries? I have no expertise to say one way or the other, but I do find similar biases in tropical conservation, in which many so-called experts insist on the gold standard of protected areas despite plentiful evidence that they often do not work very well on the ground. (This is not the same as saying they do not work at all.) As with education, rich country principles seem to occupy the moral high ground over practical solutions that might actually suit poor countries better. That is a shame for both the people affected and the wildlife that might otherwise be conserved.

Whose park is greener?

A quick update on my recent post on the irrelevance of the IUCN classifications of protected areas. Two recent pieces of news courtesy of CIFOR that I should have included in my discussion (I wasn’t quite up to date with my blog reading):

I couldn’t have asked for better or more timely evidence in support of my central argument! What matters is what happens on the ground, and that involves working with local actors. The bureaucrat’s pen at conservation HQ can only accomplish so much, and oft times it can actually get in the way of real achievements.

My park is greener than your park (on paper)

A new paper in Oryx by Charlie  Gardner analyses the application of IUCN’s protected area categories to Madagascar’s parks and reserves system. Apparently they’re not a very good fit, but I find myself struggling to care.

In 2008 Boitani et al called for a protected area classification system based on conservation outcomes, which in an ideal world I guess everyone would go for, but the World Commission on Protected Areas understandably think that this is not very workable. Also there is something to be said for assessing effort (in opportunities for economic development foregone in establishing more strictly protected reserves), especially since desired conservation outcomes can take a long time to materialise. The counter-argument, of course, is that if you’re not intending to monitor your conservation outcomes what the hell do you think you’re doing setting up the park in the first place (?!?), although this somewhat ignores the reality in many developing countries in which monitoring is dependent upon unreliable donor funds.

With so many protected areas now established around the world it certainly makes sense to classify them in some way, and if that were the end of the matter then we could all be happy, but it’s not. I was once privy to (but not an active participant in) a conversation based around the ‘need’ to increase the area that country A has in reserves that fall within category X of  the IUCN system. I confess to being somewhat baffled. I sincerely hope the proponents of this idea were really concerned about eventual conservation outcome, but if so they did not say so; the IUCN category seemed to matter in itself.

One plausible explanation for this is that donor money might be distributed partly based on a reserve’s IUCN classification. I do not know for certain whether this is the case, but if so it is lazy thinking, and worrying. Indubitably I have come across many examples of literature bemoaning that country B has a low % of land within protected areas, and I would expect that countries that conserve more get more donor money to support that, so it is not too far a stretch to suppose that detailed decisions are taken based on IUCN protection category.

However, I think this is a misuse of the system. In this I am reminded of the debate over the Millennium Development Goals: the creators of the MDGs only ever intended that they serve as global targets, not as indicators of progress against which individual countries can be measured. We must always be careful in how we use a system designed to measure one aspect of a complex, messy reality (and although the MDGs are plural, sectorally they are singular), especially if we then seek to use that to drive funding decisions as such measures tend to be more substitutes to more thorough analysis.

Of course the biggest criticism of the IUCN system is that it rewards ‘paper parks’ over really functioning conservation: in effect it measures only regulation. In rich countries government bureaucracies generally work well enough such that appropriate resources are assigned to support such designations, and the bureaucrats may even resist unfunded additional designations. However, in developing countries resources are that much more limited and variable standards of governance means that decision making is not necessarily nearly so rational.

The result is a dysfunctional attempt to rule by unenforceable fiat. Local communities are unlikely to be compensated properly for their lost opportunities, thus alienating them, and hence they will seek to undermine the new park. The exclusion of Maasai pastoralists from Mkomazi Game Reserve (now a National Park) in Tanzania is a classic example of how things can go wrong; the conservation outcome was actually worse than under the previous, messier system.

In surveying the sorry state of these things I have come to the conclusion that the establishment or upgrading of a protected area can actually be an anti-conservation measure. All the rules and regulations that come with such designations constrain managers from reaching workable compromises with local communities under which everyone can benefit. Better instead to work with flexibility outside protected areas than with the dubious benefit of government regulation to support you.

