Strengthening civil society to support natural resource management

A new report finds that civil society organisations in Africa struggle to get the support they need to play an effective role in natural resource management and conservation.

Fred Nelson and Emily Wilson's picture
Fred Nelson is executive director of Maliasili Initiatives. Emily Wilson is an organisation development practitioner with Well Grounded
29 July 2015
Community representatives gather together to record their knowledge about dryland resources as part of a participatory mapping process in Isiolo County, Kenya. (Photo: James Pattison/IIED)

Community representatives gather together to record their knowledge about dryland resources as part of a participatory mapping process in Isiolo County, Kenya. (Photo: James Pattison/IIED)

Natural resource governance and biodiversity conservation in Africa is facing a period of crisis as a result of surging land acquisition, militarised commercial wildlife poaching, extractive resource industry impacts, and the steady pressures of demography and social change.

Finding ways to scale up promising models of sustainable community natural resource management and to change policies through effective civil society action has become increasingly urgent. Yet new research suggests (PDF) civil society is not being supported to do this.

Civil society capacity is a key factor in scaling up responsive and durable solutions to natural resource governance and conservation challenges in Africa. Civil society organisations (CSOs) need to be able to participate in the identification, design, and implementation of solutions. 

Many talented, visionary and committed African civil society leaders and organisations have played a key role in the African natural resource field. For example, from scaling up community conservation in Namibia and Kenya, to the design of sustainable community forestry models in Tanzania, and to a wide range of land and forest policy reform initiatives and movements in countries from Liberia to Mozambique. 

Yet despite widespread acknowledgement that African CSOs have a critical role to play in improving conservation and natural resource governance, there remains relatively little focus on how these organisations are supported, invested in, and sustained over time (or not).

Within the natural resource field, relatively few initiatives and partnerships are explicitly geared towards strengthening African CSOs.  And even where investments are being made in capacity development, there is limited documentation of outcomes, models, or best practice. 

New research on civil society

New research by Maliasili Initiatives and Well Grounded on Strengthening African civil society organizations for improved natural resource governance and conservation (PDF) explores these issues (a video about the report is also available on YouTube).

The study looks at the major challenges and concerns facing African CSOs in their growth and development, as well as current funding practices and trends and external capacity support. Some of the key findings include: 

  • The major organisational development and sustainability challenges facing African CSOs revolve around the interconnected issues of funding, human resources, strategy, and leadership. Leading and potentially strong organisations tend to operate in a constrained environment, with marked shortfalls in human resources, experienced organisational leaders, and long-term core funding
  • Much of the traditional investment in capacity development that African CSOs receive tends to be focused on enabling them to meet funders' compliance requirements (e.g. for financial reporting and administration) rather than on strengthening their overall capabilities and long-term sustainability
  • There is a renewed emphasis on funding for African CSOs by both public development agencies and some private funders, deploying a range of new models and approaches. Despite this, a number of long-standing challenges around the suitability of such funding in supporting African CSOs persists. Also funding models that promote long-term, core investments are less common in the natural resource and conservation sectors
  • Partnerships with international NGOs can be a key for African CSOs' access to funding, networks, and technical knowledge. However, these partnerships can also be problematic, with African organisations effectively being used as project implementation vehicles without any deeper relationship based on mutual interests or long-term investment, and
  • A number of conservation organisations have developed innovative capacity development models and practices, but there is limited documentation of best practice, impacts, or learning around these issues. 

Identifying solutions

The report recommends a series of measure for funders, international NGOs and African CSOs active in the natural resource and conservation sectors, such as:

  • Improve partnerships between African CSOs and international actors (both funders and international NGOs) for greater long-term impact by developing more collaborative and mutually accountable approaches to partnership design, structure, and investmentA representative from the Tanzanian CSO Mpingo Conservation and Development Initiative, talks with local community members about sustainable forest management practices (Photo: Maliasili Initiatives)
  • Change the way funders and international partners deliver organisational support to a more long-term, customised, sustained, and demand-driven system
  • Support new approaches and investment in leadership development
  • Bolster investment in documentation and learning to build up a base of empirical evidence on best practice and ways to strengthen organisations and initiatives in the fields of African natural resource management, governance, and conservation, and
  • Encourage greater dialogue between both local leaders and external supporters around fundamental organisational issues, such as values, identity, organisational culture, legitimacy and accountability.

One civil society representative who was interviewed for this study said: "To fulfill our role we need an enabling environment, which is sometimes missing for us as an organisation…" 

If African societies are to develop and scale up the solutions required to deal with intensifying changes and new pressures, creating a stronger enabling environment for leading civil society organisations to thrive and deliver impact must become a greater priority on the natural resources agenda.  

Fred Nelson is executive director of Maliasili Initiatives and Emily Wilson is an organisation development practitioner with Well Grounded. Both organisations focus on strengthening leading African civil society organisations, networks, and social entrepreneurs. Their joint report was launched at a conference on Building Capacity for Conservation and Resource Management in Africa, which took place in Nairobi, Kenya from 27-30 July, 2015. 

Related resources

IIED's Forests team works with people who live in forests to promote sustainable forestry. A key part of this work is promoting the concept of investing in locally-controlled forestry (PDF) 

We also study the factors that impact the effectiveness of loccal organisations. With our partners Birdlife International and the Equator Initiative, we studied the the work of five local organisations in East Africa. The results were published in a briefing setting out eight key factors that governments, development agencies and donors should get right if we want local organisations to thrive.

IIED also supports local organisations to help make the case for protecting their environmentsEarlier this year we relased an animation designed to help local communities protect their legal rights in the face of large-scale land acquisitions.