By Simon Mercer
Back in March Jami wrote a blog entry that asked how those involved in conservation and development projects can use evidence to demonstrate impacts. In her blog Jami highlighted the difficulties that many Darwin projects have in providing robust evidence that demonstrates the impacts of their interventions. Whilst there are no easy solutions to this it is not a problem specific to Darwin projects.
Last week, with much of the Darwin team out in Kenya carrying out Closed Project Evaluations, I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop that grappled with some of these intractable issues. University College London hosted a two day event that considered how to evaluate the impacts of conservation interventions on human wellbeing. Participants were drawn from a wide range of backgrounds representing some of the key actors in the conservation arena including a number of organisations with links to Darwin either through current projects such as Bird Life’s Mainstreaming biodiversity and ecosystem services into community forestry in Nepal project, or through their association with the DEC such as Imperial College’s E.J Milner-Gulland.
Day 1 began with some general sessions that examined the concept of wellbeing and its relevance for conservation, introducing a 3 dimensional conceptualisation of wellbeing comprising the material (what you have), the relational (what you can do with what you have), and the subjective (how you feel about what you have and can do). The second session looked at some of the different evaluation methodologies that are available to conservation practitioners, followed by a discussion of the relative strengths and weaknesses of these methods. The afternoon allowed space for discussion around these issues examining what different stakeholder groups want to get out from social impact assessments and the barriers and challenges facing conservationists in effectively evaluating the social impacts of their activities. Interestingly, a degree of consensus was found on these issues between the distinct stakeholder groups (donors, academics, and NGOs).
Day 2 was structured around 3 clinic sessions on different methodological approaches to social impact evaluation covering what they involve and how best they might be applied. The first of these looked at RCTs and quasi-experimental design, the second at qualitative and mixed method approaches, and the third at rapid and participatory assessments. Indeed the latter provided a forum through which the Darwin-funded work of IIED to develop a methodology for the Social Assessment of Protected Areas could be showcased. This project is working to develop, test and roll out a methodology for rapidly assessing the social impacts of protected areas, helping to define, in conjunction with local stakeholders, a practical plan to address any identified issues.
In the final plenary session of the day common subjects were identified and potential next steps discussed. Key themes that came through in all of the workshop sessions included the importance of mixed methods approaches to impact evaluation, and the need to ensure that methods appropriate to the project specific context and proportionate to the size and design of the intervention are employed. Another interesting aside was the importance when evaluating the social impacts of protected areas, not to assume a priori that the protected area is the factor with the greatest influence on the wellbeing of local populations.
For me, one of the key take home messages from this fascinating and thought provoking workshop was the fact that many of the tools needed to evaluate the social impacts of conservation initiatives are already out there. What is needed is much clearer guidance for practitioners to ensure that the most appropriate and context specific tools are selected and appropriately applied. This very much links to the work that Jami is doing on the thematic review and reinforces the point she makes in an earlier blog: the ‘best’ approach to demonstrate a project’s impacts on biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation and the suitability of evidence will depend upon why the data is being collected, for whom and, perhaps most importantly, the context of the project.