The importance of NGOs in Namibian Conservation

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Environmental NGOs are an integral part of Namibia’s society and democracy. Our environment would be immeasurably poorer today were it not for their dedication over the past decades. In the years ahead Namibia will need them even more. We need to strive for the creation of an enabling environment in which, in partnership with Government, the private sector, community groups and other components of society, NGOs can play an optimum role in helping to sustain our natural resources while at the same time promoting economic growth, says Dr Chris Brown, Executive Director of the Namibia Nature Foundation and former Head of the Directorate of Environmental Affairs in the Ministry of Environment and Tourism.

It would be fair to say that without NGOs Namibia would probably have lost its black rhino population in the north-west (Kunene and Erongo regions), as well as its desert-adapted elephants. The other wildlife in the north-west and Caprivi would be on the verge of extinction, our large predators such as cheetahs and leopards would be far worse off than they are today, we would have no rehabilitation centre for injured wildlife, we would know much less about the biodiversity within Namibia, and very little about our deserts and arid systems. As it is, the Namib Desert is one of the best studied and understood systems in the world.

Save the Rhino Trust ©Christie Keulder

Black Rhino. Photo ©Christie Keulder

There would, furthermore, be far fewer environmental education centres and opportunities for young Namibians, and many of the large national programmes that underpin Namibia’s approach to environmental management would not exist. In addition, rural communities would still be alienated from their wildlife resource. The implications are that rural communities would have no rights over wildlife, would get no benefits, and thus would have no incentives to protect wildlife and use it sustainably. As it is, a growing number of people derive benefits from wildlife and, in these areas, wildlife numbers are on the increase.

Non-government organisations (NGOs) have clearly played a vital role in Namibia’s environmental development over the past few decades. They continue to play a central role today and, with growing human populations, increased pressure on the environment and the need for innovative, pro-active and cost-effective solutions in the years ahead, their role will become ever more important.

Today there are some 26 environmental NGOs working in Namibia. They range from small, local institutions with very limited resources, to relatively large, national organisations working on national programmes across the country. Environmental NGOs fall into two broad categories:

©okonjima africat foundation

Leopard. Photograph courtesy of Africat Foundation

  • Membership organisations, such as the Namibian branch of Earthlife Africa, Namibia Community-based Tourism Association (NACOBTA), and the Wildlife Society of Namibia; and
  • Organisations that work under a board of trustees or directors, such as the Namibia Nature Foundation (NNF), Rössing Foundation, Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC), Namibia Development Trust (NDT), Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), Desert Research Foundation of Namibia (DRFN), and Save the Rhino Trust (SRT).

These organisations are held accountable for their activities and management by their respective boards, which typically consist of prominent members of Namibian society who voluntarily give of their time to support environmental conservation. Over the past years, environmental NGOs have gone to considerable lengths to ensure that their internal systems of governance and accountability are of a high standard. As a result, environmental NGOs in Namibia have a good track record and reputation for professionalism and responsibility.

Perhaps the key factor that contributes to the generally high level of professionalism within environmental NGOs is that many of the people working in this sector are driven by a deep and abiding interest and conviction of the importance and urgency of their work. They are passionate about the issues, want to make real changes for the good of the environment and society, and are prepared to work long and hard, often under difficult and poorly paid conditions, to achieve their aims.

Commiphora. Photo ©Ron Swilling

Commiphora. Photo ©Ron Swilling

A third category, not falling quite within the conventional notion of an NGO, is that of associations and umbrella organisations. These form an important component of the environmental non-governmental sector in Namibia. Included here are the two farmers’ unions, the members of which directly manage most of the land and natural resources in Namibia. Two other umbrella organisations play pivotal roles, being the Namibia Non-governmental Organisation’s Forum (NANGOF) and the Community-based Natural Resource Management Association of Namibia. These umbrella organisations are important, because they facilitate communication, co-operation and support between their members, help identify and address priority issues, and speak on behalf of the NGO sector.

