Friday, December 18, 2015

Foreign Aid, Drones, and Leadership


This photo encapsulates so much.  It is the cover page for a new aid program from the Australian government.  The humanitarian challenge—seeking innovative solutions to the challenges facing Pacific Island nations in the face of climate change.

The white guy appears to have just flown to some Melanesian island with his high tech gear in pelican cases.  At the edge of the village he tinkers with the computer that guides a drone [is there any problem that isn’t going to be solved with drones?].  Behind him the bored to mildly curious villagers passively watch.  They are not involved in this latest visit from yet another gadget-laden foreign expert on his opaque mission. 

They know he’ll stay a while then disappear like the others.  He might be a nice guy and they enjoy the contact, hungry to learn about the outside world.  But they know from past experience, such visitors do not change anything.  The typical Melanesian hospitality will be offered and some good times will be had.  The visitor will interpret this as validation.  Years later, he might wonder later why their apparent enthusiasm never translated into the actions he recommended. 

This new program, Innovation Change, like decades of failed development and aid, seeks a quick, cheap fix to difficult problems.  “If we can just get the right data, or the right analysis, or the right technology…  we can solve [fill in the blank].”  These solutions require highly trained and educated experts.  Experts you won’t find among the villagers whose livelihoods are at stake.  Bring in the foreign experts.

This new program promises some millions for humanitarian challenges.  It includes things like bringing “ideators” who compete in the ideation preliminaries to Australia.  There they have a whole two-day “design sprint” where they are coached by advisors.  Not some stinking half day workshop or a one day workshop.  TWO days!   Two million bucks in awards will then be given for these now better-trained ideators to become implementers. 

The premise is that people might be able to come up with ideas, but they need Aussie funds and guidance to make it work.  Maybe if lucky a guy with will come to their village and fly a drone around to collect important data.  But then he’ll go away.  Maybe he will write a report and send it back to the village.  I doubt the drone, or the report, will stop sea levels from rising.

But I wonder, why isn’t there already someone from that village or nearby who can fly a drone?  Why does someone have to come from outside to work on the problem? What would happen if the millions spent on innovative solutions instead were spent on training innovative Melanesians?  How many people could they put through engineering schools with a few million dollars per year?  

If more money over the past two decades had been invested in training Pacific Islanders the way the white guy in the baseball cap had been trained, there would already be someone in that village able to fly a drone.   And since they live there, they would not just write a report that eventually gets used to start a fire or roll smokes.  They would follow up. They would lead.  They would engage their community and families.  They would teach.  They would get things done. 

This new aid program probably sounds great in Canberra.  Maybe they will sustain it a few years, spending more millions of dollars.  But soon new leaders will identify new priorities.   Afterall, how can anyone claim to be a leader when all they do is continue what the last leader did?  “Real leadership” means doing something NEW.

 In ten years all that remains will be some stories in the village about the guy that came in and played with a mini helicopter.  Maybe someone saw his big pale full moon ass when he took a shower and they will still laugh about that!

But if the Aussies had invested in training, ten years later there’d be an engineer in the district who continues improving rainwater collection, installing solar panels in schools, and teaching at the high school.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The big issue about trophy hunting conservationists ignore


The big issue about trophy hunting conservationists ignore

Lately there have been several papers and essays in the literature about the value of trophy hunting to fund conservation of rare and endangered species.  Aside from the ethical and aesthetic issues around killing a magnificent animal so its head can be severed and displayed, the main point is that the people wanting trophies will pay a lot of money for the opportunity do so.   The follow-on to this argument then is that the money they spend creates a value for the animal and provides funds to poor countries to conserve living trophy species populations.   For the sake of discussion I’ll call the two schools the conservation hunters and the conservation professionals.  The hunters want to fund conservation by permits and fees to hunt, the professionals do not want animals killed for trophies and think conservation funding from other sources should suffice.

The underlying truth is that for the species in question, the status quo is not working.  More funding is needed.  Traditional funding sources seem not to be enough.  The hunters school say they can fill the funding gap.

But why should a relatively small amount of trophy funding make that much difference?  Even if there are a lot of hunters willing to pay, for rare species there just are not that many trophies to be had.  The income will be relatively small compared to the millions of people, some of them wealthy donors and foundations, willing to contribute for the conservation of charismatic endangered species (and all the species that might make good trophies are charismatic).   With all the millions of dollars available and being spent via the conservation professionals, how could the relatively small contribution of hunters make a difference?

A large part of the answer to this question is that the money from hunters largely goes directly to the countries where the endangered trophies can be hunted.  Permit fees go to wildlife departments, pay for guides and trackers go right to the communities around the endangered populations.  Funds from hunters might be relatively small compared to the overall pool for conservation.  But they seem to be inordinately effective because where they are spent.

Neighbors to the wealthy trophy hunters here in the United States might make comparable donations for conservation.  But their funds often do not go straight to foreign wildlife departments, guides and trackers.  Their donations go to conservation professionals.  They support a team of vice-presidents, policy analysts and accountants in the United States.  They support the office buildings, heating bills and all sorts of overhead for the people making sure the money that does make it to the trophy host country is well spent.  They support the annual gala and numerous wine and cheese events, asking for ever more money to protect those endangered species.  The hunters don’t need a gala, wine or cheese, much less a high-paid team of experts and administrators to manage the conservation spending.  Hunters send the money to the country, they get their permit, essentially buying an animal, they go there hiring local guides; their overheads are the lodges and inns where they stay.   Funds from trophy hunters, unlike typical conservation donors, are not spent in the United States.

Whether you think trophy hunting is ethical or not, whether you think it threatens populations more than saves them, there is a message conservation professionals and conservation donors should learn.  If we learned how to direct conservation donations more directly to where they have benefit, if we learned how to eliminate money-sucking middlemen, if we essentially paid for conservation the way hunters pay for trophies, then we might have less need for trophy funding and quite possibly fewer endangered species.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

On the loss of biocultural knowledge



On the loss of biocultural knowledge.

In my decades of travel back and forth between the USA and various places in Papua New Guinea I have witnessed very rapid changes in many cultures.  Many people are losing their cultural traditions, many of which are vital for survival.  The loss of cultural knowledge varies widely among tribes.

In the worst example I have seen, the traditional language has a word for nearly every plant and animal in the forest.  Yet nearly everyone in the community now is ignorant of this rich lore and only a handful of elders can identify any but the commonest plants or animals in their traditional lands.  Most of the people have lost their skills to grow food in their traditional gardens.  They no longer know how to hunt or find edible plants in the forest, much less medicinal plants.  They have lost the knowledge of how to butcher game or how to prepare it.  No one knows what kind of wood is best suited for what purposes, and indeed they no longer can cut wood themselves and build their traditional wooden homes.   The old ways of starting fires are forgotten and replaced by matches, and even with matches now, younger people can not even find dry wood in the wet forest to build a fire.  They cannot make clothing from plant fibers or skins any more.  Old traditional ways of making soap, salt, and other necessities have been completely forgotten.

These people have almost completely lost the traditional skills they once had that enabled them to live off the land.  They are completely dependent on manufactured goods made by people far away.   Only a handful of anthropologists and biologists seem to care that an entire population has lost its core knowledge and skills necessary for basic survival.  A handful of enlightened donors and non governmental organizations are trying to stem the loss of traditional knowledge among tribal people of Papua New Guinea.

Unfortunately, the people I am referring to are not eligible to receive help from these well-intentioned people working in Papua New Guinea.  Why?  Because these  people do not live in Papua New Guinea.  They are Americans.