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National, regional, and international cooperation for sustainable environmental and resource management: The place and roles of NGOs

Information sharing
Partnerships with other institutions
Dialogues with governmental and industry organs
Linking with policy institutions
Working with monitoring institutions for effective implementation and accountability


Shimwaayi Muntemba


Sustainable development must have as its aim the management of natural resources and the regenerative capacity of nature in such a manner as to maintain their productivity and resilience over time. Over decades, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the environment movement have been struggling for sound environmental management and prudent use of natural resources. In recent years, they have been sustained in these struggles by the knowledge and evidence that the grass-roots communities among whom they work, and in some cases from whom they are derived, have understood and practiced sound management over time, although there have been some disruptions to their knowledge base. Moreover, Southern NGOs in particular consider that there are socio-economic aspects in terms of which sustainable development implies prevention of the friction and disequilibrium that may arise if economic development is, on the one hand, out of step with the existing natural resource endowments and, on the other, remains insensitive to social and cultural realities; it implies economic constraints but also opportunities in a given country. Although these concerns are shared by all sectors of humanity, this last one is particularly pertinent to NGO philosophy and work.

We must recognize from the outset, however, that NGOs are diverse in scope, interest, and size. Some NGOs are of the people, that is, formed by them. These operate at the village/community level, but they may also express themselves in wider movements. Others are for the people. Such organizations are external to the communities but they constitute important development partners. They comprise individuals who are committed to the cause of the poor, change agents, and front-line workers. Often, these organizations are considered partners because they work with the "beneficiaries" at all stages of the activity - from conception to evaluation -interacting and providing feedback. Some organizations are welfare oriented; others are research based. In Africa, very few organizations belong only to the last category. The majority of the few that carry out research include this task among their many other activities, as demanded of front-line activists.

The list of the nature and scope of NGOs can be long, and the diversity within the NGO community cautions us against conceptualizing NGOs in a monolithic manner. Despite this diversity, however, NGOs share certain fundamental elements:

uneasiness about today's economic order, an order in which the majority remain materially deprived;

uneasiness about the state of the resource base, which in the majority of cases is responsible for the deprivation;

uneasiness and anger over social injustice:

a commitment to fight, in many ways, against those forces responsible for the injustice;

a commitment to change at all levels;

in varying degrees, weaker capacities compared with governmental institutions and, especially, compared with the private sector, mainly because NGOs are "of" the poor, who remain distanced from power-controlling structures.

The diversity, yet commonalities, and levels of capacity of NGOs are correspondingly reflected in the multitude and magnitude of liaisons, networking, collaboration, and cooperation within the NGO community itself and with other institutions.

In order to strengthen their own efforts in their daily work and to tackle the challenges from a broader base, some NGOs are forging links among themselves, with the people on the ground, with research institutions, and, now, even with governmental organs. They believe that, through sound management, a more sustainable resource base and a more just world may be attained by these strategies. They are doing this in many ways, including:

information sharing, for which transformable data are needed;
partnerships with various institutions and groups;
dialogues with governmental and industry organs for effective advocacy work;
Iinking with policy institutions;
working with monitoring institutions to ensure effective implementation and accountability.

Information sharing

As with many other actors in the process of sustainable development, efforts that NGOs undertake can be strengthened by the information supplied, on the one hand, by independent policy and research institutions and, on the other, by local village surveys, which offer feedback from users. Village surveys can reflect the resources available to people at the household and community levels - land, trees, grass, water, etc. They can also reflect the services provided by the government and other agencies, including NGOs, time use, household job distribution and resource allocation, control and access.

The past 20 years or so have witnessed fundamental shifts in the role and place of research in the development process, including planning and resource management. The most conceptually powerful shifts have occurred in the area of the practical usability of research findings in strengthening the efforts of poor people to manage their destinies and cope with their poverty. Gradually, therefore, research is being seen by many development agencies, and some researchers, as a tool for empowering the disadvantaged and marginalized: the poor, women, and the young. Research is seen as a tool for this because:

(a) it could provide data and information to influence policy in favour of the poor and other marginalized groups;

(b) it could provide information that NGOs as front-line workers could use in their daily work with and for the people, and in their advocacy work on behalf of the poor communities; and, most important,

(c) it could provide the poor communities with information that they themselves could use to strengthen their own efforts, and also enable them to carry out advocacy work on their own behalf. Thus the research process and results would empower the poor.

