'The aim of the restructuring is to create a lean, cost-efficient secretariat'

DECENTRALISATION is the new watchword at World Wide Fund for Nature International's (WWFI) headquarters at Gland, Switzerland. A restructuring effort by the management in mid-January created a whirlwind of controversy and confusion in the organisation; 31 staffers were dismissed during the restructuring process. Michel Pimbert, head of WWFI's Protected Areas and Species Conservation Unit (PASSC), was one of them; he found the entire process unjustified and autocratic, while Claude Martin, director-general of WWFI tries to adduce adequate grounds for the headquarter's controversial decision. KAVITA CHARANJI tries to ferret out the inside story while conversing with both of them.

 
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

You have been quoted as saying that the WWFI's restructuring exercise was "one of the most difficult weeks in the history of the organisation". What prompted the decision to make 31 staff positions redundant?
The restructuring of the WWFI secretariat in Switzerland is a direct consequence of an ongoing decentralisation process of conservation programmes. Although we do not expect the total revenue for the WWF budget to drop, the secretariat budget for the forthcoming financial year will be 20 per cent less than the previous year's. The overall aim of the restructuring is to enable us to create a lean and cost-efficient secretariat which coordinates programme work, rather than being directly involved in executing and administrating it.

How do you explain the timing of the restructuring?
Income projections made in the last quarter of 1994 reinforced the fact that the WWFI secretariat was not functioning on a sustainable income basis. It was therefore decided at the beginning of 1985 to prune the secretariat. We were able to provide relatively generous support from this year's budget to the people affected by the decision.

What is WWF's (worldwide) income and to what extent have the WWFI's (secretariat) funds been affected?
Since 1992, the WWF network's gross annual income has risen from US $ 234 million to US $ 276 million. Around US $ 46 million of this has flowed through the secretariat. Next year, however, the proportion of funds being directed through the secretariat will drop by around US $ 7.80 million. The restructuring will take care of half of this reduction. The rest will be offset by cutting the volume of conservation programme funds going through the secretariat.

Did this amputation have to be carried out in such haste without adequate warning? Apparently, even WWFI staff members where taken by surprise.
For the past years, the directors have carefully reviewed the position of each departing staff member. Only those positions deemed vital for the functioning of the secretariat have been refilled. In November 1994, the staff were warned that the organisation was to cut its expenditure by 20 per cent, and told that it was unlikely to achieve this simply by not replacing departing staff.

There is speculation that ideological conflicts within WWFI sparked off the recent overhaul. According to the media, the exercise was prompted by the need to weed out people who did not subscribe to the WWF's philosophy, interpreted as viewing people as obstacles to conservation, particularly those who were vocal on the need to empower indigenous and local communities...
There is no ideological conflict over the question of participation in conservation. The view published in The Guardian that the WWF was changing its policy as regards the involvement and empowerment of indigenous and local communities is totally skewed. This view is based on the fact that one particular post was eliminated. It could equally be argued that WWFI is dismantling its environmental education programme, reducing its regional programmes, and neglecting financial control. All these sectors have been equally or even more severely affected by the restructuring.

I should also point out that the international secretariat is only a tiny part of the WWF's worldwide operations. The WWF employs about 1,500 programme staff throughout the world, many of whom, incidentally, work very closely with local communities and make great efforts to further local participation in decisionmaking, project execution and benefit-sharing. Most of these staff members are local people who understand the social and cultural context much better than expatriates can. As an organisation, the WWF actively supports participatory approaches to conservation.

What role do funding agencies play in the WWF's policy decisions? There is speculation that the corporate sector exerted pressure on the organisation to cut costs and streamline operations. Did it oppose an approach that sought to empower local communities?
The WWFI's funding comes primarily from its national organisations. These, in turn, are supported principally by 5.3 million individual members worldwide. In 1994, these individuals provided 55 per cent of the WWF network's income. Corporations provided 5 per cent, government aid agencies 21 per cent, trusts 3 per cent, investments and product sales 14 per cent and other miscellaneous sources 2 per cent. The secretariat itself receives no income directly from corporations, but does earn a small percentage from licencing deals with companies such as Grooth A G, with whom we have set up a WWF stamp collection. The decision to reduce staff members was a management decision that was supported by the Board.

What has the WWFI done to evolve participatory approaches to conservation?
Decentralisation is one way to emphasise local participation. In the coming years, the WWF will further reinforce this approach through education projects and by providing more grants to grassroots and locally initiated projects.

What are the WWF's priorities likely to be in the future, now that the restructuring is over? Do you see it taking different directions in any way?
The WWFI's priorities are established in conjunction with national organisations. The aim is to combine practical, solution-oriented fieldwork and global policy work. Key activity areas include the conservation of biodiversity, sustainable development and pollution control. Along with local capacity building, the WWF will forge strong partnerships with other organisations, further increase its membership base, improve the way it reports its programme activities, and develop common standards for the design and evaluation of projects. A crucial element of all this will be the organisation's firm commitment to local community participation.

