I’m just back from a five-day trip to the possibly remotest island in Germany where I served as an external expert at a capacity building workshop for European government representatives working on biodiversity.
Especially for Eastern European countries, developing and implementing meaningful biodiversity strategies often feels like an uphill struggle. National focal points have to deal with changing governments, conflicting priorities and a general lack of political will. In these situations, communications and engagement strategies can be more important than scientific papers and top-down planning.
Ask: Where does it work?
One strategy can be to look for the bright spots. No situation is completely hopeless, and doing more of what already works is a highly likely to lead to success. When asked for the bright spots, participants told stories of thriving gateway communities and educational TV programmes in Georgia, of the pride Israelis take in the diversity and health of their food and of successful wetland restorations in Britain. How can you apply elements of the success stories you know to the problem you are trying to solve?
Focus on what you want to achieve.
Measuring the impact of communications is easy if you know what you want to achieve: A change of behaviour in a specific (and ideally named) target audience. Once we had identified the regional ministry of the environment as the main actor for a regional development project in Bosnia, we knew what needed to happen: The minister should attend the launch event and take a decision to dedicate staff to the project within two years of launch. Now it was possible to focus on strategies to convince the minister to do just that.
Engage, Rinse, Repeat.
Communications is not a one-way process. The most effective way to overcome resistance, build ownership and create new solutions is to listen and create space for conversation. Some recent biodiversity strategy and planning processes have shifted the emphasis from scientific data to engagement processes – with impressive results. In France, more than 400 people met to define the country’s new direction for biodiversity. At a similar conference in Germany, stakeholders had a clear message for the government: Let’s engage more people, not more paper.
The Convention on Biological Diversity has invited the IUCN Commission on Education and Communication to contribute to the workshop series. The common session guide was developed by Frits Hesselink (Netherlands), Keith Wheeler (USA), Laurie Bennett (UK), Wendy Goldstein (Australia), Marta Andelman (Argentina), Jinie Dela, (Sri Lanka) and Gillian Martin-Mehers (Switzerland). So far, workshops have taken place in Botswana (March 2011, facilitated by Juliane Zeidler) and Germany (April 2011, facilitated by Wiebke Herding).