Yet, despite research's noble intention, most research remains peripheral to developmental efforts. NGOs experience even greater difficulties with much of the existing research-generated information, couched as it is in unusable language and form. In addition, they see problems with the nature of that information. The prevailing scientific information order, especially the international one, is generally skewed in favour of vested interests (basically Northern and Northern outposts in the South). Thus, for example, research and information produced by/for industry sources are much more readily available than is information resulting from data gathered from the South.

Today, knowledge is a major source of power and control. Producers of knowledge, particularly researchers, claim objectivity. Yet much of this knowledge contributes to continued inequality and deprivation. Producers of the dominant forms of knowledge have also taken it upon themselves to define the nature of knowledge. Consequently, the people and others outside or on the fringes of the power structures have become dependent on experts who tell them what is good for them. In the process, their capacity to produce some of their own knowledge has become eroded, and in some cases, completely destroyed. A case in point is the knowledge of indigenous peoples in rainforest areas; this knowledge is being destroyed at a frightening pace, in some instances faster than the destruction of the forest itself. (Environment Liaison Centre International 1988: 20)

Part of the reason for NGO frustration lies in the assumptions of research as reflected in much of its present approaches, i.e. that the researcher, and not the people, will provide answers and ultimately solutions to the plight of the disadvantaged. Many front-line workers acknowledge the store of indigenous knowledge and the ingenuity of grass-roots communities in developing coping strategies, which should provide a solid base for any strategies for the alleviation of poverty and ultimately its elimination. Moreover, the concepts of the dominant culture of the ruling classes are carried over by most researchers through the dominant methodologies, which are mainly extractive, distancing the researcher from the "researched." Because the research methodologies, the language, and the images end up distancing the communities, NGOs find much of the information unusable.

The nature and quality of much available information, therefore, present particular dilemmas and challenges to NGOs as front-line workers, working with the people for sustainability of the environment and societies. NGOs are close to and, in some cases, of the people. They have the capacity to crystallize the needs as felt by the people and to distill researchable questions and problems for them. Because they are close to the people, they would and can ensure that the research done is directly relevant to what goes on at the grass roots and is oriented towards the actual research needs of the people.

NGOs have been grappling to gain access to useful and usable information derived from solid scientific data. Yet they acknowledge the inherent shortfalls and biases in traditional research, particularly for situations in the South. This is why there have been debates within and with the NGO community about how to deal with this dilemma. Below are some of the possibilities and options NGOs have considered and are experimenting with in information generation and creation.

Linking with scientific research institutions

Some NGOs are establishing loose links with individuals from universities and independent research institutes, in some cases inviting members from these institutions to become permanent associates. Others are linking up with governmental research organs and yet others with intergovernmental organizations. The idea is to gain access to any relevant, up-to-date data and information on threats to the resource base, which information they can use in their advocacy work and in their work with the communities, and also in awarenessraising. They can use it to articulate and strengthen their struggles in local-level resource management and at the same time feed into national/regional environmental data collection, interpretation, and use. Thus strengthened, NGOs could play lead roles, as some already do, in the use of research results to achieve sustainable livelihoods and development.

Seeking assistance from international NGOs

Often, academic research is not directly usable by NGOs and villagelevel groups. Where they are not already doing so, NGOs wish to link with the stronger members within the NGO community to transform the data into usable information through more easily comprehensible media. To date, however, many NGOs do not have the capacity to do this. Thus, even as they are using their networks, they need to have their own capacities independently strengthened. For this, some NGOs are turning to the international community of NGOs for assistance.

