Why Adoption of the Medical Model Would Cure Conservation Impact Evaluation

By David Wilkie and Joshua Ginsberg

Ninety-six elephants are illegally killed for their tusks in Africa each day, and in the last decade central Africa lost 62 percent of its forests elephants from poaching. We know this because, when we can, conservation organizations, governments, and enlightened donors monitor and report the changing status of target wildlife populations as a way to evaluate the success, examine failures, and plot our future conservation actions.

Whether it is using scuba and snorkel surveys to track changes in coral reef health, systematic ranger and ecoguard patrolling to enforce wildlife laws and prevent crime, expert opinion interviews to assess strengths and weakness of natural resource governance, or household surveys to measure the livelihoods of families who share the landscapes in which we work, increasingly conservation organizations are committed to ensuring we measure what we manage.

Oddly, the deck is often stacked against us. Conservation practitioners are expected to use the funds they raise to devise strategies, implement actions and then evaluate their effectiveness. This model, where the practitioner is also evaluator, is imperfect for two reasons.

First, conservationists, who have to raise funds to support their conservation efforts, are always inclined to spend the next dollar they raise on actions targeted at reducing threats to wildlife and wild places and overcoming barriers to the sustainable use of nature, rather than evaluating the success of these actions. Donors, while expecting conservationists to measure what they manage, often fail to fully fund the monitoring, evaluation, and critical analysis that improve conservation practice.

Second, self-evaluation clearly carries risks. We cannot expect practitioners struggling to secure funds to be totally unbiased in describing their failures to donors without a safe-fail funding environment where they can analyze and air their errors, secure in their funding. Both conservation organizations and the donors that support them are equally culpable for this impasse.

A safe-fail environment is only a necessary but insufficient first step to really improving conservation practice.

The medical community takes a very different approach to evaluating treatments prescribed by practitioners. In the medical model physicians and other practitioners diagnose their patients’ needs and provide treatments based on the best of their knowledge. But rather than expecting doctors alone to evaluate the effectiveness of their own diagnoses and treatments, the medical profession relies on public health researchers in universities and government agencies to secure funding to conduct evaluations and identify effective and ineffective treatments.

This has driven rapid innovation within the medical profession – where credible evidence quickly identifies what does not work and educates practitioners about those treatments that have been proven to make a positive difference.

This model typically separates the practitioner from the evaluator and by doing so implicitly acknowledges the different motivations of clinical doctors and academic researchers in both the public health and medical professions. Most importantly for evaluators, this approach aligns beautifully with academic advancement where tenure and promotion is based on funds raised for research, papers published and cited, and the impact of research on advancing medical practice.

If the conservation community switched to this model, conservation practitioners would continue to seek funds to develop strategies, implement actions, and track how their “patients” are responding to treatment. Conservation researchers would, for the first time, assume the vitally important role of seeking funds to evaluate conservation practices and publicizing their analyses of what works and what does not.

This would conjure a virtuous cycle where better monitoring and evaluation leads to more knowledge of what works and what fails, fostering more effective conservation in more places at the same or lower cost. Like almost all of the conservation practitioners we have asked, we look forward to the day when we get a call from an academic colleague saying “David and Josh, I have just secured some money to conduct an evaluation of your community-based conservation project in Honduras.”

Adopting the medical model would free practitioners to focus on the business of conservation, help align conservation science toward the evaluation of conservation practice, speed up identification of conservation strategies and actions that are demonstrated to work, and hasten the end of failing practices. What is not to like about this?

Dr. David Wilkie directs the Conservation Support program for the Wildlife Conservation Society. Dr. Joshua Ginsberg is the Senior Vice President of the Global Conservation Program at the Wildlife Conservation Society.