Correcting Imbalances: New Study Reveals Gaps in Conservation Spending and Priorities

How closely does conservation spending align with global biodiversity priorities? The answer may surprise you – the 40 most highly underfunded countries steward 32 percent of all threatened global biodiversity.

September 26, 2013
Daniel Miller, Timmons Roberts

How closely does conservation spending align with global biodiversity priorities? The answer may surprise you – the 40 most highly underfunded countries steward 32 percent of all threatened global biodiversity. This finding and more have been documented in a recent paper by Timmons Roberts and Dan Miller entitled, “Targeting global conservation funding to limit immediate biodiversity decline”. This week, they share with the First Tranche the motivation and methodology behind their work.

Tell us about the motivation for this paper. How might it be helpful to policymakers, practitioners and researchers?

The global loss of biodiversity poses a severe threat to human well-being. More than two decades have passed since 192 countries gathered in Rio de Janeiro to tackle this problem. Yet, prior to our study there was no clear picture of the global funding landscape and only a  general sense that funding was insufficient to address the scale of the problem. We collected information on global conservation funding and analyzed gaps between conservation spending and biodiversity priorities. This research raises new questions about why particular places have been better or worse funded and spotlights areas where additional investment is needed.  

Your paper has assembled the "most complete database of global conservation spending yet published". How did you develop this database?

In this age of technological innovation and information overload, we were surprised there was no global repository of data on conservation spending. Our research team spent hundreds of hours tracking down data on financing from a wide variety of sources – national governments, multilateral donors, NGOs, foundations, and the private sector.  AidData facilitated this task for international aid – the most important source of funding for conservation in biodiversity-rich tropical countries. We identified biodiversity aid within AidData’s dataset by doing a keyword search and coding each project for its likely effect on biodiversity. Beyond this, we looked at published databases, national budgets, NGO and foundation websites, contacting a variety of experts and policymakers in the field.  Our dataset now includes information on nearly US$20 billion (in current values) of annual spending on biodiversity from 2001-2008. This overview of the funding landscape will enable donors to better coordinate their approach in both allocating and tracking the funding. 

In comparing predicted versus actual global conservation spending, what did you find? Which variations were most significant? Did any of your findings surprise you? 

We found that the 40 most highly underfunded countries in our analysis steward 32 percent of all threatened global biodiversity. In addition, we were concerned to find that funding gaps tend to be concentrated in particular areas. Specifically, there is very poor funding for conservation across Southeast Asian countries. Given the incredible biodiversity found in these countries – including Indonesia and Malaysia – we were surprised to find their funding was so far below average. 

You developed the "threatened global biodiversity fraction" (GBF) to assess relative underfunding of countries in global conservation spending. Tell us more about this measure.

The variety of life on earth is unevenly distributed across regions and countries. To identify the portion of global biodiversity that lies within each country's borders we developed the global biodiversity fraction or GBF. Species data are most extensive for mammals, so we used this source as the basis for calculating GBF. Based upon information on the areas where mammal species are known to exist (their range), we calculated the percentage of that range found within the political borders of each country in the world. We then totaled this percentage for all the species found within each country to get the GBF.We accounted for additional factors in our model, including good governance (e.g., political stability and government effectiveness) and different measures of the relative cost of conservation. Previous research suggested that cost of doing business and governance in a given country were likely to be key determinants of conservation investment. Funders may seek "more bang for their buck" in particular countries or prefer to work in well-governed countries where their funds are more likely to be spent effectively.  We also controlled for the geographic size of each country and the area under some form of conservation protection (e.g. extent of national parks).

What should readers be aware of when attempting to draw conclusions from, or develop recommendations based upon, your study? 

Our study lists dollar amounts for how far below average each country’s biodiversity funding fell. Readers should be aware that “amount below average” is not the same as, “amount you need to stop biodiversity loss”. This is because the average spending itself is already inadequate. Being below average in our study is a double red flag.

How should institutions prioritizing conservation spending remedy the imbalances you found?  

More should be spent on conservation in the highly underfunded countries in our study. Only a modest increase in funds could go a long way toward better results. Improved monitoring and evaluation should accompany this increased funding and be, given only with assurances that national and local conservation spending will not be diverted to other areas. Further tranches should be conditional, based on local improvements in conservation capacity and practice. Lastly, we urge donors to coordinate funding in order to ensure some balance across regions.

Daniel C. Miller is a Research Associate with the International Forest Resources and Institutions research network in the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of MichiganJ. Timmons Roberts was a co-founder of AidData and currently serves as a Professor of Environmental Studies and Sociology at Brown University and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.