Breaking out of our silos
by Emily Myron -- August 7th, 2012
I recently attended a workshop entitled “A holistic approach to climate change adaptation in Africa: A dialogue for conservation and development organizations,” hosted by the Africa Biodiversity Collaborative Group (ABCG). The ABCG is a consortium of seven U.S.-based international conservation non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with field programs in Africa that creates a forum in which they may explore emerging and high priority African conservation issues, share lessons learned, and seek opportunities for collaboration. I attended this conference as a representative from the African Wildlife Foundation, the organization at which I am currently interning.
This workshop brought together about 60 people from a range of conservation and development organizations in order to start a dialogue on how they can collaborate on climate change adaptation projects in Africa. The stage was set with presentations from the conservation, donor, and development communities about the importance of collaboration and holistic adaptation – complete with case studies from a variety of locations. For example, a case study in Vietnam showed how restoring mangroves saved an area of coastline millions of dollars on dykes, as well as protected them from damage during a tsunami. Another discussed addressing deforestation upstream of Jakarta to help reduce urban flooding, while, at the same time, working on improving waste disposal and water quality within the urban environment. While these case studies illustrated how holistic projects can succeed, it became clear very quickly that there is a paucity of actual evidence regarding the value of a holistic approach. Data needs to be shared, if available, or collected, if not. Information such as cost-benefit analyses are particularly lacking, despite being important for convincing donors to support these projects. It is also important to compile information in order to understand when these types of projects do and do not work, as well as to ensure an evidence-based approach to project design.
Members from both the conservation and development communities lamented how “silo-ed” their organizations are – how they are treated as such different entities when there is such potential for collaboration. The also discussed the “mission-creep” that is occurring, which is when organizations take on projects outside of their mission (sometimes without the expertise to do so). It was great to see the momentum in the workshop as players discussed the value of collaboration, what barriers exist, how some of those barriers may be overcome, and what steps can be taken immediately to foster a more integrative approach to projects. While this workshop certainly started the dialogue (and was hugely interesting, for me, in terms of understanding how these collaborations are conceived and carried out), it left me with some important questions.
How will conversations in DC translate to on-the-ground action? Organizations have differing international presences, making collaboration on-the-ground with some easier than with others.
How do you define the scale and scope of a “holistic” project? The watershed? Municipality? Village? This clearly differs by project and organization, but I can see how deeming something “holistic” implies that it takes everything into account. What about public health, population, food security, economic development, capacity building, wildlife conservation – can all of these things really be incorporated, meaningfully into one project? How do you know which ones to choose?
And, most importantly, what happens when conservation and development are not compatible? This point was brought up, but no one could answer it, and it was quickly passed over; however, I think it is a really important one to ask. Sometimes the best way to achieve a development mission is to proceed without investing in conservation, and the same could be said for conservation projects that shut people out, rather than support alternative livelihoods. These are realities that should be talked about, not shied away from. I think that having a dialogue with other organizations will help to elucidate when a holistic approach works best, and ways in which the needs of people and wildlife can be reconciled. It is a scary question, but we cannot continue to ignore it.
Although this experience mostly just left me with questions, I think they are the right ones for people in my field to be asking. Hopefully, throughout my career, I will be able to come up with some answers.