Relationships with Other Environmental NGOs

The social context within which Cameroonian NGOs operate includes not only government and local communities, but also their relationships with other environmental NGOs, both Cameroonian and international.

Chapter 7 discussed in detail one important type of relationship among environmental NGOs: flows of financial support. Flows of money, however, are only one facet of a much more complex picture in which environmental NGOs assist, cooperate with, and compete with one another. The interorganizational relationships of environmental NGOs have been investigated in some detail in developed countries (e.g., Shaiko, 1999; Bosso, 2005; Markham, 2008), and some research in sub-Saharan Africa (e.g., Roberts, 2000; Carr and Ogbonnaya, 2001; Selowane, 2001; Michael, 2004; Sithole, 2005; Doe, 2008; Tukahirwa, Mol, and Oosteveer, 2010) describes such relationships as a sidelight to research on other topics. We located only two older studies (IUCN, 1994; Dierig, 1999) that pay more detailed attention to inter-NGO relationships in Africa. Each report points out both some successes in inter-NGO relationships and some significant obstacles to successful cooperation, but neither reports any systematic data. There has also been little research about relationships among environmental NGOs in Cameroon, although it is clear that some successful collaborations do exist. A good example is the cooperation among the Watershed Task Group and its partners, Environmental Defence and the Centre for Biodiversity Conservation. With funding from the IUCN, WWF, and other sources, they embarked on a project for sustainable management of the Douala Estuary and the Lake Ossa wetlands through environmental education for the population and local industries and developing alternative sources of livelihood (Forpah, 2007) for fishermen.

Analytically, environmental organizations and their NGO partners can have three types of relationships (Langley, 1995; Thomas, 1995; Markham, 2008): (1) one organization can supply the other (or they can supply one another) with resources; (2) two or more organizations may cooperate to reach a shared objective, which may include establishing a division of labor among them through formal agreements, informal consultations, or coordination by an umbrella organization; or (3) organizations may compete with one another for support, which includes funding, volunteers, material assistance, expert advice, and the like. In real-world situations, of course, relationships may include all of these elements.

NGOs can potentially provide one another with a variety of resources, including funds, labor, expert advice, materials, or the legitimacy and prestige that come from being associated with highly regarded organizations (Levine and White, 1971; Hall, 2002; Markham, 2008). For most environmental NGOs in Cameroon, funding is the most needed resource, but the other resources can be important as well. Particularly for relatively unknown and struggling Type II NGOs, expertise is often in short supply. Moreover, the prestige of being associated with other well-known and admired NGOs, either individually or as part of an umbrella organization, can be a valuable resource for attracting recognition, legitimacy, and support from government, local communities, and other groups (see chapters 8 and 9). Finally, relationships with influential international NGOs have sometimes bolstered the independence and political influence of domestically based environmental NGOs (Thomas, 2003; Child, 2009).

Relationships in which one organization receives more resources from a second organization than the second organization receives from it are relationships of unbalanced dependence (see chapter 2). In such cases, the less dependent organization is in a position to exert power over the other, and its power will increase when the more dependent group lacks alternative sources for the resources that it is obtaining from the more powerful one. We discussed a special case of this general rule, the high dependence of many Cameroonian NGOs on international funders when money is very difficult to obtain elsewhere, in chapter 7. Other types of unbalanced dependency relationships, however, have not been frequently studied for environmental NGOs, although Michael’s (2004) research in Senegal, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe led her to conclude that African NGOs were, in general, at a power disadvantage in their relationships with international NGOs operating in Africa.

Environmental NGOs often have much to gain from cooperating with one another (Markham, 2008), and there are examples of both successful cooperation (Roberts, 2000; Carr and Obbonnaya, 2001; Sithole, 2005; Doe, 2008; Tukahirwa, Mol, and Oosteveer, 2010) and breakdowns of cooperation (IUCN, 1994) from research elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. If they can agree on policy objectives, environmental NGOs can speak with one voice to government or local communities, magnifying their influence. They can also avoid duplicating projects and undertake joint efforts in which each of them contributes resources to a common effort, increasing the chances of success. Especially if cooperation is long term, there is the opportunity for a set of NGOs to evolve or consciously plan a division of labor in which individual NGOs develop their own specialties and are supported by others. Organizations with specific areas of competence can take on specific tasks within a project that suit their expertise. By developing their own individual niches, environmental NGOs might also be able to focus their appeals for support and their funding proposals on the specific groups or organizations most likely to support them, develop experience and expertise in cultivating these supporters, and reduce competition with other NGOs.

Cooperation among environmental NGOs does, however, have drawbacks (Markham, 2008). As described in chapter 2, individual NGOs often acquire individual identities and traditions that are valued by their staff and supporters. If their participation in joint efforts or projects moves them away from these traditions, they may lose support (e.g., Markham, 2008; Markham and van Koppen, 2014). Having high visibility and a clear, well-established identity can also be a decided advantage in fund-raising, while becoming merely one of a long list of NGOs in a common project can obscure an NGO’s identity and reduce its visibility. On the other hand, participation in joint efforts or projects with well-known, prestigious partners can increase an NGO’s prestige and influence and make it easier to attract support. Finally, if cooperative projects break down owing to poor coordination or failure of some NGOs to do their part, embarrassment for all, resentment, and conflict are likely to follow.

Even when NGOs choose to cooperate with one another, some element of competition is almost certain to remain (see chapter 2) . Environmental NGOs are seeking support from a limited pool of potential volunteers, government agencies, and funders (Markham, 2008). They thus have considerable motivation to set themselves apart as unique in terms of mission and competence, trumpet their effectiveness to potential supporters, and present themselves as more effective than NGOs with similar missions. Such competition can undermine their willingness to cooperate with one another because doing so might dilute their visibility or force them to share the credit for accomplishments with other NGOs.

There are major differences in the nature, advantages, and disadvantages of relationships with NGOs in other nations versus relationships with other Cameroonian NGOs. Consequently, we look at these relationships separately.

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