Failure in conservation projects are rarely recorded, new study finds

Everyone experiences failures in conservation projects but only a few are recorded. What are the leading causes of project failures?

vietnam deforestation
An estimated 30,000 to 50,000 forest violations are reported every year in Vietnam. Image: a-brlnr, CC BY-SA 2.0, via IFPRI Flicker

We’ve all had duds. We’ve worked on projects far longer than we would have liked to and failed. We’ve agonised over missteps. We’ve learned from roadblocks — sometimes we’ve not. Yet it’s the successes we love talking about. Conservation is no different.

“‘Doing’ conservation often means grappling with very wicked problems, often intractable and there are no easy pat solutions — the way many success stories are often told makes it sound very easy and non-controversial and simplistic,” Aparajita Datta, a conservation scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation based in Mysore, India, told Mongabay. “In fact, it is quite dangerous to propagate that notion among people. It can lead to strong disillusionment in the real world.”

But it is the “successes” in conservation projects that usually make it into scientific papers and reports. Analysis of failures is uncommon in the peer-reviewed conservation literature, new research says, even though lessons from failures are as valuable as those from successes when trying to understand what works and what doesn’t in conservation.

This is totally unsurprising, David Wilkie, director of conservation measures for the Wildlife Conservation Society, who was not involved in the study, told Mongabay. “We have long argued for evidence-based decisions making,” he said, “but that has almost exclusively, as the paper confirms, been framed in terms of positive evidence, or success stories, with little or no attempt to look at negative evidence, or failures or unexpected and undesired outcomes.”

Lead author Allison Catalano’s quest to understand how people talk about failure in conservation began where many research questions do: with a laborious literature review.

She searched for peer-reviewed scientific papers reporting on the social aspects of why conservation projects succeed or fail, and found more than 220 articles discussing project successes. Only 59 articles analysed failures, that is, tried to evaluate why the goals of a project hadn’t been met.

The 59 articles had some common features. In general, the authors of the papers assessed other people’s projects, either through interviews with stakeholders, NGO and government staff involved in the project, or by observing the various people involved. In only 15 per cent of the articles did the authors analyse projects they were directly involved in.

“There’s value in both,” Catalano, who worked in the U.S. Navy before starting her Ph.D. at Imperial College London, told Mongabay. “I think it’s important that we write about our own projects, but it’s less important than getting it written about at all.”

Digging into the papers, Catalano found some common causes of project failures emerge. One leading cause, predictably, was how people interact. Conflict, lack of coordination between different stakeholders involved in the project, too many competing interests among different groups, or a lack of trust often led to failure. People’s experiences with past conservation initiatives, such as with corruption, the failure to learn from past experiences, or a sense of alienation, also contributed to failure.

Communication was also key. Not communicating information effectively, not understanding or managing expectations, or avoiding difficult questions, was frequent fodder for problems.

Then there was the lack of funding. Projects sometimes stalled either because of insufficient money, because the initial sources of funding had ended, or where funding had been misallocated and misappropriated.

Finally, some papers reported economic and political reasons. These included cases in which economic goals trumped conservation, or when there was a lack of political will, changes in political conditions that did not support long-term conservation efforts, or government policies that clashed with conservation objectives.

The finding that interactions between stakeholders and project actions, and not external factors like politics, was the largest cause of project failures, is hopeful, Catalano said.

“This is a tiny sample and there’s no way to extrapolate from it, but it should give us some optimism that we need to work on our stakeholder relations capabilities,” she said. “We need to work on our project management capabilities and information failures, the lack of feedback or reflection, or communication failures. I think those are things that we can actually influence.”

Stuart Pimm, the Doris Duke professor of conservation ecology at Duke University in the U.S., who was not involved in the study, told Mongabay that Catalano’s was an important paper. “Its basic philosophy — that we cannot make progress in conservation unless we understand failure as well as success — is unassailable,” Pimm said. “A lot of things can go wrong and, critically, a lot of them could be avoided were past mistakes made explicit.”

But most of the scientific articles that turned up in Catalano’s review were authored by academics, Pimm said, and not by staff at the big conservation NGOs like The Nature Conservancy, the World Wide Fund for Nature, Conservation International, the National Audubon Society, or the Wildlife Conservation Society. “Their absence is most telling,” he said.

The absence of failure reporting, at least by conservation NGOs, is usually driven by reputational risk, Wilkie said. “Staff worry that their bosses will consider them incompetent, they worry that their failure might reflect badly on their organisation and on their supporters.”

“I have to say that we do learn more from failure than from success,” Wilkie added. “When I brew a good 5 gallons of IPA beer, I simply drink it with friends. It never occurs to me to ask – why did it turn out well. When I brew a bad batch of beer, I spend time laboring over what could have caused the failure and how might I prevent it from happening in the future.”

For failure documentation to become commonplace, though, people would first need to feel comfortable making failure public without worrying about repercussions. This could be done using anonymous failure reporting systems like those used in the field of aviation, Catalano said, where a person who witnesses a problem in the cockpit can report the errors anonymously without the fear of reprisals.

Of course, conservation is very different from aviation. But people are the same, Catalano said. People’s tendencies to avoid conflict are the same, and people make mistakes. “What we’re trying to understand with acknowledging that error is inevitable is that we then need to have some structures in place to manage those errors,” she said.

In general, everyone seems to agree.

“Conservation usually involves teamwork, even if it is driven by the passion and motivation of a few leaders. But no one is infallible,” said Datta, who was not involved in the study. “Most conservation programmes go through many different phases, with ups and downs and failures and successes along the way. Nothing will always be an unqualified success — it keeps changing due to so many local factors, socio-political factors.”

At the moment, though, there are not many incentives to documenting failure. Many of the people who actually “do” active conservation work on the ground don’t have the skills and training to document the program, its impacts and failures using the correct tools, Datta said. “They are not encouraged in that culture of critical thinking and evaluation.”

People managing conservation projects also often lack the skills to manage people, timelines, or budgets efficiently — skills that can be acquired through training, which, again, needs time and money.

The biggest problem of all is defining failure.

“Everyone knows failure when they experience it, but it’s really hard to define,” Catalano said. For conservation projects, which often span several years, failure can be open to interpretation and change its form depending on who looks at it and when.

There is also a tendency to project failures on spectrums of success or avoid using the word “failure” completely. Catalano’s review, for example, found that more than half the articles that did discuss project failures did not use the word “fail” in the title, abstract or keywords. Instead, they used a range of synonyms to describe the project’s lack of success or its problems.

“I tried to use synonyms for failure [in search strings], but really, there’s a lot of different ways you can describe things that don’t work that would have been missed by my search methodology,” Catalano said. “So there’s a chance that I underrepresented it.”

The number of scientific papers discussing failure of conservation projects is low at the moment. But Catalano said she hopes that the existing examples will help inspire others to do the same.

“Part of the reason I think this work is important is that we need to see more examples of people doing things that promote learning from failure,” Catalano said. “And I think when people see other people writing about their projects, and they see journals publishing those, they could be more inclined to do it. It’s not that conservation people don’t know this is important. It’s just that we don’t have the mindset and the systems in place to make this happen.”

This story was published with permission from

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