Drawing from her environmental experience in three sectors, Ginny SL Ng is concerned that environmental NGOs are not future-proofing themselves.
SO, THE year 2020 has been a blast, hasn’t it? There has been much said and written about the impact of the epidemic and the new normal, and the many communities and sectors that have suffered due to an economy built heavily on travel and consumption.
Unfortunately, one of the sectors that may continue to face such challenges after the pandemic is the non-profit or civil society sector.
(Photo: Being territorial is fine for tigers; less so for NGOs. Pic by Ginny SL Ng)
In this region, this sector is still heavily dependent on external funding and/or grants.
Even as the world economy shrinks and governments refocus on rebuilding in their own countries, such funding and grants may become more difficult to access.
Meanwhile, despite years of intervention by civil society, our natural resources continue to face loss, degradation and extinction.
World is burning
In fact, there is a constant call for funds with a permanent stamp on it in big red letters that says:
“URGENT! The world is burning! We need to put out the fires now!”
I remember when I also sent out similar calls to everyone I met, and my work consisted mostly of trying to put out one fire after another – not literal fires, but crisis after environmental crisis.
Looking back, I wonder if my work would have benefited more if I had actually taken some time to review it.
Obviously, if I still had to raise the same issues after that many years, then perhaps a different approach was in order.
So I have finally decided to submit this opinion piece as a call or a challenge for things to change.
I am writing from a perspective of someone who has been active in environmental fields since 2000.
I have worked in an NGO, an international intergovernmental development agency and finally a commodity-based company.
When I started, I distinctively remember being in the minority. But in the last 10 years, “sustainability” has become a norm, and in a lot of companies, it is expected and not merely a public relations exercise.
NGOs, however, seem to be stuck when it comes to strategy.
This is ironic, given that many NGOs have undergone training in intricate project management methods design and reviews are always required after a period of implementation.
Critical to review
Reviewing is necessary prior to deciding whether the approach will continue, change or stop.
Yet, many NGOs do not practise it. I wonder if it is the case of, “if it’s not broken, why change it” or being too busy or just plain complacency?
I think now would be a good time to do reviews. While some of the challenges are the same, there will be some bigger challenges going forward.
As we know, our global climate is already facing an increase of 2°C in temperature. This has caused changes in local weather patterns. These changes will cause greater stress on resources.
For one, due to the warming of our highlands, it has been observed that some highland bird populations are moving higher than where they usually occur.
For another, changing weather patterns may cause increases in conflict between human and wildlife populations as we all compete for food and water in the same space.
In that case, the advocacy of protected areas may not be that effective anymore if the area is unable to support these species.
And so, the question is, are NGOs ready to intervene with their facts and analysis to help change things for the future?
It might also be a good idea to regroup and develop a network towards a common goal.
In the past, there was an initiative to do so under the banner of Malaysian Environmental NGOs (MENGO) but it failed to last because there were many disagreements among the organisations.
While territoriality is good for tigers, it is not a good approach for environmental NGOs.
Instead, a collaborative approach may result in a greater reach of interventions, enabling sharing of ideas, building on each other’s strengths and ensuring greater coherence of thought when dealing with other stakeholders.
I believe that a lot of the current local NGO approach of working at a localised level or on localised issues may have been a reaction to an implosion of people who used to work on big programmes and projects that did not result in much impact.
These NGOs are hoping to achieve bigger impacts in a smaller area.
However, a lot of these approaches have resulted in isolation of the work and potentially losing opportunities for collaboration or influencing change at a higher policy level.
Given the economic slowdown, our government is launching various economic stimuli and policies to achieve the desired development levels.
This could potentially result in more pressure to exploit our country’s natural resources.
Have any groups realised this, and are ready with critical policy and economic interventions to mitigate such impacts?
I submit that currently, none of the local NGOs would be ready.
Where are the locals?
This also brings me to my other point, a gap that I believe has resulted in the failure of many of the approaches.
It is the approach that the protection of a landscape or an area can only be achieved by excluding the local people in the area.
This is an approach which unfortunately was a result of ideas imported from countries outside this region, which do not share similar cultural conditions or level of development.
Admittedly, I too had thought the same in the first 10 years of my work life – that our natural resources would be saved if people are given only limited access to them.
Unfortunately, I have observed that this has resulted in many cases of conflict with local communities – and still does not prevent these areas from poaching or encroachment.
There will need to be a larger vision, a vision that looks into the issue of poverty and the ability of the people to achieve quality of life for themselves and their children.
And I think there is a need for the local NGOs to stop aping these archaic, imported approaches and start developing and recording their own strategies for success.
Finally, these organisations should also increase their own operational transparency and accountability in terms of their staff and finances.
In recent years, exposés of corruption, human rights abuses, sexual harassment and exploitation have plagued civil society.
Donors are getting more exacting. Similarly, the stakeholders whom NGOs have been trying to influence; companies for one, have already incorporated a lot of these considerations into their operations.
Reviews will also help NGOs include clauses for human rights, equality and rights of local communities in the design of their programmes and approaches, particularly if the programme was developed aeons ago.
Once more, collaborate
When I started in environmentalism, the only ones calling for the better management of our natural resources were environmental NGOs. Now there are more allies in the other sectors, which means possible collaborations in non-traditional areas.
Unfortunately, many NGOs have opted to keep with the same strategies and approaches.
I do not think it would irk me that much if the NGOs had reviewed the current situation. Then, with facts, they made that deliberate decision to retain their approach because of their own limitations and were transparent about it.
But to those who have chosen the status quo because they are just comfortable doing things as they have done for many years, I ask, “Why then would you even bother to continue working?” and “Wouldn’t it be nice to get ahead of the curve, for once?”
[Edited by SL Wong]
Ginny Ng is a semi-retired environmentalist, so to speak. Trained as a zoologist, she has worked in the environmental field for 20 years in three different sectors, most recently in a commodity-based company where she led the team managing the company’s own conservation area totaling 30,000 ha worldwide.
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