Forgive me for highlighting a piece that does not explicitly tackle environmental issues. But this Washington Post op-ed on foreign assistance, by former Eritrean finance minister Gebreselassie Yosief Tesfamichael, contains lessons for conservationists, if we choose to hear them.Tesfamichael applauds the increased interest in Africa flowing out of the G8 summit and efforts by civil society to focus attention on the continent’s many challenges. But he knocks the “West knows best” mindset of international organizations, bilateral donors, and our beloved NGOs. From capacity building to structural adjustment, he finds an unwillingness to let Africans set their own priorities for what he admits is critically needed assistance.

I fear that many times the conservation community doesn’t listen to recipients, or only goes through the motions of consulting with them, when setting priorities and designing programs. Mac Chapin’s explosive piece “A Challenge to Conservationists” (PDF that requires free registration) in Worldwatch Magazine took Conservation International, World Wildlife Fund, and The Nature Conservancy to task for faux consultations with indigenous people in developing countries. Oxes were gored and the response (another PDF that requires free registration) was quick and shrill. I haven’t witnessed any tangible behavioral change, but would like to know if any resulted from the shake-up.

The conservation and development communities recognize they don’t play well together, according to Washington hallway chatter. Many enviros are bent out of shape that Jeff Sachs’ Millennium Project relegated the environment to the back seat in efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. Environmental issues such as biodiversity protection or climate change defy easy answers; what is the environmental equivalent of the bed net — a simple (some say oversimplified) way to prevent malaria? Development isn’t easy either, but it often offers easier ways to measure progress and design interventions. With measurement and results reporting all the rage among donors, these characteristics help grab and sustain policymaker attention.

The Ford Foundation is funding a UK-based conservation-development dialogue. Let’s hope the conversation between conservation and development continues — and more importantly, expands to include more Southern voices like Tesfamichael’s.

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