June 15, 2002. The role of NGOs in society. A presentation to the Grasslands Conservation Council's symposium in Cranbrook.
Grasslands and the Role of NGOs
Presented to the Grasslands Conservation Council of BCís symposium
June 15, 2002
By Maurice Hansen, Rocky Mountain Trench Natural Resources Society
Iím coordinator for the Trench Society, which is dedicated to the restoration of publicly owned grassland ecosystems in, as it says, the Trench. The first important role I can think of for our organization is staying alive and maintaining a presence to the public, agencies, corporations, etc. so we can be distinguished from the myriad other organizations with a conservation angle. So thereís a big job in fund raising, communicating with constituents (which often gets neglected) and liaising with government.
I did a little web search on non-government-organizations. There came back a note that more than a million references to the term non-government-organization were found it's busy out there, and given the current fads in the field of governance, may be getting busier as people hatch schemes on how to fill holes vacated by government.
Since our Societyís goals have to do exclusively with publicly owned land, and since government is the management authority on such land, it follows that our primary operational relationship is with government. I can talk about NGOs roles best in this context. Before I reveal the proper roles of NGOs, you will have to listen to a few ideas that I think pertain to the subject.
Because our problem of disappearing grasslands was due to lack of action, our organization saw its job as creating action. Being involved in operations that would actually restore this vanishing resource. The goal of generating substantial grassland restoration operations has had a vexed history here in the Trench. We were going to change that and break out into a new era of grassland restoration after forty years of analysis paralysis. So besides changing the world our role would be that of catalyst.
The Society was formed in 1996 and weíve been participants in the local ecosystem restoration program for five years. Weíd like to think our presence had a lot to do with this program being launched, that it wouldnít have happened at all without us. Putting egos aside, enough time has passed so we can review our role and compare expectations with results. How effective were we and what needs fixing?
The expectation I had for the Society was that it would take about five years to get the bugs out of a grassland restoration program. After that the system should be up and running and the Society should be able to fold its tents and leave the field of engagement. This was naive. We're near the five year mark and the restoration program could be characterized as teetering on the edge of quandary. A happy future is not certain or even a good bet. As well at the survival uncertainty, other fundamental changes are required in the program to meet our desires. Weíd like some of that certainty the forest industry is after.
For a lot of ordinary citizens, me included, government is a puzzle. How come perfectly good ideas have such a hell of a time surviving a trip through the government system? My research on the subject led me to the notion of bounded rationality. This is serious scientific stuff. Originally postulated by one Herbert Simon. It means the size of the organization and its capability of efficient delivery of goals are negatively related. Itís the law, big outfits can only be so rational. Itís humbling that something this obvious wasnít clear to me until it was explained. So Iíve stopped being mad at deficiencies in rationality. Itís like if your pickup runs out of gas, it makes no sense to take a hammer to the carburetor. Thereís more effective ways to improve rationality.
Where does the breakdown in rationality start? Well, the optimum size of a self-regulating human organization is about 150 according to the scientists. Beyond that size the usual social controls like gossip and direct knowledge start to diminish and rationality starts to go to hell. You need to bring in laws and police forces, government structures etc.
Something else that has implications for NGOs is that creativity and innovation never come from the center. Study of the behavior of critters like goats and cows, shows that about 10 percent of the herd or flock are innovators. Movement of the herd is initiated from this group. They tend to be out on the edges and range further afield, seeking out new food sources, they are more curious. Of course thereís a price to pay. They are more likely to get eaten. Or die from experimenting on a poisonous plant. But theyíre vital to the ability of the herd to adapt to change and ultimately itís survival, because they share their learning with the herd. Another interesting human parallel with herd animals is that the dominant animals are not the leaders. In fact when danger threatens, the dominants bully their way to the center of the herd to ensure they donít get eaten first. Ever see this happen in a herd of humans? Victoria might be a good place to study that.
But to characterize NGOs we could say that:
They are usually small organizations with active participants way less than 150 so NGOs are relatively efficient.
They take on tasks which need doing but which donít generate any cash.
They provide goods and services in that zone between the market place and government
They donít have any statutory power, only the power of influence
Finally what is the role of these organizations that come grouped under this negatively framed designation? It is handy and rolls of the tongue easily I asked the forest service district manager here the role question, in the context of our ecosystem restoration program, and he said the Trench Societyís role should be:
(1) Raise money for the program and give it to the forest service
(2) Publicize the program to garner political and public support
From that we determined we didnít want government to have the power to define our role. Those are worthwhile roles although giving money to the forest service would be a taxation innovation wouldnít it? But the image I had for our role was larger than the DMís. Hereís my suggested list:
- NGOs primary role is to change the world. Otherwise we'd be happy with status quo, right? Perhaps go to work for government. Or stay home and do a hobby.
- Regarding the problem of bounded rationality, the role of NGOs is to drive the experimental learning process, which has the potential for creating rapid change.
- NGOs like the Trench Society and the Grasslands Council need to become active in the policy realm. Without policy changes, the restoration program in the Trench may fade from view. We want some of that certainty the forest industry talks about.
Iíll finish with what I think the rules of engagement for NGOs should be:
(1) Avoid the center. Instead NGOs must scout the edges of their habitat for opportunities to reach their goals, for that better life as well as for things that entertain, amuse, excite and stimulate
(2) Use their wits for survival as opposed to protection from the herd.
(3) It may be useful to pray. I recommend we pray to Athena, the goddess of cleverness and intelligence.
(4) Be aware of danger out there. Predators may want to eat you. Or you can be flattened by your own herd.