TNRC Blog | Practitioners’ Considerations on Risk in Anti-Corruption and Conservation

TNRC Project-Based Learning Blog

Practitioners’ Considerations on Risk in Anti-Corruption and Conservation

“Risk” has been a frequent topic of discussion across TNRC. During her time with the TNRC team, research and outreach intern Kristin Klipka examined the concept in more detail, reviewing published resources and interviewing a sample of TNRC’s pilot project teams. In this post, she shares the results of her research and some of the implementing teams’ firsthand insights and advice.

Anti-corruption work in conservation comes with all kinds of risks. Understanding and programming for different kinds of risks can be tricky, especially when one is unfamiliar with or new to the field.

Broadly, there are two categories of “risk” related to conservation and anti-corruption: the risks corruption poses to conservation projects, and the risks that anti-corruption efforts in conservation may pose to those who implement them.

Corruption has consequences for conservation

First, one must understand the risks and consequences that corruption can have within the conservation field. Understanding how corruption feeds into conservation produces better-informed project planning and decision making, and it can help projects avoid unintended consequences. Risks from corruption on conservation outcomes include environmental harm, human rights violations, and reputational and financial damage.

Conservationists naturally think about environmental risks when engaging in their work, especially unintended consequences like land use restrictions preemptively increasing timber harvesting or efforts to protect one species leading to problems for another. However, many may overlook ways that corruption also contributes to environmental harm. Corruption enables illegal logging, over-fishing, poaching, and more. It is a continuous threat to the well-being of nature and the people who rely on natural resources for their livelihoods and welfare. It also undermines the effectiveness of conservation projects. For example, one interviewee emphasized how corruption within law enforcement has hindered the success of past projects that relied on enforcement-focused activities to address conservation problems.

Failing to consider the impact of corruption and implementing possible anti-corruption measures when generating solutions to conservation issues ignores and exacerbates one of the root causes of environmental harm. This is the difference between treating the symptoms of an illness or trying to treat the cause. Conservationists can try to counteract the effects of illegal logging, for example, by focusing their efforts on replanting native tree species. However, illegal logging will inevitably and indefinitely continue if the broader dynamics that allow or encourage corrupt actions and illegal logging over sustainable livelihoods are not dealt with. Therefore, a conservation team could address both illegal logging and corruption by focusing efforts on increasing transparency in the forestry system.

A second type of unintended consequence has to do with the possibility for unintentionally aiding and abetting human rights violations as a consequence of corruption. Corruption may encourage authorities to look the other way when abuses are happening, or enable rights abusers to escape punishment. When committed by people with entrusted power, like officials making land tenure decisions to benefit themselves at the expense of local communities, the abuses themselves can be considered corruption.

It can be challenging for conservationists to ensure that all the outside organizations they need to work with do not violate human rights. This makes it vital to take a human rights-based approach and embed safeguards and dedicated protocols throughout the entirety of projects, as well as anti-corruption measures, whenever possible. For example, WWF implements these safeguards to protect human rights.

Finally, corruption can pose a financial and reputational risk to groups that are trying to do good in communities. Funding may be wasted if projects fail to create effective and sustainable solutions to environmental problems due to corruption. In addition, public backlash and withdrawal of funding is not unheard of when projects work with partners who end up being untrustworthy or corrupt. To avoid this, one must carefully vet partners and understand how corruption affects the context in which they work.

Facing the risks from doing anti-corruption work

The above risks show some of the reasons why it’s vital for conservation efforts to address the risks that corruption poses. However, practitioners also spoke about risks they faced when they carried out anti-corruption work. Those risks included damage to key relationships, as well as harms and threats to safety.

Some conservation work may rely on relationships with partners who are uncomfortable with or resistant to engaging on the topic of corruption. Many interviewees highlighted the necessity of advocating for anti-corruption measures, without explicitly naming them as such, to preserve key relationships. At the same time, interviewees noted the importance of refusing to compromise the heart of their work, even in the face of intense pressure to do so. In such a turbulent environment, they stressed that anti-corruption efforts should take extra care; when working on controversial issues, there is very little room for mistakes. They were careful to only promote verified and vetted information to the public, since they knew that opponents would take every opportunity to question and criticize the organization for any mistakes.