Building internal research capabilities

NGOs remain uneasy with the nature of traditional research, which does not seem directly to support popular and NGO attempts to identify the main causes of adverse environmental processes in the communities concerned. As currently focused and carried out, this research cannot provide the knowledge needed to build strong movements in Africa, whose aim is to try to influence regional and global environmental change with African perspectives and for a more sustainable society generally. This points to the need to build the NGO research capacity, and especially research that is action and grass-roots oriented. Many, therefore, are trying to build internal research capabilities. To meet these research needs, international cooperation through internship schemes offered by fellow NGOs, through university schemes, and with the official donor community is becoming important.

Participatory Action Research

NGOs also want research that will generate information that is owned, controlled, and, therefore, more easily used by the people who provide it in the first place. Thus some NGOs are spearheading links with universities, individual researchers, and other NGOs who are pushing for Participatory Action Research (PAR), a derivative of Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA) and a close ally of Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) methodologies. Some of the advantages of PAR are that:

it is people based;

its goal is to empower local communities, and it empowers them because they form part of the investigative team into their own problems and they join in the search for solutions;

it acknowledges the importance of secondary sources, but also believes that the targeted community may be able to lead the way to some of these sources - local leaders (churches, individuals) often hold information sources that provide a more living portrait of the neighbourhood;

the traditionally "researched" are full members of the research team, so that within a short time the multidisciplinary outside researchers become facilitators only;

research findings are more likely to be true reflections of the people's concerns, fears, and aspirations;

in enhances the liberation, knowledge, and capabilities of the local people, strengthening their ability to champion their demand for services and self-dignity;

it enables the creation of an ongoing rapport with the outside researchers through whom the local communities might identify other partners in their struggles.

The output of PAR is: (a) directly used by the communities for any follow-up action that they themselves may agree upon - development action plans, land use, resource allocation, and management, etc.; (b) more easily usable by front-line workers, and the research process itself will have inculcated a team spirit among NGOs, local community leaders, local government officials, policy makers, and a crosssection of the community.

Partnerships with other institutions

NGOs are also developing, or are being called upon to enter into, partnerships with many other actors to empower both themselves and also other weaker groups from among themselves. Other groups may be considered weaker because, in addition to information gaps, they may need technical support, or mobilization skills, or supporters and advocators as they struggle for control over the resources they use and manage as part of their daily work, or machinery to link them to national power systems in order to strengthen their work, or the strength of numbers as an empowering strategy for coping with forces that appear too bewildering to be tackled singly.

The ways in which they are doing this include the following.

Networking among the like-minded

Umbrella or membership organizations engaged in networking can identify strengths and weaknesses within their community of NGOs. Then, they either provide the information so that members can contact each other directly, or link members to each other through various schemes. NGOs in Zaire and Tanzania, for example, have strengthened their forestry-related activities and management by learning on the ground and enhancing their skills through networking with NGOs in Kenya: the GreenBelt Movement and Kenya Energy and Environment NGOs (KENGO). NGOs in Kenya and Zimbabwe enriched their organic farming skills by spending time at each other's locations and learning as they worked. In the process they were also experimenting and improving the methods. Similarly, NGOs from Kenya and Uganda have enhanced each other's skills through exchange visits. Many others, including some from other third world regions, have strengthened their networking and management skills through visits to the Environment Liaison Centre International, a membership organization based in Nairobi, Kenya. It is clear that NGOs will enhance their resource-management skills through exchange visits among themselves within Africa and on a South-South basis.

Partnerships with groups at the village/community level

In some cases, NGOs are linking up with local-level groups as a strategy for forging lasting and more result-oriented relationships. But they are also being called upon by the groups themselves to enter into partnerships with them in order to enhance their own efforts. Examples are women's groups, and I don't mean middle-class women, but the groups that depend directly on the resource base for their livelihoods and those of their households. Increasing degradation of the resource base is inflicting a harsher "onslaught" on women resource-users. These are the women who, to a greater extent, have retained what indigenous knowledge of resource management is extant. They are the managers of the resources they use on a daily basis. Therefore they hold a key to the sustainability of the resources. Yet their knowledge and roles remain unrecognized, though talked about. Women continue to represent the majority who are struggling for control over and easier access to the resources.

