blog 01.10.2023


Mainstreaming anti-corruption in conservation: Dispelling myths and charting a path forward

By Micol Martini, Technical Lead & Senior Governance Expert, WWF-International and Rachel Kramer, TNRC Deputy Chief of Party, WWF-US. Although this blog is not specifically written for the Practitioners Forum, its content is highly relevant to members and the Forum's mission.

In July 2023, 40 conservation and anti-corruption practitioners from 20 countries came together in Quito, Ecuador for the Anti-Corruption Learning and Strategy Workshop. Here, experts from WWF, TRAFFIC, Transparency International, the Basel Institute on Governance, and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime took stock of learning from five years of anti-corruption work under TNRC and via complementary efforts and identified priorities for the environmental anti-corruption movement going forward. Drawing from key takeaways, this post dispels some common myths and charts a new course for impact.

Common myths and current realities

Myth #1: "There’s nothing that can be done to stop corruption from harming nature and people”

It’s indisputable: when actors in the wider environment in which conservation programming happens abuse their power for private gain, and when powerful vested interests benefit from environmental harms, the future of our planet is put in jeopardy. But there’s light ahead: conservation work is evolving to consider corruption risks more and to integrate corruption-focused analysis into global approaches. The resulting programming is helping to prevent and disincentivize corruption before it occurs, and in some cases, share information that exposes instances of corruption.

Myth #2: “Corruption is too sensitive a subject”

A lot of conservation work that’s designed to address drivers and facilitators of corruption requires government buy-in to succeed. This can be intimidating when simply mentioning “corruption” to a government official can change the dynamic of a conversation. If not approached carefully, this could put staff at risk or constrain an organization's operating environment. Experience shows that results can be delivered also by finding common entry-points with government partners. This includes using alternative language to refer to “corrupt” actions where there are sensitivities, and framing conservation issues through the lens of government priorities, leveraging existing incentives, working with and through trusted government partners, and identifying champions.

Myth #3: “It’s impossible to manage this level of complexity”

It has taken the anti-corruption community decades to figure out how to approach corruption effectively – and in reality, it is still a work in progress. For the most part, this is done by getting to know the social, political, and economic context before making any decisions about where to intervene and how to program. Progress is slow-going and there are no silver bullets. But understanding context has helped many to find appropriate starting points and adapt to complexity and changing circumstances where needed.

Myth #4: “Doing anti-corruption takes resources that we don’t have”

This isn’t necessarily true. Many in the conservation community have a long history of navigating political challenges. Addressing drivers and facilitators of corruption can be integrated into what we’re already doing in active conservation programming—it doesn’t always require new funding.

Myth #5: “There are no good examples of anti-corruption in action in conservation”

There is both old and new experience to build on. In the past five years, TNRC generated a lot of internal capability. Learn from that experience and leverage evidence, case studies, training and other tools on this Knowledge Hub that's been supported by USAID.

Where do we go from here?

We’ve now dispelled some of the big myths. Where do we go from here as a community? We can start by doing three things.

The conservation community can:

1. Mainstream situation analysis in our work

We can't address or avoid risks that we don't understand or are not aware of. Vested interests drive corruption and the harms that it generates, and they are constantly changing. WWF and TRAFFIC are finding ways to grow the capacity of staff to understand such interests where we work so that at minimum, everyone in our organizations can spot risks and identify how our conservation priorities intersect with these dynamics. Others can do so, too. This framework for doing political economy analysis in conservation work, and wider guidance on situation analysis, is available to start. We can't achieve ambitious conservation goals unless we mainstream situation analysis in global conservation work.

The conservation and anti-corruption communities can:

2. Form new partnerships and scale existing alliances

We can't take on these issues alone. New alliances exist that are already helping us to grow. Further partnerships will expand expertise and enable us to work more systemically.

The donor community can:

3. Take a corruption lens when shaping investments

Building on the suggestions above, we'd encourage all investments in this area to at least ensure they are cognizant of those vested interests, including related to corruption, that may impede conservation goals. Investments are likely to yield best results if they’re informed by and address corruption dynamics.

In five short years, a handful of organizations have scaled work to address corruption’s impact on conservation on every continent. Where there was once a gap, we now have knowledge, capacity, tools, and peer-to-peer support options to grow from. Let’s keep moving.