In the protection and management of natural resources, it is widely agreed that human social, political, cultural and economic systems must be part of the equation. In recent years, community-based and collaborative conservation have been increasingly recognized as alternatives to the dominant paradigm of top-down, expert-driven management. However practitioners of collaborative and community-based conservation efforts must be cautious about moving forward too quickly, as community groups often have low levels of organizational capacity that may pose a challenge to rapidly managing complex natural systems. This is especially true in collaborative efforts that involve multiple stakeholders. In such efforts, taking into account relationships of power among stakeholders will help ensure greater equity as well as the promotion of local livelihoods and sustainability. The literature also suggest that special emphasis should be placed on empowerment at the community-level and especially with traditionally marginalized groups. According to Agrawal (1999) “local groups are usually the least powerful among the different parties interested in conservation. Community-based conservation requires, therefore, that its advocates make more strenuous efforts to channel greater authority and power toward local groups. Only then can such groups form effective checks against arbitrary actions by governments and other actors.”
If, as Agrawal suggest, empowerment at the local-level should be our priority, where do we start? Brown (2002) has identified a set of internal and external challenges that community-based organizations face. Externally, community-based organizations are challenged by a lack of legitimacy and accountability with the general public; relating with institutions of the state, such as government agencies; relating with institutions of the market, such as businesses; and relating with international actors, such as development agencies that provide funding support. However, efforts by governments and NGOs to build the capacity of community-based organizations without destroying what makes them so unique in the first place (e.g. local focus, their spirit of volunteerism and solidarity) is not easy (Powers, 2002; Brown, 1989). Powers et al offers the following advice: “We believe it may be most effective if INGOs go beyond decentralizing their operations and cease being operational in the field. This can be done by forging ties with autonomous local NGOs which have a proven commitment and track record in handing over controls in the development process to the communities where they are working. To the degree that terms for partnership can be negotiated equitably, the imperative for standardized and impersonal mass reproduction of one strategy, which ironically is often only magnified (rather than adapted) in the process of decentralization, can be significantly curtailed.”
Heeding to the advice of Powers and others, over the past 8 years, Village Earth has developed and refined, what we believe to be a viable approach to supporting local organizations. However, we face our own challenge in scaling-up. On Pine Ridge and in Peru we have had to develop numerous innovative strategies to catalyze the development of local voluntary organizations. In both cases, funding was not available from the outset.
Rather than seeking out large, all-encompassing grants which require specific predetermined outcomes and timelines, which oftentimes function to alienate local organizations from their founding mission,
we have sought to work together with community organizations to help them do their own fundraising for strategic sectors that they identify. Our “Adopt-A-Buffalo” program is a perfect example of this sort of grassroots fundraising where the idea and the model came from a local organization, and Village Earth simply helped them to implement it. In exchange for our help we are able to retain a percentage of the income raised. This not only created a sense of accomplishment amongst the local group, but also gave the them a sense of ownership and commitment to the success of the fundraising program.
We have found that one of the primary obstacles for community-based initiatives is the lack of organizational legitimacy and accountability needed by informal community groups to access resources. For example, in our projects on Pine Ridge and in Peru we have found that there exist many informal community groups who have great projects, but have not quite been able to access resources because they are not incorporated, they do not have a bank account, that they have not fully articulated a decision making process, etc. Village Earth has catalyzed the development of these groups by serving as a temporary fiscal sponsor, allowing them to “piggyback” on our organizational structure while we work together to build the capacity of theirs. As the flow of resources increase, we gradually help increase the organizational capacity of these groups to match the increased need for accountability, while avoiding structuring too fast. As a wise Lakota Elder said, “community groups are like pails of water, if you move too fast, the water sloshes out.”
Our vision, in the next few years, is to refine and expand our package of support services to dozens more local voluntary organizations around the world. Affiliated organizations would have access to a number of helpful services that would expand their capacity to reach their goals and receive funding.
We are currently starting discussions with potential partners in new regions and are working to develop a system for formalizing these relationships to expand our support of grassroots groups.