When it comes to areas of focus and specialisation, environmental NGOs vary widely. There are those that work with individual species or groups, such as rhinos, elephants, cheetahs, carnivores, plants and birds, and work tirelessly for their well-being. Others focus on particular regions and habitats of the country, such as deserts, coastal areas and wetlands. There is a growing interest in wise and integrated management of natural resources, linked to livelihoods, economic growth, development of capacity (sometimes called human capital) and assisting rural communities to take charge of their own destiny and developmental pathways. These community-based approaches show great potential as a vehicle to support and promote sensitive development initiatives, not only in rural communal areas, but throughout the country, including in urban environments.


Desert elephants.

Although the methodology was spearheaded in the wildlife sector, it is currently being applied in the water, forestry and agricultural sectors, and has considerable application for freshwater fisheries. The next challenge is for the support agencies (NGOs and government extension staff) to assist in the management of natural resources in an integrated way, rather than to perpetuate the sectoral structures of government at community level.

Yet other NGOs serve as watchdogs for society to, for example, ensure that seal harvesting is both sustainable and humane, that developments such as dams do not go ahead without a thorough assessment of the pros and cons, an opportunity for full public participation and debate, as well as an understanding of the strategic opportunities lost to other forms of land use if such developments were to go ahead. These are all rational and important contributions to society and sustainable development. Although an essential part of our democratic process, they are not always appreciated by everyone, and the services provided and views offered are often under-valued or belittled if not in conformity with the opinions of particular sectors, often branches of government or individual politicians.

Fisherman on the Okavango river.

Fisherman on the Okavango river.

It should, however, be pointed out that Namibian environmental NGOs are a moderate and well-behaved lot! We do not have the radical, protectionist, anti-development organisations here which one reads about in the western press. Namibian NGOs share a common understanding that appropriate development is essential for the welfare of the environment, that environment and development are not in conflict when planned and managed properly, and that poverty is a critical enemy of a clean, healthy environment. There is also a general recognition that sustainable development is best achieved in an open, democratic, market economy where government and civil society work together in close partnership.

Politicians and others who brand individuals and organisations as anti-development or unpatriotic because they speak out against bad planning, poorly conceived ideas and developments that will cost more in the long term than they will generate, often at the expense of the environment, local communities and future options, are simply short-sighted themselves, and are doing their country a disservice. It is, of course, true that we can mess up our ecological systems – our natural resource capital – if we are careless, short-sighted or if public policy and values are warped or plain wrong. Some mistakes are irreversible; others take decades or centuries to correct. Fortunately, the general public usually sees the value of a careful, balanced approach to development.

The notion of partnership between Government and NGOs is fairly new in Namibia. Prior to Independence in 1990, much of the work of NGOs was done outside of any government framework, collaborating with disenfranchised civil society. After independence the situation changed dramatically, and strong partnerships and collaborative approaches were initiated. One of the aspects that distinguishes the Namibian environmental scene today from that of other countries is the remarkably strong teamwork between many government, NGO, private sector and community organisations. This strong teamwork is the result of a shared common vision of what the most important environmental concerns and solutions are. That is not to say there is no individuality and original thinking going on. Far from it. But the process of deciding how to tackle Namibia’s environmental management following independence was an inclusive and comprehensive one.

The environmental clauses in Namibia’s National Constitution set the scene for the work that was to follow. The next step was the development of Namibia’s Green Plan. The Green Plan process drew the NGOs in aggressively, and in many cases thrust them into leadership and co-ordination roles. The result of this process was that the Green Plan created a common vision for the priority environmental issues of the day, and the types of approaches that should be implemented to address the problems and opportunities. This process led to the development of a wide portfolio of environmental programmes.

Chameleon on Welwitschia mirabilis. Photo ©Paul van Schalkwyk.

Chameleon on Welwitschia mirabilis. Photo ©Paul van Schalkwyk.

Again, these programmes drew in the NGOs as well as the private sector and other branches of Government, to both steer and administer the programmes and help implement them. Teams were built up, cutting across sectors and institutions, helping to break down the highly sectoral approach applied prior to independence, and showing institutions the value of collaboration and synergy resulting from partnerships. We understand today that sustainable development is about much more than environmental policy, environment ministers and their departments. It is about environmental projects and programmes. It requires a mosaic of institutions, policies, values, ideas and initiatives. Chris Patten, the last Governor of Hong Kong, former British Minister of Environment and Overseas Development, now Commissioner of the European Union, considers the word “mosaic” to be too static a term for what is required – it is really a political and institutional ecosystem of policies, values, ideas and initiatives that is needed to save the ecological one.

