When was the last time you read a science journal article that touched on an elemental truth, intentionally or unintentionally? Catherine Benson Wahlén at University of Michigan recently published such an article in the journal Human Ecology.
Wahlén spent 12 months studying decision-making processes within an unnamed international conservation NGO working on a marine conservation project in Papua New Guinea.
To understand decision making, Wahlén interviewed 17 local and national staff, 9 staff in regional offices and headquarters, and 5 donor officials funding the work. She also conducted 436 household interviews, held focus group discussions, and reviewed strategic plans, work plans, external project evaluations, and websites.
What Wahlén found was a biocentric focus at the national and international levels and a more anthropocentric focus at the project level—in other words, a fundamental difference in approaches to conservation depending on one’s level.
For the national managers, the project’s objective was to establish marine Wildlife Management Areas that contribute to fisheries management and the regional Coral Triangle Initiative. For the project staff, the marine Wildlife Management Areas were simply tools to engage the community in better management of their marine resources.
Problems arose. Improved fisheries management was not a priority shared by the local communities, and several years of pushing fisheries management alienated community members.
A subsequent assessment of community environmental priorities identified water quality as the biggest issue locally. Project staff proposed building toilets to address the water-quality issues impacting people and fish. National managers said no.
This created an impasse with project staff prioritizing locally supported development activities with fisheries benefits and national managers prioritizing internationally supported fisheries activities with development benefits.
In effect, the national managers were managing ‘up’ while the project staff were managing “down.”
This led to the “production of ignorance” whereby national managers reported on the success of establishing Wildlife Management Areas but not the challenges.
“Like knowledge, ignorance can be produced and maintained,” Wahlén notes in the article.
National managers had good reason for not sharing the challenges: doing so could lead to criticism, the loss of funding, or even the loss of a job.
In many developing-country projects, success simply has to be reported, not proven.
The irony is that everyone except Mother Nature was better off with the ignorance. International managers had a nicely aligned regional strategy. National managers had continued funding, and local staff had more flexibility during implementation.
Yet the production of ignorance often creates Potemkin villages that collapse when the project ends.
Greater and more rigorous social monitoring with baseline social surveys is part of the answer. But so is recognizing the elemental truth that there is often an unacknowledged divide between local environmental priorities and national or regional environmental priorities.