Qantas A380 taking off from LAX

Here’s an all-too-frequent out-of-office autoreply from conservationists these days:

I am currently away from the office attending a UNDP meeting. Following this I am participating in a CBD working group, an IUCN advisory committee, an NGO roundtable, then presenting at a Millennium Declaration follow-up, and attending a regional conservation forum convened by aid agencies as part of a global initiative. I expect to be back in the office towards the middle of next year.

During this time I may be able to answer emails occasionally, but will definitely not be engaging in any local conservation action or helping implement recommendations arising from these meetings.

Apologies for the delay.

Kind regards,

[Signed] Director of Conservation, Conservation Project Manager and Global Conservation Focal Point

Republic of Forty Thousand Feet

OK, so I’m being facetious, but it’s really not that far from the truth.

There are simply so many global conservation initiatives and associated meetings that, for small developing nations with only a handful of government conservation staff, you can expect to get “out of office” replies from those staff for a substantial part of each year – which is all time these people are not in their countries, getting conservation done.

So what does this “out of office” status mean for real, on-the-ground conservation?

The problem is, this condition is something of a blameless crime. Every group organizing these meetings has only the best intentions of advancing conservation and being as inclusive as possible.

We want to include representatives from small and developing nations in global conservation initiatives because we believe their voices and experiences should be heard, they are guardians of much of the world’s biodiversity, and we often perceive that they have more to gain from participation than people from large, developed countries.

The more enthusiastic and engaged in conservation someone becomes in their own country, the more we desire their participation on global agreements, initiatives, working groups and forums.

To add to the perversity of this situation, an enormous proportion of the global conservation budget is spent transporting these motivated people away from where they are working — in effect, stripping both capacity and funds from actual, on-the-ground conservation action.

The problem is also exacerbated by short funding deadlines that require holding meetings annually, if not more frequently, and by pressure within global initiatives for rapid and easily reported outcomes – workshops are a safe bet for both. Unfortunately, the reporting often stops with the meeting. Too infrequently do we try and document if and how these global meetings are an effective way of advancing on-the-ground conservation success.

Taken as a whole, the global conservation community might be doing itself a great disservice by pursuing international meetings as the modus operandi.

So what are the solutions?

Erh, perhaps we need a meeting to find out…

(Image: Qantas Airways A380 taking off from LAX. Credit: Joits/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. Maybe we should hold these meetings less frequently (1 every three years). Maybe there should be a greater proportion of funds allocated directly to performance based on ground action, rather than meetings and workshops. Maybe the different groups vying for the attention of SIDS (Small Island Developing States) or LDC’s (Least Developed Countries) should coordinate better among themselves to minimize these impacts. And its not just the meetings, its the reporting obligations. More often than not, it is a few individuals within SIDs or LDC’s that are tasked with all the meetings, the implementation, the coordination and the reporting. Seems like there may be some simple and sensible solutions to the extended out-of-office phenomenon. GLM.

  2. The other irony is that as we try to wrap Climate Change around everything we do, these broad conservation strategic meetings require more use of fossil fuels to meet face-to-face and usually are in distant places that increase our carbon emissions. How do we calculate the costs of travel (money & carbon emissions) vs lost benefits of connecting in person?

  3. There is now doubt that everything needs to be calculated carefully. Corinne makes a good point. Most projects have hidden costs.

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