Monday, 18 December 2006

Desertification and destruction of fragile habitats

As everyone who reads this blog knows, I have been fairly outspoken criticising the numerous aid charities that promote goats as a solution to poverty in Africa. And this has received very widespread coverage in the news media. Many of the charities concerned defended themselves by claiming they did not actually supply goats, but the money raised just went into a general 'pot', and that this was explained in the small print. However, this does not alter the fact that all the publicity implies that goats are A Good Thing. But the truth is very different, with numbers escalating, and the destruction of fragile arid habitats rife.

The Director of Oxfam (one of the main charities promoting livestock) wrote to the WLT claiming that "Our experience at Oxfam tells us that when charities are seen publicly fighting this does nothing to heighten any organisation's cause, and actually undermines the efforts of the whole sector." I.e. even if you think we are completely wrong and doing something that undermines the work of environmental charities, keep quiet. With all due respect to Oxfam, I believe it is an important issue that should be aired. And so, apparently do large numbers of the public, as well as influential figures such as John Humphrys (see the Daily Mail feature, December 2). In fact, the WLT has seen an enormous surge in its donations as a result of all the publicity. This was not the intention of raising the issue -- but it seems to indicate there is a knowledgable public who are not fooled by gimmicky marketing stunts.

Having brought the subject out into the open, it will be interesting to see what further information will be forthcoming. Oxfam claim to have supplied 200,000 goats -- which have presumably bred and produced lots more goats. My argument is that Africa really does not need another half million or more goats, particularly in the poverty-stricken arid areas, where the ground is too dry to grow crops (which is where an Oxfam spokeswoman told me they were being supplied).

And if all the charities marketing goats, camels, donkeys, chickens etc etc are not really doing so, that really will bring the sector into disrepute. The World Land Trust is proud of the fact that the reserves it helps buy really do exist, and that many of our supporters have been to them and seen them on the ground. And we are always pleased to have people visit them.


  1. I really enjoyed reading your last few blogs about too many goat donations in Africa. It seams like every time I take the tube there is a new organization trying to advocate sending some form of animal or another to Africa. It is interesting to learn that these might actually not be doing the people of Africa any good. However, it is also extremely disheartening to think that all of these charities are potentially getting it so wrong. Surely some of the work and the donations they are getting for Africa are helping? You have taken quite a stand against some rather large charity organizations and yet you don’t offer any alternatives to the projects you are criticizing. Are there any organizations that currently help people in Africa that you would recommend? I was disappointed to find out that while the World Land Trust does an amazing amount of work saving land and helping people around the world, it does not currently have any projects in Africa (that I could find on the internet). Hopefully with your connections to environmentally sensitive organizations you will have some suggestions for other ways people can help those who need it in Africa.

    I know this is a difficult question, as you do not want people to donate to other charities in place of donating money to the World Land Trust's projects, but speaking as someone who is currently buying 5 acres of land for Christmas presents, it would be nice to know of additional charities in places like Africa that need donations.

    Thank you again for bringing this information to light and I look forward to any response.

  2. Anonymous is quite right, we don't have any projects in Africa currently. There are several reasons but one, which is possibly also one that the major aid charities should be addressing, is the problem of land tenure. Land tenure in many parts of Africa is complex and unclear, and it is therefore difficult for private nature reserves to be created with any security. This lack of security is also one of the underlying problems that causes overgrazing. If no one owns the land, then if you own a flock of goats, it's in your interest to grab as much of the grazing as possible, before someone else does. Simplistic, but nonetheless true. The same reason that whales were overexploited to the point of near extinction in the first half of the 20th century.
    A second reason is that it is extremely difficult to identify a competent partner organisation, with experience of managing nature reserves. And thirdly, there are the problems of institutional corruption, which in my experience, is far more serious in Africa than other parts of the world -- in part at least -- as a result of the huge amounts of foreign aid that have been poured in in the past half century.

    As far as my criticisms of the organistations promoting goats and livestock are concerned, I have not criticised any of their other activities -- I am not qualified to do so. The only point I would make is a general one, that applies to all charitable giving. When you are giving (unless it is a few shillings to salve your own concience) you should ensure that the organisation is transparent, and that your donation is traceable. Personally I would not worry too much about management costs and admin. -- all charities have these costs, and it is the role of Trustees to monitor them, and they have to be published. I would be far more concerned to ensure that you can actually see the results of your donation, either in the form of reports for nebuluous projects such as education, or in the form of actual results, for capital projects. It is a policy we adopt in the WLT -- Any donor can go and visit any of the reserves we have created. They can see for themselves the results. All our project sites are listed on our website, together with the names and addresses of all our partners. All our staff are listed on the website, together with email addresses.

    My personal view, and I must emphasise this is a personal view, is that too many aid projects in Africa are the equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, when the iceberg is in sight. Where, in any of the websites of the major charities, is any mention of what is being done about the burgeoning human population? Where is there any explanation as to where the resources are to be found if everyone was brought out of poverty? To mix the metaphors, there is an elephant in the offices of the aid charities.

