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Without Evidence, Conservation is a Guessing Game

We make decisions every day. We like to think that we use a rational process for making decisions, and that our beliefs and judgments are based on solid reasoning. But study after study has demonstrated that people are prone to bias and error when they make decisions. In conservation, those mistakes can be costly for funders, practitioners, and the communities and environments they serve.

Failure to practice evidence-based conservation can lead to poor management decisions. Take for instance the belief that multiple-use marine protected areas, those that allow some human-use for fishing and tourism in addition to biodiversity protection, are of lesser value than no-take zones. This belief likely hampered early efforts to manage marine resources in unsupportive social and political contexts. Today, a growing evidence base supports the idea that partially protected marine areas can be an important component of effective marine resource management.

However, the fact that relevant evidence is available doesn’t mean it will be used. The term “evidence complacency” has been coined to describe a pervasive culture in conservation policy and practice in which evidence is not sought or used to make decisions.

Through the Measuring Impact activity, Environmental Incentives and ICF International are working with USAID’s Office of Forestry and Biodiversity to strengthen the use of evidence-based approaches in the agency’s biodiversity programs. Together, we have developed a set of guides called Evidence in Action that help program managers and implementers use, generate, and apply evidence to the design of biodiversity and development projects.

Here are five tips for evidence-based conservation programming based on Evidence in Action:

  1. Start with a critical mindset. From the onset of program design, be willing to explore and question assumptions about the causes of the conservation problem, the theory of change describing how proposed solutions are expected to work, and the effectiveness of actions taken to implement those solutions. A program built on inaccurate assumptions is unlikely to succeed.
  2. Ask the right questions. Take a careful look at what questions are being asked before searching for evidence. If it’s not clear how the answer would influence program decisions, think carefully about investing time and resources into gathering evidence and revise or develop new questions if needed.
  3. Explore evidence for and against assumptions that are critical to program success. Don’t limit the search to evidence confirming that assumptions underlying the program design are true. Consider alternative explanations for observed outcomes and be critical of evidence that is not sufficiently robust to rule them out. An important use of evidence is to reduce the uncertainty associated with program decisions; but it is just as important to recognize where key uncertainties remain.
  4. Don’t let a weak evidence base become an excuse for inaction. One advantage of an evidence-based approach is that teams develop a better understanding of what is not known as well as what is known. Taking action with imperfect information has risks, but so does delaying action to wait for better information. Designing programs that generate evidence can offset some of the costs of imperfect information with opportunities for learning.
  5. Take an active role in shaping the evidence base. A widely recognized challenge in conservation practice is the gap between the knowledge generated by researchers and the information that managers actually use. Evidence-based approaches encourage managers to think about programs as a way to build the evidence base, as well as deliver program results. In addition, a better understanding of how evidence informs decisions positions managers to take an active role in shaping the research agenda and the information that is produced.

By changing how programs use and generate evidence, conservation practitioners can increase effectiveness, reduce risk, and strengthen the evidence base for conservation and management programs. Interested in learning more? Explore the four units in Evidence in Action that will enhance evidence-based conservation at USAID.

About the Author

Natalie Dubois is a Senior Research Specialist focused on building evidence-based practices into management systems and operations to improve the performance of conservation and development programs.


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