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Conservation online: putting the ‘world’ into World Wide Web

Posted on: 30.10.14 (Last edited) 30 October 2014

Guest blogger Chris Sandbrook, Lecturer in Conservation Leadership at the University of Cambridge, shares his thoughts on how internet technologies can help make the world a smaller – but better – place…

A few years ago, I spent several months working for the International Institute for Environment and Development (iied), reviewing efforts to link great ape conservation to local poverty alleviation in Africa.

This project took me to Uganda, Cameroon and Rwanda on field visits, and I spent many hours online and at my desk reading research papers and project reports.

I met a lot of dedicated and inspirational people and saw some examples of striking success. But I also found evidence of numerous projects with noble intentions that had, for one reason or another, failed to deliver.

In my final report (PDF), I looked at a whole range of factors that might have contributed to project success or failure. I found that where projects went wrong it was not usually because they had a bad idea or were in the wrong place, but because the implementing organisations lacked capacity.

This was not scientific or technical capacity – most of the organisations I reviewed had remarkable knowledge of the species they worked with and the threats they faced. Rather, the work was being done by institutions that were not robust enough.

In some cases they did not have clearly-defined governance structures or any plan for sustainable financing.

In others, staff were not able to write compelling funding applications for international grants.

On several occasions the organisations lacked any strategic planning or monitoring, which led to their mission drifting over time.

After completing my work with iied I moved to the University of Cambridge to teach students on the Masters in Conservation Leadership course, which brings together mid-career conservation professionals with a huge wealth of experience from all over the world.

Among the many things I have learned from my students is that this lack of organisational capacity is not limited to ape conservation in Africa.

Conservation organisations all over the world – large and small, old and new – face similar difficulties with governance, staff training, planning, finance and a whole range of organisational needs.

Through our masters programme we make some small contribution to addressing these needs by developing the capacity of individuals – but it is not enough.

The Capacity For Conservation website in use. Credit: Roger Ingle/FFI

The Capacity For Conservation website in use. Credit: Roger Ingle/FFI

Caring and sharing

Helping conservation organisations to build their capacity is a daunting challenge. They are scattered all over the world, often working in remote and difficult locations where conservation needs are greatest but opportunities for training and support are most limited.

However, there is some good news. First, organisational capacity challenges are not limited to conservation, and there is much that can be learned from other areas such as international development or the private sector.

Second, technology is creating new opportunities to get help to where it is needed. In particular, the internet makes it possible to share tools and create connections between organisations so that they can share experiences with each other.

This has the potential to be really transformative – just learning that another organisation on the other side of the world is facing similar problems and hearing about how they have faced them seems likely to be highly motivating, as well as useful in a practical sense.

I am delighted to say that several organisations within the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (including Fauna & Flora International) have spent the last few years sharing their own experiences and collating tools from around the world into one website, called capacityforconservation.org.

The site is not just a depository for tools – it also has an interactive feature allowing organisations to self-assess their capacity needs and then identify the particular areas in which they might need support.

Several of my students have road-tested the site, with very positive feedback, and I think it could prove immensely helpful to others all around the world. Plus it has a very jaunty looking bee on the front page which brings a smile to my face every time I visit.

The Capacity For Conservation website homepage – including its 'jaunty looking bee'. Credit: Roger Ingle/FFI

The Capacity For Conservation website homepage – including its 'jaunty looking bee'. Credit: Roger Ingle/FFI

Most people get involved in conservation because they care about the natural world and like the idea of working in the depths of a tropical forest or floating over a coral reef.

By comparison to this kind of work, thinking about the right number of trustees to have or the programme budget for next year might seem rather dull.

But all my experience tells me that these issues really matter for conservation effectiveness, and cannot be ignored.

I applaud the efforts of capacityforconservation.org to bring such questions out into the daylight, and to help practitioners find the right answers.

Why don’t you take a look?

Capacityforconservation.org has been produced by the Capacity for Conservation Collaboration, a partnership of BirdLife International, Fauna & Flora International, the Tropical Biology Association and the Department of Geography, the University of Cambridge.

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Chris Sandbrook

Chris Sandbrook is a Lecturer in Conservation Leadership at the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) and the University of Cambridge. He works to build capacity for conservation leadership through his teaching, and conducts interdisciplinary research on biodiversity conservation and its relationship with society. His current research addresses trade-offs between conservation and development at the landscape scale in developing countries, and the role of values and evidence in shaping the decisions of conservationists and their organisations. Before coming to Cambridge he spent several years living and working in Uganda, where his PhD research investigated the social and environmental impacts of mountain gorilla tracking tourism. He writes a blog on social issues relating to conservation, called 'Thinking Like a Human'.

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