Egos in conservation threaten effectiveness

I've been involved in conservation now for 5 years, and in that short time, I've had a reasonable amount of experience dealing with various levels and sizes of conservation NGOs, along with environmental departments of governments.

One thing that has struck me as an important factor limiting the productivity of our actions is the severe unwillingness to cooperate with each other.  We all harp on about collaborating with the locals to ensure our conservation actions are met with a certain amount of acceptance on the ground, but what we certainly are not good at yet is working together with fellow NGOs.

Now wait a minute: I know, I know, there are exceptions to this rule, but from my understanding of this situation, collaborations are often awkward, passive-aggressive affairs undertaken more so for increased chance of donor funding or selfish gain rather than anything else.

During my year-long internship at BirdLife Malta, I was exposed to the power of collaboration and cooperation, when done effectively: this organisation is part of a global multi-stakeholder group, BirdLife International, which has, contrary to the aforementioned paragraph, actually achieved an awful lot of clout and conservation success.  Why?  Because of strategic planning, group thinking and safety in numbers.  Just as one example, the EU has its very own Bird's Directive policy, whereas all other animals and plants are just lumped under the Habitat's Directive.  This is partly because, unlike plants and many animals, birds migrate between countries and therefore require a required amount of cooperation, but fish species do too, and you don't see a Fish Directive in the EU law!

A place in which I have found a noticeable heated tension between NGOs is in the big cat world.  I often wonder why this is; could it be because these species are seen as extremely charismatic and everyone wants to be THE tiger/lion/leopard/cheetah expert?  Don't get me wrong; collaboration does take place, but at a very limited level.  Here in Namibia, there is a multi-stakeholder organisation called Large Carnivore Management Association of Namibia, where all players involved in large carnivores come together a few times a year to discuss their progress and, in theory, collaborate on projects.  This organisation has been running for years now and as of yet, no clear results have been established.  Often the meetings turn into stalemates, conflict of opinions and egos from various organisations getting in the way of real progress.

As a passionate conservationist myself, this irks me.  I do not care to be in the limelight, I don't want my name plastered over reports, I would prefer it if I was behind the camera rather than in front of it.  All I want is to help create a positive difference on this planet to both biodiversity and people.

Now, I'm a pacifist and I look at the military with a certain degree of apprehension and fear.  But what I do admire about the military is their awesome ability to coordinate hundreds of thousands of people collectively to achieve a set goal.  The military is effective because, like a colony of ants, it designates certain groups of people to different tasks; there is a clear chain of command; every single individual is there to help the collective mass rather than for personal glory.  Can we learn some lessons from looking to the military and from ant colonies on how to achieve what seems from the outset as unobtainable goals?  Singularly we cannot move mountains, but together, we can build one.  Or at least a termite mound ;-)

To finish, I want to leave with a quote a farmer told me yesterday.  He was talking about how to motivate people into being more productive.  He said:

"Make a man feel important"

If we can mobilise the masses so that they individually feel important and essential, maybe we can make better headway with our dizzyingly difficult goals of creating success in conservation.


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