The idea of partnerships is not new to African women. Recognizing the need for partners, women have developed mutual-aid societies. The Kenyan word "harambee" is the most appropriate one I have come across to describe this. Whether they are known as clubs, groups, or cooperatives, the spirit behind them is the same.

As the environmental issues move from the local to the national and on to the wider world, as ownership of the resources shifts from women to men and from local to national power structures, and as support systems move out of the locality to the national capitals, women's partners must in turn reflect this wider horizon and especially be able to link them to the distant power brokers. NGOs, being of and for the people, fulfil this role. NGOs are already providing invaluable partners, strengthening women's groups in many ways: enhancing their capacities by improving the women's knowledge base, making it more efficient and reflective of the changing environment; empowering women through the acquisition of managerial and other technical skills; carrying out advocacy work on behalf of women to local and national power holders and brokers and to policy makers. Those NGOs that are able to carry out research can facilitate people-centred research, in order to strengthen local-level resource management, by bringing women into the research process. Thus women would be enabled to play lead roles in the use of research results for sustainable development.

Coalitions with other groupings

NGOs are working with an array of other institutions for sustainable management of the resources. Peasant societies and unions, farmers' unions, which in some cases mean large-scale farmers (to be distinguished from peasant unions), legal aid associations, fishermen's cartels, and in a few cases trade unions are some such groupings. NGOs work with them in their struggles against powerful forces whose practices are dangerous to the environment. In other third world regions these types of coalition have grown into movements. This has rarely been the case in Africa. Nevertheless, these unions are emerging and need to be encouraged and supported as a means of sustaining efforts at resource management. They will play major roles in the years ahead.

Dialogues with governmental and industry organs

Traditionally, much advocacy work by NGOs vis-a-vis governments (and industry) has been confrontational. This yielded results in other parts of the world, but now everyone, including government and industry, claims to have been converted and to be, therefore, environmentally conscious. Moreover, the targets of protests of 10-20 years ago seem not to be affected by such methods any more. For Africa, in addition, confrontational methods have often led to harassment of the individuals singled out as ring-leaders, without evident results. Often, too, globalization of the environment agenda has thrown African NGOs and governments on to one side of the arena, as both belonging to the globally deprived. Because of these developments, a number of African NGOs have sought more effective ways of carrying out their advocacy work on behalf of nature and people. These have included penetrating key organs within government as entry points into policy and governmental sanctuaries.

The ways in which this is happening include the following.

Individual links to the power structures

Many African countries attained their political independence in the past 30 years or so. Thus, many front-line workers and activists have links with the power structures through some friend, uncle, cousin, etc. These, in turn, introduce them to more of their kind. Some activists have found that they can use these contacts to press their case. The higher the contact is in the power hierarchy, the greater the chances of influencing the views of many. With the opening up of political systems and structures, parliamentarians are also being approached by their constituency members.

It must be admitted that these are not easy methods and it is doubtful whether such alliances can be sustained or depended upon. But there have been a few situations where they have worked and some NGOs would like to explore these methods of bringing about desirable change.

Dialogue with the relevant governmental organs

NGOs recognize that many governments and nascent industry in Africa are under tremendous pressure to meet short-term needs out of the limited natural resources available to the countries. More recently, they have also had to meet the demands of debt clearing. African countries therefore set aside long-term or even medium-term perspectives in favour of incessant political demands to meet dayto-day requirements. Market demands and economic and financial interest in reaping short-term gains blur the link with damaging costs to society. Therefore, a better appreciation of the costs and benefits of resource conservation through sound management is necessary before leaders in government and industry will accept the rigours of sustainable development.

NGOs involved in advocacy work see a role in influencing leaders in these areas, but they need solid, well-researched data to support their case. Confrontational approaches that might work in other instances are not likely to impress the targets in these cases. A number of NGOs have adopted this subtle yet effective way of going about their advocacy work, and it seems to be a method that should be pushed.

