Funding Biases Affect Wildlife Protection in the Developing World

Forty countries that receive low levels of aid for environmental conservation contain about one-third of the world’s threatened species

Torres del Paine National Park in Chile
Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, which ranks as one of the countries with the highest amount of biodiversity but the least funding to protect it. Photo by Flickr user Christopher Schoenbohm

Developing nations often have bigger problems to worry about than protecting wildlife. The limited resources available are directed towards fulfilling basic human needs such as food, sanitation, shelter and disease treatment and prevention. Rather than taking away from those human-oriented endeavors, developing countries rely upon donations largely from North America and Europe to address conservation. But the international donor community, it turns out, plays favorites when it comes to doling out funding for environmental protection–and those biases don’t necessarily have anything to do with the biodiversity at stake.

Until now, attempts to identify highly underfunded yet biodiverse countries have been hampered by poor and incomplete data on actual spending. To figure out which countries are the biggest losers when it comes to conservation, researchers decided to build the most complete database of global conservation funding to date.

To explore how international donors, governments and various organizations invested in conservation each year from 2001 to 2008, an international team of researchers analyzed around-the-world donations on a country-to-country basis. The database included all money a country spends on conservation, including funds procured from both outside and within the country. Those expenditures totaled $19.8 billion and represented the most complete database of conservation spending ever assembled. They created a statistical model that took into account factors ranging from country size, government effectiveness, political stability, GDP and biodiversity. Using statistical analyses, the authors teased out the underlying reasons driving whether countries do or don’t get funding.

For measuring biodiversity, they calculated the proportion of a species an individual country possesses, rather than just a species head-count, since some countries may contain just a handful of animals while another houses the bulk of the world’s population. They used mammals as a proxy for biodiversity because more information tends to be available for mammals than for other types of animals or plants, and because conservation dollars oftentimes favor the cute and furry over the scaly or slimy.

Upper income countries, as defined by the World Bank, distributed 94 percent of conservation funding, the team found, while countries in the lowest income bracket supplied just 0.5 percent. The U.S. and Germany topped the list of countries that provide aid to promote conservation; non-nation donors that contribute the most aid are the Global Environment Facility and the World Bank . The report also listed the 40 countries that receive the least funding given what would be expected based upon their size, biodiversity and GDP. From those, the top ten are:

threatened biodiversity
A) The distribution of threatened biodiversity by country. White and blue show very low and low threatened diversity; yellow shows medium diversity; and the four red colors, high diversity. (B) Underfunding levels from the statistical model. The darker the color, the worse the underfunding (Somalia is excluded). Image by Waldron et al., PNAS
  • Iraq
  • Djibouti
  • Angola
  • Kyrgyzstan
  • Guyana
  • Solomon Islands
  • Malaysia
  • Eritrea
  • Chile
  • Algeria

When the team plugged all of their data into a statistical model to try and figure out what’s driving these disparities, the results, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, explained 86 percent of the variation in how conservation money is spent each year. The most important factors for determining how funding is invested, they found, were the number of species, a country’s size (larger countries were favored for receiving funding over smaller ones) and the country’s GDP (higher GDPs were favored for receiving funding over smaller ones).

To see how conservation spending related to biodiversity, they compared funding data to the proportion of threatened biodiversity nations house. Significantly, they write, 40 of the most highly underfunded countries contain 32 percent of the world’s threatened species. The most strikingly disparate examples included Chile, Malaysia, the Solomon Islands and Venezuela. Highly underfunded countries also tended to occur in geographical groups, such as Central Asia, Northern Africa, the Middle East and parts of Oceania, meaning some species may miss out on protection across their entire range.

How did those 40 countries slip through the cracks? Some of the variation, they found, reflected political and historical biases. For example, predominantly Islamic countries receive less than half the funding as other countries that are equally biodiverse but follow a different religious and political scheme.

Other poorly funded countries, like Sudan and the Ivory Coast, suffered recent or ongoing conflicts, suggesting that donors may be hesitant to invest in conservation efforts in areas they perceive as being threatened by human strife. The researchers did not have enough data to include Somalia in the study, though they guess that it most likely falls within the severely underfunded category. “Globally, countries in conflict have high levels of both biodiversity and threat,” the authors write. “Donor reticence therefore deserves careful consideration because removal of funding may make a bad situation even worse.”

They do not address, however, whether or not nations in strife would be able to effectively manage conservation projects, though that likely depends on a case-by-case basis. Afghanistan, for example, declared its first national park in 2009, and long-term conservation efforts in the Central African Republic were threatened but still managed to prevail when violence broke out earlier this year.

Targeting underfunded areas that contain high levels of biodiversity, the authors think, could make a greater impact for protecting species than investing that money elsewhere, where ample resources already exist. Strengthening conservation efforts in the places with the highest biodiversity but least funding support “may therefore reduce short-term biodiversity losses with appreciably greater efficiency than would current spending patterns,” they write.

Because the most underfunded countries tend to be developing nations, they continue, a relatively small investment on the part of the international community could make a significant difference for wildlife there. They add, “Our results therefore suggest that international conservation donors have the opportunity to act now, in a swift and coordinated fashion, to reduce an immediate wave of further biodiversity declines at relatively little cost.”

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