Thought piece: is what we’re doing working?

An independent thought piece brought to you by Victoria Pilbeam, a Senior Consultant at Clear Horizon Consulting

Most conservationists are driven by impact. They want to see the places, communities and wildlife that they dedicate their lives to thriving. But how often do we as conservationists explain how we think that change will happen, or take the time to test the core assumptions underpinning these theories?

As an evaluator, the work I do is largely predicated on the belief that people and organisations can only make a difference if they can clearly describe how their work contributes to a bigger picture. Understanding and articulating how conservation is supposed to work is key to doing conservation that protects our environment. One of the key tools that we can use to help us with this ambitious task is developing a theory of change.

Theory of change is a powerful thinking tool that makes explicit how we think interventions will deliver outcomes and contribute to a wider impact. The dominant narrative that Biodiversity Revisited is seeking to address is built on a very clear theory of change. In a nutshell, the core intervention under this model of conservation is researching biodiversity, with its intended outcome being to influence decision-makers to conserve biodiversity, and its intended wider impact to foster a more biodiverse world.

We have considerable evidence that the core assumption underlying this theory of change has not held true. Despite knowing more about biophysical systems than ever before, significant action has not followed, and our natural world is in crisis.

It’s time to revisit our theory of change.

So how might we develop a stronger theory of change to inform a more effective conservation agenda? A theory of change works best when it’s developed collectively, with a diversity of perspectives and experiences in the room. I hope that Biodiversity Revisited will provide an opportunity to discuss how new conservation movements will work towards a better future. But to get the ball rolling, I’ll share some initial thoughts.

Firstly, let’s consider a broader set of actors than just scientists, practitioners and policymakers. The failure of our current model indicates that biophysical research alone is unlikely to catalyse the change we need. This means that we need to develop new narratives that include a wider range of stakeholders. We can learn a lot from the integrated approaches to biodiversity that many successful Indigenous cultures have practiced for thousands of years. We might also want to learn from collective impact approaches that bring together different sectors and communities to address seemingly intractable problems.

Secondly, we have to be explicit about the values that underpin our theories of change and be prepared to test and revise our assumptions. The current dominant model of conservation assumes that science should have a stronger say in decision-making than other forms of knowledge. This stance reflects certain values about the centrality of science in our society. But in a world where resources are scarce, if we want a conservation agenda that creates room for more diverse stakeholders, science cannot occupy the same level of focus. This is also a normative decision. As an extension of this, if we assume that a people’s movement for biodiversity will save the planet, then we must be prepared to test this assumption. You could argue that despite compelling wide-scale protests for climate action, global climate policy is still failing to address the climate crisis.

Finally, in developing our new theories of change, we have to be prepared to ask the hard questions about how we practice conservation day-to-day. If we know conservation work is ineffective, then we shouldn’t continue to pour resources into it. Having these conversations threatens the power we place in the existing status quo of conservation research, policy and programming.

These conversations are difficult, particularly when well-loved programs and the jobs of conservationists themselves are at stake.

This work asks a bolder choice of all conservationists, not to just do what we’ve always done but to commit to only doing work that makes an impact. As evaluator Margoluis and colleagues put it, we must not let the urgency of biodiversity loss divert us from what is important – drawing on the best evidence we can to deliver conservation that is truly impactful.

Victoria Pilbeam is a Senior Consultant at Clear Horizon Consulting.

The content of this thought piece represents the author’s own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Biodiversity Revisited initiative nor of any of its collaborating institutions.