Risks to safety are some of the most important risks to consider. The scope of safety risks includes the possibility of being harmed or worse due to anti-corruption efforts, as well as technological breaches that could compromise someone’s safety, such as being censored or hacked on social media, phone tapping, etc. Experience shows the threat is generally most severe when conservation activities, journalists, or other stakeholders (such as community members) threaten people who orchestrate and benefit from poaching, illegal logging, and illegal wildlife trade and the corruption that facilitates it.

One clear lesson from pilot teams is that visibility and publicity can be an advantage or a risk and needs to be considered carefully. For example, keeping a low profile may be essential to the success and safety of a project. But in other cases, higher public visibility can actually be a help rather than a hindrance. Allies in the media can bolster protective public attention, create a stronger sense of public accountability, and generate public support for issues.

Mitigating risks

While the risks above are serious, they are not impossible to address. Interviewees suggested three different types of risk mitigation that practitioners working on anti-corruption and conservation can consider: strengthening civil society and social buy-in, securing allies, and creative problem solving.

One highly recommended strategy is to increase social and economic buy-in through strengthening civil society. Strong civil institutions increase government accountability and aid in the fight for transparency, which both work in disincentivizing corruption and the other risk factors. Strengthening civil society in a conservation context can look like educating the public on the meaning of environmental laws, uplifting underrepresented voices in policy talks, and more. Multiple interviewees stressed the success they’ve had when creating awareness campaigns and investing in educating the general public.

In cases where those larger reforms may be infeasible, even working to build and protect opportunities for local participation and influence over decisions can be vital in reducing risk. There is strong value in creating safe spaces where community stakeholders can express their experiences and concerns about corruption without fear of repercussions. Talking and working directly with the people who witness and deal with corruption can diversify perspectives and identify more entry points of work. For example, one interviewee, who advocates for more transparency in the fishing industry, was able to minimize both safety risks and the risk of rejection by focusing conversations around how technology would make work easier for fishers, rather than emphasizing how the tech would also increase transparency and hopefully decrease corruption.

Especially when working with stakeholders directly affected by corruption, practitioners emphasized the importance of using secure communication lines. Mitigating safety risks means ensuring almost total anonymity for whistle blowers, for example, but also taking care to protect anyone who participates or speaks up in a project. To do this, interviewees advised finding secure lines of communication, not discussing sensitive information in front of strangers, and being extra careful about what information is shared with those working in the corrupt system.

Another key piece of advice from TNRC pilot projects is to invest in connecting with strong allies. When multiple parties speak up about corruption, the risk of one individual group or organization becoming a target is reduced. Allies can also mitigate risk through teamwork that strategically capitalizes on the strengths of each partner. For example, one interviewee explained how they have intentionally become the face of a project or facilitated discussions with people with power because their status as a foreigner afforded them more protection than their allies. Another project leveraged their partners to call out corruption in spaces that their team could not, due to sensitive relationships.

Finally, all interviewees highlighted the importance of thoroughly understanding the specific context for programming. Political Economy Analysis, for example, can be a strong base for the creativity needed to find openings to achieve meaningful victories. Practitioners also explained how they were unable to build strong allies or advance necessary legislation if they used strong language such as “corruption.” However, when they focused on solutions-based language, like “good governance,” they were able to garner more private and public support for their projects. Another interviewee suggested that speaking to people through a conservation lens can be a friendlier, and more successful segue into corruption.

Anti-corruption work is challenging, but necessary and doable

Understanding the consequences corruption can have on conservation as well as the risks from working in anti-corruption is important for avoiding harm and achieving conservation goals, even if the work to respond to this impact is challenging. It is impossible to predict all outcomes and risks that a project will bring, but preparation lessens the likelihood of harm. The interviewees reflected this point; despite the risks and the struggles, pilot teams expressed a strong overall sense of pride and satisfaction in their anti-corruption and conservation projects. Learning how to overcome the risks they faced made them more effective in their work and eager to continue making a difference in their communities.

On-the-ground practitioners and experts

© Vecteezy / Vinh Phan

Image attribution: © / Jen Guyton / WWF; © Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF; © Georgina Goodwin / Shoot The Earth / WWF-UK; © Hkun Lat / WWF-Aus