African civil society 'needs power and autonomy'

African civil society organisations’ (CSO) efforts to slow the loss of nature and tackle climate change are key - we need to shift power and decision-making towards local authority and leadership.

INGOs should clear the atmosphere of being domineering and work as partners, as teams, and not as a boss working with a subordinate.

Partnerships between global conservation organisations and their African-led counterparts are critical to conservation success - but continue to face challenges over power relations, transparency, and aligning interests, research from Maliasili published today has found.

African civil society organisations’ (CSO) efforts to slow the loss of nature and tackle climate change are key to planetary conservation success because they are rooted in local contexts, and are part of communities who have conserved lands across the continent for generations.

Global climate and nature protection targets, including the 30x30 goal to protect 30 per cent of the planet’s land and oceans by 2030, increasingly recognise the need to place Indigenous Peoples and local communities at the heart of decision-making and implementation.


But to continue achieving conservation impact, relationships must be strengthened between community groups and the international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) they turn to for funding, technical support, and networking, says the new 42-page study, Rooting for Change: Strengthening Local to Global Partnerships in African Conservation.

A core challenge remains shifting power and decision-making towards local authority and leadership. Almost all of the dozens of African conservationists who spoke to the report’s authors said relationships with international organisations were “very important” to their work and should continue, but must be reformed to make them more effective, equitable partnerships.

Resson Kantai Duff (pictured), portfolio funding director at Maliasili, said: “Ultimately, the way that these partnerships are approached, structured, and maintained, needs to be collectively reimagined. 

"There is a real opportunity here for international organisations to build trust by recognising local capacity, bringing visibility to groups doing important work with local communities, and allowing organisations closest to the problem to set the agenda. 

"The intention of our report is to document African conservation leaders’ experiences with these partnerships, and harness their views and recommendations for maximising the positive potential of such partnerships."


She added: "We focus on their perspectives and voices because we recognise that given existing power asymmetries it can sometimes be harder for them to be heard in global discussions, and their views are critical to any evolution of partnerships in positive ways.”

The study was launched today at the Business of Conservation Conference in Kigali. It features interviews and survey responses with more than 60 staff at dozens of African local and grassroots organizations working in marine, wildlife, landscape, and forest conservation, and Indigenous land rights, in 18 countries.

INGOs should clear the atmosphere of being domineering and work as partners, as teams, and not as a boss working with a subordinate.

Among the key findings were: 88 per cent of respondents agreed INGO partnerships are very important for their work; 82 per cent agreed that partnerships with INGOs provide critical resources and 71 per cent said partnerships with INGOs were “challenging”.

International organisations provided local groups with funding and resourcing, technical advice, advocacy and policy support, and networking. But how their engagements with local organisations are structured can create significant barriers that block truly effective partnerships from developing, the report authors were repeatedly told. 


Confusions over the role of the international organisation, differences in expectations between both sides, poor communication, complex and inflexible bureaucracy, and a failure to share credit for success, were among the challenges local organisations reported. 

Close to two-thirds - 64 per cent - of the report’s sources agreed that international organizations’ top-down approach is a significant barrier, and 82 per cent said ensuring clear roles was necessary to meaningful and effective partnerships. 

Ewi Lamma, environmental and climate justice advocate at Forest Resources and People in Cameroon, told the report authors: “Every organisation should strive for more partnerships because it elevates the organisation, elevates the individuals within the organisation, and it also can build the organisation’s capacities to be able to broaden their scope and handle more sectors within their mission and vision.” 

However, she added that INGOs should “clear the atmosphere of being domineering and work as partners, as teams, and not as a boss working with a subordinate.” 


Jonathan Yiah from the Sustainable Development Institute in Liberia, said: “As much as possible [INGOs] should enable the local civil society groups to be in the driving seat and they can be in the background supporting us.” 

Short-term engagements by international NGOs, often tied to specific projects, means the trust, respect, and understanding that might develop over time and that sustain effective partnerships, cannot take root. At the same time, investing in local capacity is key. 

Andrew Giahquee from the Skills and Agricultural Development Services in Liberia said: “You don’t empower people within the period of six months or one year. They expect you to tell them that these communities are now experts…just within the period of six months or one year. It is not possible.”

John Kamanga of the South Rift Association of Land Owners in Kenya, said: “We know INGOs from the West come here with their plans and how to implement them. 


"But this does not work here because we know how we do things. We are asking our donors to co-create the projects and then we implement them. We are moving away from client-implementing agency relationships.”

The report highlights a series of steps both international NGOs and local conservation organisations can take to address the challenges. 

INGOs should: be cautious about trying to implement their ideas and instead take the lead from the local organisation, valuing local knowledge and approaches; recognise that partnerships are more than just funding and approach their relationships more broadly and comprehensively and simplify administration and bureaucracy.

For their part, the report suggests, local African organisations should: outline and articulate needs, building autonomy and recognising their power; build buy-in to their overall mission above chasing funding just for single projects and maintain professionalism with effective systems that entrench accountability. 

This Author

Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist. This article is based on a press release distributed on behalf of Maliasili. 

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