22 Jun 2016

New initiative aims to make self-assessment easier for conservation

Cooperative meeting on developing joint marketing action plan led by Burung Indonesia.
By James Lowen

A coalition of conservation charities, led by BirdLife International, have developed a pilot version of a brand new tool designed to help organisations assess the impacts of low-budget conservation projects. In the long term, this should lead both to better projects and improved reporting to funders.

The tool, called PRISM (Practical Impact Assessment Methods for Small and Medium-sized Conservation Projects) is now being road tested by conservation bodies across the world. Once lessons have been learned from practical experience, the final version will be made publically available in March 2017.

PRISM is being developed by seven members of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI) and WWF under the leadership of BirdLife International's Ecosystem Services Officer, Jenny Merriman. The new tool, she explains, "seeks to help conservation bodies demonstrate how projects have made a difference". It will enable project managers to learn from experience and adjust subsequent delivery.

PRISM will also help show donors the impacts of their money – which, hopefully, helps provide justification for further funding.

Merriman expects PRISM to find particular favour with organisations with limited resources that typically struggle to monitor the impacts of their projects in a low-cost, effective and scientifically credible fashion. The CCI project team is assimilating good practice from across the world, consulting donors on their evolving expectations for reporting impacts, and tailoring the resulting guidance to common challenges. Guidance will cover a whole range of impacts that ultimately lead to improved biodiversity conservation outcomes, from changes in a species' population through changing attitudes and behaviours to improving livelihoods.

PRISM is now being roadtested by conservation bodies across the world, including BirdLife Zimbabwe's work on saving African vultures. Image of White-backed Vulture (c) Andy and Gill Swash WorldWildlifeImage

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There is strong demand for such advice. Iain Dickson, Research Assistant at BirdLife International, explains that the conservation sector "often struggles when it comes to evaluating impacts". Currently, he explains, "common practice is to only report on outputs, such as the number of people interviewed or transects walked, rather than outcomes, which is the difference the project made". Fundamentally, Dickson continues, this means "comparing the situation with what would have happened if the project had not taken place". PRISM is designed to help with this.

Iain Dickson clarifies that the target user of PRISM is "a small organisation, typically working in a small geographical area, on a particular species or with a specific community". Organisations now testing the beta version of PRISM include BirdLife Partners’ Burung Indonesia and BirdLife Zimbabwe.

Tiburtius Hani runs Burung Indonesia's project on Flores. He explains that the project has "three main goals: conservation, empowerment and poverty reduction. We improve livelihoods to support conservation". Hani will be particularly keen to deploy the section of the PRISM manual that advises on assessing livelihood outcomes as a contribution to improved conservation.

Fadzai Matsimbo runs BirdLife Zimbabwe's Saving Africa's Vultures project. With a budget of just €51,000 over three years, this project is typical of the size of initiative that PRISM is designed to help. The project, says Fadzai, is currently "playing catch-up with both gaps in our knowledge and conservation actions". Robust, efficient and practical reporting, as facilitated by PRISM, is likely to be critical in determining – and demonstrating – whether the country's vultures have indeed been saved.

The Cambridge Conservation Initiative is a collaboration between the University of Cambridge and leading internationally focused biodiversity conservation organisations clustered in and around Cambridge, UK. CCI Organisations participating in PRISM are British Trust for Ornithology, Tropical Biology Association, University of Cambridge, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB, BirdLife in the UK), UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre, Fauna & Flora International and BirdLife International.