Conservationists often talk about the need to protect ~10% of each different habitat, but this should be a rule of thumb. There are lots of ways to protect a landscape: a national park is often not the best solution.

Update: two recent pieces of evidence in support of my argument (15/09/11).

Adaptive Management in Developing Countries

David Week suggested KISI is essentially about Adaptive Management. To which I would agree; Adaptive Management is a rather more grown-up term, and doesn’t necessarily exclude simple solutions, but then again I think neither should KISI, so long as you start with simple ones and evolve from there.

David also wanted to know what I thought about Adaptive Management in the conservation / ecosystem management sphere where it originated. I cannot pretend I have come across any practical examples of it out where I work, but then I’m not much into protected area management, and it may be that it is being used there. One important difference: although the unknowns are comparable – how will the community react v. how will the ecosystem react – Adaptive Management tends to be viewed as a technical, managerial system, whilst anything that impacts people necessarily becomes political. Would-be technocrats may lament such interference, but development inevitably takes place in a more contested space than Adaptive Management theorises.

Adaptive Management clearly requires strong management skills, analytical thinking, a capacity for self-criticism, and the imagination to conceive new solutions. Unfortunately these are some of the skills in which I see the greatest shortages here. People who have them are unlikely to be in mid-level management with a government institution: businesses and NGOs will always attract the best people. This does not bode particularly well for a KISI approach in development, but donors can at least set a good example; adaptive management is about a whole lot more than just tweaking the terms and conditions on your next grant.

Conservation: short term pain for long term gain?

Protected areas can be good for local  people in developing countries; this is the slightly surprising conclusion of a paper lead-authored from the International Food Policy Research Institute (hardly a bastion of man-the barricades hard line conservation thinking). Since the standard position of most local people in developing countries and the social scientists who document their views is the opposite, this is significant good news for conservationists.

Some important caveats need to be made. Firstly the paper’s case studies were located in Costa Rica and Thailand. This choice was made for reasons of data availability, but one cannot escape noticing that (until recently at least) these were two fairly well governed countries that had invested significantly in ecotourism. Secondly, the authors can only speculate as to what have been the drivers of the additional economic growth associated with protected areas. Maybe donors have invested a lot in supporting these protected areas, some of which has manifested itself as community development projects in an attempt to buy local support. Thus while those donors might have reason to feel pleased for themselves that their strategy has borne fruit of a sort, if we took that support away maybe the protected area would not have achieved the document positive effects. Thirdly, the paper looks only at economic impacts; it doesn’t consider whether or not local people like the protected area, which is also often a key issue. (And donors who pumped money in to support it may still not have achieved what they actually set out to achieve.)

This third caveat brings me to a wider point. No catch zones around spawning areas in fisheries have been shown to increase catches outside the protected zone, but conservationists often still face an uphill struggle convincing fishermen that such measures are in their best interests. In other words we don’t often know what’s best for ourselves, and in an uncertain world prefer clear short term gains to uncertain long term benefits. The bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Thus we have protected areas enacting the tragedy of the commons in reverse. The study focused on the long term impacts of the protected areas and the authors imply that they believe the shorter term effect may have been negative. Numerous studies have shown how biodiversity itself has diffuse positive impacts on environmental; I would imagine that these are mostly subtle and take time to have an effect. Thus even in something as easily quantifiable as fishery yields it may take a few years for the populations to recover sufficiently to notice a positive return on catches. When we are concerned about economic gains across communities living in and around a protected area this indirect linkage will likely be even subtler and diffused across a range of different livelihood strategies.

It is not just political correctness to say that local communities absolutely should have a say in the creation and management of protected areas in their homelands. Furthermore new protected areas should not be created without more than adequate compensation being paid to those people affected. But just as fitness campaigners are right to point out that it we stop drinking alcohol and smoking, and exercise more then we will live healthier lives, so it is fair enough for conservationists to campaign for sensible environmental stewardship. Obese Westerners do not always want to exercise, local communities may resent loss of their hunting or grazing rights; society as a whole can take a wider and longer view.

Hat Tip: Not Exactly Rocket Science

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