Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Do We Really Need Environmental NGOs?

So farewell then Environmental Protection UK (EPUK). The UK’s oldest environmental NGO (Non Governmental Organisation), known for most of its life as the National Society for Clean Air, last week announced that it was shutting up shop as a funded and staffed organisation. If it continues it will do so on a purely voluntary basis.

EPUK is not the first NGO that's run into problems in the current harsh financial climate, and it won't be the last. Running an NGO has always been something of a wing and a prayer activity, and establishing cash reserves when your focus is delivering on your charitable objectives is extremely difficult. People donating money want it to be spent on delivery, not stashed away in a bank account. Consequently many NGOs run with reserves that cover only a few months of operation and when individual giving and Government grants dry up (as they have done) they can quickly get into trouble. Larger NGOs have been cutting back, and many smaller ones are going to the wall.

But is this a problem: what do NGOs do and do we really need them? In essence most of them perform two functions. Firstly they provide an advocacy role – the public don’t know if something’s a problem unless somebody tells them, and nobody knows if Government policy is failing unless someone makes the effort to analyse it. Secondly they provide services, for example information and advice to the public on a particular issue.

If we look at Environmental Protection UK they have provided both these functions. Their policy function analysed (and frequently criticised) Government policy, whilst campaigns such as their Healthy Air Campaign helped to get air quality on the public and political agenda. On the services side they provided advice and information to the public, as well as technical advice to pollution professionals through products such as the Pollution Control Handbook and training events.

Services can be provided by the private sector, albeit normally at a greater cost and only if there is potential for a profit to be made. But the advocacy function is one that cannot be easily replaced. In an idea world the science around environmental protection would speak for itself, and policy would flow directly from academic research. In the real world scientists are often unable or unwilling to become advocates, and many areas of research are simply starved of funding as they aren’t seen as a priority. External advocates are needed to review the science, push for any new research needed and drive the findings into policy.

The Government seemed to doubt the need for advocates when they scrapped the Sustainable Development Commission back in 2010, stating that bodies such as the Environmental Audit Committee (a Select Committee of MPs) could perform the job instead. But this glosses over the fact that Select Committees and officials in the Civil Service set out to be to be decision makers rather than experts. The job of civil servants in the main Government departments is to listen to the arguments and produce appropriate policy, not to be experts in fields such as environmental protection. Political leaders do not want the civil service to get too attached to issues and pursue their own policy agendas.

Bodies such as the Environmental Audit Committee are therefore heavily influenced by the organisations they take evidence and advice from. For an example see their latest report ‘Air Quality: a Follow up Report’ where the conclusions are heavily influenced by the bodies (including EPUK) who gave evidence during the enquiry. But with NGOs scaling back so drastically now there is a real possibility that the voice of advocacy for environmental protection will be lost.

The one ray of sunshine on the horizon is that, though individual organisations may die, their cause lives on. In EPUK’s case their history has been one of retrenchment followed by rebirth since establishing as the Coal Smoke Abatement Society back in 1898. The organisation was battered during the wars and the Great Depression of the 1930s, but lived on under a new name. EPUK is now trying to find an alternative home for its successful Healthy Air Campaign, and it may be through this route that the flame of advocacy on air pollution is passed on.

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