    Meanwhile, all the WLT can do is try and save a few fragments of the few remaining of wilderness and other wildlife habitats.

  3. John - I am with you on the goats - I have seen the effects of overgrazing in India. I am also with you on transparency in charitable organisations. Responsible givers will insist on this. We support WLT with confidence precisely because of transparency and the other ways it fits with our philosophy of habitat conservation being the best way to conserve endangered species. This helps the planet, which helps people. Anyone can help people directly in a number of ways, changing lives in the process. For example, Smile Train repairs cleft lips and palates. Helping people and helping the planet are not mutually exclusive.

    Acquiring elephant corridor will help tigers - if we have enough land for elephants, there is probably enough for tigers, where the two species co-exist, and they often do. Biologists are giving up on the tiger. They should not. They breed well when they have the chance. Dispersal for the young is the problem. Tigers have been going to be extinct in ten years since at least 1976. The species is robust. Biologists - don't give up. WLT - please help these beautiful cats. I am lucky enough to have seen one. I have seen much, but nothing so beautiful.

  4. Thank you to our readers. Feedback is always welcome, and it is interesting that so many people do understand that the issues are not simple.
    Those following my recent blogs will be interested to know that I have a meeting with the Director of Oxfam in the near future. The problem is I don't think that the individual goat projects are a problem. And I am sure that Oxfam believe they are very responsible. My issue is that there are simply too many goats, and that increasing the numbers still further will not help. We at the WLT understand how our short-term strategy of land acquistion, fits into a long-term strategy of biodiversity conservation. And I think most of our supporters understand it too.
    What the aid agencies need to do is explain how their short-term strategies of famine relief, and poverty aleviation fit into a long term strategy, and what the objectives of that strategy are. I don't think 'making poverty history' is accpetable as an objective. I don't even know what it is, since poverty is defined differently in almost every country in the world.

    So any feedback, comments for me to take to Oxfam, please send to my either direct (email address on our website) or via a blog response. Our next development is probably going to be to get a discussion forum going on some of the topics of interest to our supporters, but this will only be of use if people contribute a little more than opinion -- some hard facts, and personal experiences. But also suggestions for new projects which you, our supporters would like to help fund.

  5. I am a bit disappointed about this recent attack on international development charities and completely understand Oxfam's reaction. I'm sure (and hope) you attempted to talk with some of these charities before resorting to the media. It has certainly made the charities listen though I worry it will damage the reputation of the charity sector. This will not only affect the big charities but the smaller ones as well.

    I understand your challenges when charities make your work more difficult but I don't believe this kind of attack is helpful. Especially when you offer no alternatives in Africa. You mention that it should be the "big agencies" addressing land reform but if it is affecting environmental damage so much then surely you should be contributing and playing your role in this as well.

    I am not an environmental expert but its sad to see charities taking swipes at each other when most are trying to do the right thing with limited funds. I know this is not an excuse for charities to behave badly but shouldn't we concentrating more of our efforts on the biggest culprits of environmental damage - the West and the private sector?

    Finally, there is a conflict between environmental agencies and international development ones. The main objective of the former is to preserve the wildlife and ensure our world will exist for future generations. The objective of the latter is to ensure humans are not living in poverty. Both agencies have to deal with each other's issues, hence the term sustainable development. It has shown that real sustainable development is difficult to achieve. I think we should continue striving for it but remember that a child dies unnecessarily from extreme poverty every 3 seconds. Let's prevent that in the most environmentally responsible way but again let's make sure everyone is offering solutions and that we are going after the worse culprits.

    I look forward to your response and also to hearing about your meeting with Barbara Stocking.

  6. An interesting and valid comment, and it addreses some of the key issues. One is that the objectives of charities are sometimes actually in direct conflict. This is not surprising since charities embrace a whole range of activities, some of which I am personally wholeheartedly opposed to (for example evangelical christian fundamentalists in third world countries). I certainly don't want to make any comments before my meeting with Oxfam, since it has taken a while to get to meet them.

    But I would suggest that sustainable development is to a certain extent an oxymoron. My feeling is that very often our objectives should be limited to sustainable management.

    "Development" has social Darwinism implications, and there is an implicit belief that the ways of the western world are 'better' or more advanced. I don't know the answers to this dilemma.

    Tom writes that we should be addressing the issue of land reform. We would, if we could, but we can't. It is simply a question of resources. We are a small charity, with most of our funds restricted. If someone cam along and gave a few hundred thousand pounds to establish a land reform project, we could do it, we have the networks, but not the cash. Only the BINGOs have the resources.

    But I also don't think that there is any evidence that opening up the debate harms charities as a sector. If anything, based on our experiences, I would expect the reverse -- it gives donors more confidence by ensuring greater transparency, honesty and accountability.