Sunday, 17 May 2009

Green colonialism?

I picked up a leaflet about a scientific symposium being organised by the Zoological Society of London. The Title was Biodiversity Monitoring and Conservation:Bridging the Gaps Between Global Commitment and Local Action. A very worthy concept. But interestingly the list of contributors seems to be composed completely of representatives of the Big NGOs (BINGOs) and university and other institutions from the developed world. The views of those actually doing the action, implementing conservation, carrying out the monitoring do not seem to be involved. I recognise that this is not a symposium that will have any real executive functions, but it does seem a bit odd that so few (none?) of those at the sharp end are involved. The WLT is involved in a lot of programmes that involve monitoring -- to ensure the actions we are taking are effective, and most of this involves biodiversity in some way or other (or at least species diversity monitoring), but one thing we are certain of, is that unless the local conservationists are actively involved in all initiatives, there is a good chance that the conservation actions will not be sustainable. The ZSL has a reputation for being a bit reactionary, but one might have hoped that with over 20 speakers giving presentations, one or two might have been from organisations based in the less developed parts of the world, actually involved in the monitoring long-term; there are quite a lot of them.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

more awards for conservation and charity

I have written about my dislike for awards in the past. Such as the Charity Times awards for 'Best charity'. In particular I dislike awards which require an entry fee, and even worse, often a large payment to attend the awards ceremony. And most of the people I have discussed this with agree with me.

But there are other awards, where agreement is rarer. And that is awards for individuals. There are a number of prizes that are given to individuals who are deemed to be significant in some way or other. But I also have serious reservations about giving awards to individuals, for a number of reasons. First, it is always very difficult to decide who deserves an award. Very often it is the pushiest person, as modesty is rarely rewarded. Second, awards frequently contain an element of political correctness. And third they feed the contemporary obsession with celebrity culture. But the backers for awards just love giving them to individuals, largely because of this latter reason -- they can generate more publicity. The reality is that while the charismatic individual can achieve a lot, ultimately it is organisations that make the real, sustainable, long lasting difference. The really good charismatic individuals do not need awards, but the organisations they represent and work for often struggle to get funds and recognition.

It was some while back that I began to have doubts about the value of rewarding individuals with conservation 'Oscars' when helping BBC Wildlife Magazine draw up a list of the most influential conservationists. And this list did not have prize money attached to it. The problem was, that even with a long list of only British conservationists, that it was a little bit like competitive team sports -- someone had to lose, and it did not mean that the losers were any worse, or the winners were any better. But we only ever hear about the elation of the winners. What about the depression of the losers? At least when it's an organisation it is not so dependent on an individual's ego, or presentation abilities. And at least with an organisation it stands a better chance of having a lasting effect.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

New Naturalists hit by recession?

I happened to look at Collins' New Naturalists on sale on ebay, and it seems that they have been hit by the recession, as prices seem to be in free fall. The market for this remarkable series has seen incrdible prices paid for the rarer editions, but it has also seen many of the volumes changing hands among 'collectors' who are not actaully that interested in the contents, buit more interested in the condition of the dust-wrapper.m The advantage of this (to my mind, silly) market, is that it has enabled HarperCollins to publish many more volumes in the series than would otherwise have been possible. It is a great pity that a similar collectors' market did not develop for the World Naturalist series of Weidenfield and Nicolson. An equally important series in my vbiew, never surpassed, but alas, no longer being published.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Monitoring mega-expenditure of NGOs

My regular readers will know that I am a critic of foreign aid, and I am also a critic of Oxfam. I also monitor many websites of charities, mostly to see how they present themselves, and to ensure that any criticisms that might be made do not apply to the World land Trust. A major problem with any large charity is that it almost impossible to understand what really goes on when reading their accounts. When a charity the size of Oxfam presents its accounts, it is done in round millions, and it is almost impossible to know what these figure concern. The charity can give away as much or as little information as it likes. But it does lead to an enormous potential for misunderstanding. I am sure there are very good explanations, for example, on the Oxfam website it indicates that grants paid to overseas recipients in FYE 2008 totalled £16 million going to 50 organisations. Yet in the same annual rport it is stated that the UK payroll cost £93 million, with 25 staff earning over £60,000 p.a. As I wrote above, I am sure there is a perfectly good reason for these figures, but what it does show is how difficult it is to undertand accounts when they are hidden in fiogures with 6 noughts on the end.

One of the more obviousreasons can be found by looking at the sources of income, and since a huge amount comes from governments, it is likely that this is expected to be spent on UK staff so that it stays at home to be taxed, and therefore returned to sender....