Until recently, the dialoguing method has been tried on a case-bycase basis. However, many NGOs whose mandates include advocacy have felt that this method, although it has proved effective in many instances, is reactive. They want to be proactive, particularly if the goal is to change policy so that national development strategies become more ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially and culturally acceptable to the people.

NGOs see an effective way of making any impact to be through: (i) identifying from among themselves those NGOs that share the same concerns, and (ii) initiating a series of dialogues with policy makers at national and subregional levels. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 provided an opportunity for some NGOs to initiate dialogues with their national governments, researchers, and others for effective participation. Since Rio, some NGOs have been attempting to engage in dialogue with governmental organs and researchers so that, together, they may initiate some follow-up action (UNDP 1992). This strategy has the advantage of, in the process, educating concerned policy makers about the state of the resources and about the important roles that grass-roots people, and especially women, play in the sustainable management of the resources. Many NGOs concerned with the sustainability of resources and societies have plans to explore this mechanism further.

The use of external links to penetrate local power structures

Many indigenous NGOs would not resort to the use of external links, but there have been cases, and there are indications that this is likely to occur again, where NGO interventions on behalf of equity of access have fallen on deaf ears in their countries, whereas external forces have been seen to influence change. With careful assessment of the likely implications, and if it is deemed not to be injurious to African dignity, some NGOs will turn to this form of pressure.

Linking with policy institutions

Many NGOs recognize the importance of policy in their daily work. They find that, unless policy is in line with sustainability on the one hand and people friendly on the other, much of their work will be short lived. Yet, although they acknowledge the need to understand the policy implications of their work and, where possible, influence it, they admit their shortcomings. They see these shortcomings in the following ways:

(a) Very few NGOs are intellectually equipped to analyse the longterm implications of national and international environmental and development policies for them, their work, and the societies they work with/for. Moreover, there are very few organizations addressing policy in Africa. These gaps handicap NGO work further.

(b) Most policies are evolved by governments behind closed doors. Societies and NGOs that work with them rarely make inputs into or shape the outcome of policies.

(c) As a result, most policies do not create the physical or moral environment for effective implementation of NGO work.

(d) In many countries, environmental concerns remain theoretical. They are not linked to issues of sustainability and sustainable livelihoods and development. As a result, the resource base continues to be degraded, thus undermining the very basis of the work of those NGOs that are either concerned with creating or raising awareness or working with poor people in their struggles to increase productivity.

For these and many other reasons, some (albeit few) NGOs have started to address the need to include policy in their work. They do so in many ways.

Direct participation in policy-formulation processes

Some NGOs see an effective way of accomplishing direct participation through dialogue: seminars, roundtables, discussion groups. Those involved either seek ways through which they can be invited by the governmental organs concerned, or organize seminars to which key governmental functionaries and politicians are invited. It is acknowledged that very few governments in Africa have opened themselves to NGO intervention. Therefore, it is rare for governments to have invited NGOs to interact with them. However, there are indications that, after the UNCED, the trend of dialogue that the summit process initiated in some countries will be built upon.

Advice to governments

Some NGOs advise governments through submissions, while others get themselves invited to comment on documents. None the less, it must be mentioned that the trend has been for the involvement of larger NGOs, some of them Northern. True, these are better equipped to handle policy issues, but many of them are removed from the daily concerns and struggles of the direct users and managers of the natural resources. Those working at the grass roots question the knowledge and objectivity of such NGOs, especially Northern ones. They wonder to what extent they can truly represent people's perspectives. Therefore, there are tendencies for grass-roots NGOs to seek other ways of directly influencing policies.

Seeking organizations specifically devoted to policy

Some NGOs see a need for organizations that will devote their attention specifically to policy development, formulation, and analysis. These would assist in mobilizing NGO participation, particularly by the smaller NGOs and community groups, and would also support governments in developing environmentally friendly policies rooted in Africa's social and cultural reality. In addition, NGOs see such organizations as playing a role in facilitating NGO appreciation of the implications of international policies for their work and the communities they work with. There are indications that NGOs are searching for such organizations and that, where possible, they are initiating them. The trends is for such nascent organizations to link up with similar institutions in the North, in an effort to inform governments worldwide, and as humanity searches for sustainable livelihoods and development.