It is interesting to record that the Rio Conference on Environment and Development devoted a chapter to the role of NGOs as partners for sustainable development in its Agenda 21 document. It notes that NGOs play a vital role in the shaping and implementation of participatory democracy. Their role is considered to be particularly important to the implementation and review of environmentally sound and socially responsible sustainable development. They offer a global network that should be tapped, enabled and strengthened, and recommend that society, governments and international bodies develop mechanisms to allow NGOs to play their partnership role in the process of environmentally sound and sustainable development. Indeed, the United Nations system is in the process of becoming increasingly inclusive of NGOs in its own deliberations. Namibia has progressed a long way towards achieving these goals, and is undoubtedly one of the most open countries with regards to partnerships with its environmental NGOs.

But let us reflect for a moment on why it is that these partnerships and the roles of NGOs are so important.



The “environment” is an extremely complex, cross-cutting and all-embracing subject that affects the lives of all Namibians. It is the responsibility of all inhabitants of this country and, indeed, this planet. The greatest contribution that any government can make to sustainable development is to create a constructive and supportive “enabling environment” for itself and civil society to manage natural resources in a wise and sustainable way, for optimal long-term development.

This goes to the heart of good governance and democracy – the understanding that real democracy is an adventure in dialogue, recognising the value of persuasion, sound and logical reason and demonstration over posturing. Eight centuries ago, Lao Tzu, Chinese sage and Keeper of the Imperial Archives wrote: A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when people obey and proclaim him. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aims fulfilled, they will all say “We did this ourselves”.

An enabling environment is one in which Government, with its partners, identifies the national aims, goals and standards. They work in partnership to develop the policies, incentives and regulatory framework to achieve those objectives. They then work to implement the policies in innovative, efficient and effective ways. One of the current failures of Government is in the implementation of its policies – many of which are truly good, even ground-breaking.

This failure has been noted by both the President and Prime Minister. The reason is simple; institutions are generally not able to develop and administer policy while, at the same time, implement the policy. The tasks are fundamentally different. One is an administrative monitoring function, the other an active goal-oriented development function. For greatest efficiency, most of the implementation should be outsourced. This would mean that Government does not monitor itself, but rather monitors a series of outside agencies. It would also mean that Government could become lean and mean, and invest resources saved from its formally bloated bureaucracy into implementation. After all, the role of Government is to ensure that things get done in the best possible way, not necessarily to do things themselves.

Desert lion. Photo courtesy of SWA Safaris.

Desert lion. Photo courtesy of SWA Safaris.

NGOs are well placed to take on many of the activities traditionally performed by Government. Indeed, in some sectors, this is already happening. Effective programmes on community-based natural resource management, combating of desertification, protection of biological diversity, monitoring rare and endangered species and many other examples, are already in place and working effectively. However, there is potential for much more. A few examples include park management and research, coastal management, and pollution and waste management.

Another area in which NGOs have traditionally been highly effective is in identifying new threats to the environment and devising new ways to address them. In Namibia we have some good examples. The innovative community-based programme initiated by IRDNC in the Kunene Region almost 20 years ago, is today an internationally recognised and respected approach to wise resource management. Similarly, work on the Namib Desert and on arid ecosystems has been ongoing at DRFN for more than 30 years.

In the final analysis, environmental NGOs are an integral part of our society and of democracy. Namibia’s environment would be immeasurably poorer today if it were not for their dedication over the past decades. In the years ahead the environment and Namibian society will need them even more. We need to strive for the creation of an enabling environment in which, in partnership with Government, the private sector, community groups and other components of society, NGOs can play their optimum role in helping to sustain our natural resources while promoting economic growth; in short, creating partnerships for sustainable development.

This article appeared in the 2001 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia. 

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