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Environmentally disastrous public transport

I have just been looking at the local railway service's website. There's an amazing array of special offers encouraging people to travel by train. And very environmentally friendly one might think. But is it? The answer is a resounding NO. Most of the journeys being made using these astounding special offers are undoubtedly not essential. An in many cases it is not a case of going by train instead of by car. It is simply encouraging people to travel more and more. And if the trains from Norwich are only half full with people making essential journeys, it makes economic sense to fill the rest of the train with cheap travellers. And that way the rail service is not only profitable, but it can justify itself.

Unfortunately this has been taken to new limits in London. Here, travel cards allow a cap to be put on the cost of traveling each day on the London Underground. However many journeys you make, it gets no more expensive. The upshot of this is almost certainly many people use their card for journeys of one or two stops, making the underground even more unpleasantly overcrowded, but at the same time allowing the operators to claim that public transport is incredibly popular.

I think a fact that most environmentalists promoting public transport have failed to grasp, is that public transport can only really be environmentally friendly, in a centrally controlled political system, such as once operated in the Communist world. I recall visiting Czechoslovakia in the 1960s when train travel was dirt cheap, car travel only for a few, bus travel more expensive than trains, and air travel too expensive for most people. With central controls, then all fares can be regulated to ensure the right balance is achieved. But with the type of free-for-all we now have, with subsidised fuel for air travellers, and all travel actually responsible to shareholders (which means there is a legal obligation to maximise profit above all other considerations), there is virtually no prospect of an environmentally friendly public transport system. And while I am at it, I will remind everyone, that air travel is now de facto part of public transport, and often much more fuel efficient than the average rural bus service. But of course there is a difference, in that most air travel is non essential. {Having written that, I realse that many rural bus services are now packed with pensioners swanning around on their passes, making them most of free travel.

More people travelling more and more. That's the real problem. And everyone wanting more of everything, and wanting it cheaper than before. Thereby driving the manufacture of goods overseas where environmental controls are less stringent, the production of food overseas where welfare standards are lower etc etc etc. Depressing. Perhaps a positive aspect of the economic downturn is that we are all realizing how much 'stuff' we all buy that we don't really need. Perhaps some politicians may even realise that continued economic growth is simply not sustainable if it is dependent on constantly expanding human populations.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo

Dead Aid is a brilliant summary of some of the views I have been espousing for many years. The Authoress, unlike me, can back it all up with facts; she is a Zambian, who has worked in the World Bank, and her book is a devastating indictment of foreign aid in Africa. I am sure all the government aid agencies will dismiss it -- they would wouldn't they? And I am sure Oxfam, Christian Aid, St Geldorf and all the others trying to 'Wipe out Poverty in Africa' will dismiss it. And I am sure not every little detail is interpreted exactly right. But I am also sure that the overall thesis has hit the nail on the head.

Foreign aid is the cause of corruption and poverty in most of Africa. And anyone who thinks otherwise should read this book. Before giving another cent or Penny read it.

Emergency aid is one thing, and will always be needed, but so-called 'development aid' is quite a different matter, and this is the aid that actually helps prevent real development, and feeds corruption. And it also has often huge benefits to the donors. In fact after reading Moyo's account it seems that these are the only real long term beneficiaries: pop-stars, politicians and donors get a real feelgood kick out of it, meanwhile the poor get poorer, and the rich get richer.

As she points out, governments seem all to eager to listen to Bono and Geldorf -- but how often do they listen to those who actually live and try to work in Sub-Saharan Africa? Why should a pop-star know more than them?

I would actually go slightly further than Moyo, as I see elements of cultural imperialism in most aid programmes. Pushing cows that produce more milk into African economies, where the majority of the inhabitants are lactose intolerant is a classic example. I would also argue that there is little difference between the cultural imperialism of the 21st century and the Missionary zeal of the 19th century. The end results are not dissimilar: a form of ethnicide.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Volunteer Travellers

In the course of work today I had cause to look at a couple of websites for volunteer travellers -- those going abroad to do good works. In fact while the intentions are often very good, I do have serious reservations about how much real good most of these young travellers do, For a start they can often be taking away employment from locals. The average trip will cost the volunteer something around £1500-£3000 for a month's 'holiday' -- often a year's employment for a local. But more important is the lack of transparency of many of the companies involved. Most of the young altruistic volunteers assume that the companies are also philanthropic. But a quick look at the websites reveals...... very little. Unlike charities, they do not have to publish their accounts, nor reveal who is paid what.

Whenever I am asked about gap year volunteering, or 'expeditions' I always say 'caveat emptor'. Earthwatch and a few (relatively few, I am afraid) do a great job, but there are a lot of others who are little more than travel companies with the profits going to the shareholders or ownwers -- even when they appear altruistic.