Wildlife Conservation's Not For Profits: Shying From The Mirror?
‘Only 10% of 31 lakh NGOs in the country submitted mandatory reports to the authorities’ and ‘The Central Government has cancelled foreign funding registration of select NGOs for alleged violation of law’. On the one hand press has highlighted these issues pertaining to not-for-profits and on the other they are today being questioned and critiqued, like seldom before. It is not uncommon to come across references like ‘are getting less dynamic and more bureaucratic’ and ‘have lost the plot’ for not-for-profits; sub-optimal output or not delivering as promised too is an oft-heard complaint.
During the recent past it has been heart-breaking to observe most wildlife conservation organizations remain silent on issues ranging from construction of the golf course at Kaziranga to the culling orders issued for select states. Kaziranga has most - if not all - labels India can bestow on its wildlife bearing areas while the culling orders have the potential to open up random and uncontrolled hunting including in conservation priority landscapes.
Organizations have been accused of not standing up to either corporates or the state. Margi Prideaux in her article, ‘Wildlife conservationists need to break out of their Stockholm syndrome’, writes ‘time after time, like captives suffering from Stockholm syndrome, wildlife conservation NGOs placate, please and emulate the very forces that are destroying the things they want to protect’. How this silence will pan out given Central Government’s push for development and its fondness for corporate houses remains to be seen.
Lack of accountability and transparency have been major concerns. These concerns go beyond the mandatory publishing of balance-sheets on organizational website and touch upon factors like assets purchased, meetings held, conferences organized, foreign trips undertaken and what they helped achieve. Little appears to have changed since Mac Chapin in his seminal essay, ‘A Challenge to Conservationists’, had stated, ‘far too little is known about what is really happening in the field . . we also have little sense of what works and what doesn’t work in what circumstances’.
The notion that it is difficult to show outputs and outcomes in a not-for–profit needs to be replaced with one which conveys that in the absence of a bottom-line, unlike for-profits, these are all the more pertinent. ‘We appear to be the only ones who still escape accountability’ a friend had once quipped.
Central offices come across as concentration of intellectual and financial resources. Decisions are taken in a top down manner, at these power centres, with inadequate knowledge of the on-ground situation but armed with a ‘what do they know’ attitude. From investment on staff to meetings organized, from drafting proposals to putting reports in place, centralized office is where the focus lies.
As a corollary the on-ground staff espouses a low level of ownership of the actions while the staff at the centralized office has a poor understanding of the on-ground situation. This, many a time leads to sub-optimal results; actions remaining constant while the situation on-ground continues to evolve or actions being way off the track.
Many of these organizations also appear to be not walking the talk. Not being concerned, for example, about their ecological foot-prints. Impacts from air-travel, air-conditioned offices, assets purchased and other day-to-day actions including plastic usage which stare at one in the face. Little point in preaching if one does not take the additional steps – read put in that extra effort.
A very high reverence prevails not only for the existing paradigm but also for select individuals. This almost rules out questioning – questioning that is critical and positive. Do these organizations not feel the need to ensure if they are on the correct track?
If India continues to lose forests, and their denizens, despite the progress achieved in science, increase in research and publications, rise in number of conferences and budgets of not-for-profits, is the community on the correct track? T M Krishna has emerged as the ‘bad boy’ of Carnatic music in recent years – amongst else he has referred to the famed Chennai music sabhas as ‘upper-caste private clubs’. Does wildlife conservation in India await its bad boy?
The moot question is whether the not-for-profits are willing - to hold a mirror to themselves? to move beyond their ego and comfort zones and critically look at how they function? to not rest on laurels based on past actions and to be open to learn including from wisdom of the day?
In other words to not continue doing actions just because ‘they have always been done in this manner’. As Bertrand Russell said, ‘In all affairs it's a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted’.