Cover Image
close this bookSustaining the Future: Economic, Social, and Environmental Change in Sub-Saharan Africa (UNU, 1996, 365 pages)
close this folderPart 4: Institutional issues
close this folderNational, regional, and international cooperation for sustainable environmental and resource management: The place and roles of NGOs
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentInformation sharing
View the documentPartnerships with other institutions
View the documentDialogues with governmental and industry organs
View the documentLinking with policy institutions
View the documentWorking with monitoring institutions for effective implementation and accountability
View the documentConclusion
View the documentReferences

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.