'The restructuring has weakened the WWF's people-oriented tradition'

Michel Pimbert was served his dismissal orders when his unit (PASSC), was well into a 5-year collaborative programme between the World Conservation Union (IUCN) and the WWF on joint protected area management. Pimbert sounded somewhat demoralised when asked to comment on his dismissal.

Can you recount the events that led up to the WWFI's restructuring in January?
The director general's office said on several occasions before Christmas that there would be no redundancies. I personally recall the WWFI's deputy director general, Jorgan Randers, telling heads of units at a management information meeting in October 1994 that no one need fear for his or her job. The international secretariat would reach an optimum size of 100 staff members over the next 3 years through a normal process of attrition and retirements.

However, on return from their Christmas holidays in early January this year, most divisional directors and all unit heads were asked to cancel positions in their respective departments virtually overnight. This top-down authoritarian decision showed a singular lack of respect for all staff at the international secretariat.

How valid is the official claim that the restructuring was undertaken to cut costs, streamline operations and facilitate the empowerment of local communities?
Many opportunities were missed, all in the name of cost cutting, streamlining operations and facilitating the empowerment of local communities in countries where the WWFI operates. For example, several staff members committed to community-based conservation who were made redundant in January would have been only too happy to relocate to the field as part of an intelligent decentralisation process.

It is also apparent that senior management cancelled positions before deciding what the WWFI's new priorities and structures should be. Most problematic in this context is the future of the PASSC, which I headed. In many ways, this unit deals with the heart of the WWFI's activities and it is therefore difficult to disband it totally, as implied by the decision to make its head redundant. So, attempts are underway to identify someone who could carry out key coordinating functions that were an integral part of my work.

It is widely believed that your paper, Parks, People and Professionals -- Putting Participation into Protected Area Management, with its strong overtones on a participatory approach to conservation, led to your dismissal...
I thought Claude Martin would be only too pleased to co-sign the discussion paper's preface with the director general of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD). But Martin sent me a memo which was an extraordinary diatribe against the ideas expressed in the paper I co-authored with Jules Pretty of the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development.

Quite apart from the emotional outburst questioning the author's understanding of conservation, and the main thesis of the paper, Claude Martin's memo ended with a blanket condemnation of all the policy work I had initiated during my time with the WWFI. I think this latter remark clearly indicates that some parts of the organisation were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the main thrust of the work I was carrying out with other like-minded colleagues within the WWFI.

Were there other reasons also for your dismissal?
The final incident was an international symposium on Genes and Butterflies -- Are Plants and Indians Becoming Raw Materials for the Gene Industry? organised jointly by the WWF Switzerland, Swissaid and the WWFI last October in Berne.

The concerns and tough ethical, political, economic and ecological questions raised by the participants were abundantly relayed to a wider public by the Swiss and the international press. However, some of the more conservative factions within the WWFI were perturbed by the explicitly political nature of questions raised by the symposium. Some dismissed the event as too divisive, not solution-oriented enough. Others claimed in the press that the only way forward was for environmentalists to work with industry. I think these events and internal struggles probably played a part in my dismissal.

Has there been a shift in the WWFI's philosophy only lately? How is it that you joined an organisation that you view as anti-people?
I have never said that the WWF is anti-people. That view is too simplistic and unfair for those of my colleagues who are doing excellent conservation work with local communities within the WWF system. When I joined the international secretariat, I was aware of the elitist origins of the WWF and its historical bias in favour of single-species conservation. However, at the time the organisation had just broadened its mission statement to include biodiversity conservation, sustainable use of natural resources and pollution control.

It had also changed its name from World Wildlife Fund to the World Wide Fund for Nature. A new Conservation Policy Division had been created, and I felt that new spaces were opening up for more modern, socially responsible approaches to conservation. However, it was also clear that the more traditional approach based on protection, preservation, paternalism and policing was still well-entrenched in the WWF. But with the WWF's commitment to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) process, it seemed possible to help the organisation move along with the times.

Indeed, over the past few years, we have witnessed a shift in the WWFI's conservation rhetoric. Words like community empowerment, participation, equity, people-centred conservation and sustainable resources are now part of the everyday vocabulary of fundraisers, policy analysts and board members. However, clarity over the meaning of these words is important because they have profound implications for conservation in practice. A recent advertisment of the WWFI on deforestation in the Amazon clearly shows that the well-intended use of a pro-people language can perpetuate the paternalism of top-down conservation and the insensitive mindset of 19th century missionaries and colonialists.

You have spoken about the danger of the "control of the enviromental discourse by the elite". Could you amplify on that?
Economist Wolfgang Sachs and his colleagues have pointed out that global ecology is a new arena of political conflict. It has become important for superpowers and industry to control the environmental discourse in the post-UNCED era. The recent restructuring has left the more citizen-oriented tradition within the WWF much weaker and uncertain about its future. At the same time, the WWFI's renewed emphasis on the harmony model of conflict resolution and closer links with industry makes it a privileged working partner in the new global politics, which stresses interpersonal dialogue and minimises the role of changes in socioeconomic structures.

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