Moving beyond conservation: New study examines diversity in discourse and resources of more than 670 environmental organisations worldwide
An international research team led by social scientist Dr. Stefan Partelow from the Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT) has studied the thematic focus areas of more than 670 environmental organisations worldwide. Their analysis shows a common concern in conservation for the majority of these non-governmental organisations (NGOs), but also identifies additional foci such as climate politics, environmental justice or ecological modernisation. The results of the study, which also involved researchers from Canada and the USA, have now been published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.
Although they play an important role in global environmental politics, there has until now been a lack of systematic analysis of the diversity in discourse among environmental organisations. For their new study, an international team of researchers led by Dr. Stefan Partelow from ZMT, has now analysed a dataset of mission statements and human and financial resources of 679 environmental organisations worldwide.
The methodology developed by the researchers to analyse mission statements allowed them to categorise environmental discourses by quantifying terminology usage, rather than the more subjective categories of previous studies.
Their findings show that while most organisations have a common concern for conservation, four distinct thematic focus areas can be identified across the sector:
- Environmental Management (e.g., conservation, natural resource management),
- Climate Politics (e.g., governance and civil society engagement on climate change),
- Environmental Justice (e.g., strengthening communities, respect for nature and human rights),
- Ecological Modernisation (e.g., business innovation, renewable energy technology).
The importance of climate politics and environmental justice in particular has been underestimated in previous studies on environmental discourse, according to the researchers.
Regional differences in human and financial resources
The study also shows regional disparities in human resources and financial capacity. Environmental NGOs in Africa and Oceania, for example, have the lowest median number of employees, and African environmental associations have the lowest median annual budgets. While environmental organisations in North America and Europe have the highest median financial capacity, Latin America and the Caribbean have the highest median value of employees.
These differences likely reflect different labour costs and financial flows, with environmental NGOs in the Global South employing more people with less money, while organisations in the Global North handle more money with fewer employees, the researchers said. This disparity is also indicative of a global division of labour where Northern environmental NGOs act as donors or coordinators for large projects, while Southern organizations are subcontracted for implementation.
“Financial capacity data gives us an indication of how feasible it is for NGOs to advocate and implement their agendas in practice, and seeing where these disparities and limitations are in different regions can help us better understand observed differences in environmental policies and politics between them”, says lead author Dr. Stefan Partelow from the Leibniz Centre for Tropical Marine Research (ZMT) in Germany.
The research team also calculated an institutional power index for a subset of 276 environmental NGOs based on their human and financial resources, and found that more than 40% of the most influential environmental organizations focus on climate politics and environmental justice in their mission statements.
“It means that there are more powerful civil society organisations working on climate issues than on issues of biodiversity loss or desertification,” adds co-author Dr. Klara J. Winkler from McGill University, Canada. “It is important to be aware that some environmental issues garner more attention than others because this comes with the risk that these other issues might be neglected or even forgotten.”
The study provides important data, new methodological approaches and substantive insights as a basis for future research on the role of NGOs in global environmental politics.
“NGOs are powerful actors in environmental governance. This study provides a clearer picture of the global environmental NGO network and the discourses that these organizations use to understand and address environmental problems, both of which are crucial contributions in this time of planetary crisis,” says co-author Dr. Gregory Thaler from the University of Georgia, USA.
“Our study also suggests that the sector may now be better understood as a ‘Sustainability NGO’ sector, addressing concerns much broader than classic Environmental Management issues,” sums up Dr. Stefan Partelow.
Partelow S, Winkler KJ, Thaler GM (2020) Environmental non-governmental organizations and global environmental discourse. PLoS ONE 15(5): e0232945. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0232945