Working with monitoring institutions for effective implementation and accountability

NGOs are often of and for the people. In recent years, there have been concerns about accountability by governments and NGOs themselves to the people and to the sustainability of natural resources and of societies. More immediate shifts towards democratization worldwide have strengthened NGO calls for participation and accountability. They see this happening in many ways.

Holding governments to their pledges

Governments have gone through two decades of agreements, resolutions, and conventions. Many of these have very good points that, if implemented, would have positive impacts on the resource base and societies. NGOs are concerned that governments honour what they have pledged to undertake. Through many channels, including the media and dialogues, NGOs want to hold governments to their pledges.

Reminding governments of their responsibilities

Governments are now accepted as being in place for the people and that their utmost priority is to uphold the well-being and welfare of their populations. NGOs are joining hands at either national or international levels to watch over governments, acting as their consciences and in some cases as their executioners. More NGOs are defining such roles for themselves and it is clear that, as society moves into new forms of democratization, a unity among NGOs will emerge to press for greater change and participation.

Calling for participatory democracy

NGOs now distinguish between representative and participatory democracy, seeing the latter as central to sustainability:

Participatory democracy is central to sustainability: how are all poor rural women struggling for livelihoods to be heard? How will development paradigms ensure the sustainability of their assets? What about indigenous people in the Amazonia and North America; the Maoris in New Zealand; the urban poor in our cities, the young, men and women, outside main-stream structures? Many of us in the NGO world believe that these are central to the sustainability of life-support systems, of cultures and ultimately of entire societies. Participatory democracy is a cornerstone of respect for human rights and of ensuring civil liberties. Governments everywhere must address the question of civil liberties. (Environment Liaison Centre International 1992: 12)

It is clear that, in the post-Rio era, participatory democracy is becoming an organizing theme for NGOs nationally and regionally, linking African NGOs to those outside the continent on a South South, South-North basis.

Holding themselves accountable

There are two main ways in which NGOs hold themselves accountable. First, some have started to include organizational and programme audits in their structures. In this way, and on their own, they attempt to ensure accountability to their constituencies. Are the structures they have in place conducive to participation and delivery? Are the programmes reflective of the concerns of the people for whom they were initiated? Are the programmes delivering the goods such that the identification, planning, and implementation process actually empowers the intended "beneficiaries"?

Secondly, NGOs are coming up with alternative treaties, a phenomenon that gathered momentum during the UNCED process and especially in Rio. NGOs are developing and evolving mechanisms for monitoring themselves, ensuring that the same rules they apply to governments are applied to themselves. As we enter a period of more conventions and treaties, we shall see NGOs develop more articulate mechanisms for self-monitoring.


Non-governmental organizations have been concerned about the sustainability of resources and have spearheaded strategies for and work in wise resource management. They have done this in many ways. They have been building their own capacities for information generation and packaging in order to reinforce grass-roots efforts. They have been establishing and building partnerships for resource management. They have been bridging gaps between themselves and governmental and industry leaders in order to raise the latter's awareness. NGOs believe that governments and leaders in industry will accept the rigours of sustainable development only after a better appreciation of the costs and benefits of environmental conservation and sound resource management. Awareness might both lead to policies conducive to sustainability and reduce inefficiency in resource use, which is a cause of resource loss. NGOs, therefore, have initiated many ways of working together to strengthen their pioneer work in resource management for sustainability. The coming years will see more links being forged across NGO borders, as NGOs reach out to partners from universities, research and training institutes, governmental organs, and perhaps even industry. Africa's own plight and the globalization of the environment are pushing NGOs in these more accommodating directions.


Environment Liaison Centre International. 1988. Earth 1992, ELCl's Strategies for Sustainable Development, 1989-1992. Nairobi: Environment Liaison Centre International.

---- 1992. Speech by Shimwaayi Muntemba. Ecoforum, Focus on the Agenda ya Wananchi 15(5/6).

UNDP (United Nations Development Programme). 1992. Africa 2000 Network News 1 (2)

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