What would you do if you were named Chief Biodiversity Conservation Officer of the world and were handed $10 billion dollars (annual global spend on global conservation) to protect the world’s most biodiverse and vulnerable areas? You would probably have a hard time knowing which areas to prioritize without accurate data on which areas are really the most biodiverse and which areas are home of the species that face the greatest threat of extinction. That’s where REBIOMA comes in. The Repository of Biodiversity of Madagascar (REBIOMA) was formed 10 years ago as partnership between UC Berkeley and the Wildlife Conservation Society with the intention to digitize and aggregate all biodiversity data about Madagascar – from both international and national organizations – in order to better inform policy making and prioritization of areas to be protected. Over the past years, REBIOMA’s small team of Malagasy land use planners, IT engineers, and GIS mappers have become central in Madagascar’s conservation scene. They also benefit from the leadership of its founder, UC Berkeley professor and MacArthur Genius, Claire Kremen, and strategic advisors such as the infamous authority on Malagasy biodiversity, Steve Goodman. When the previous Malagasy president announced his Durban vision to protect 10% of Madagascar’s land surface, the REBIOMA team was a central facilitator and advisor in the process.
So, if they have been kicking ass on their own for the past 10 years, why do they need a group of Haas MBA’s who can’t spell biodiversity or speak French?
Turns out that REBIOMA has a number of strategic issues ahead.
#1 Portal vs. Service: While REBIOMA has become one of the savviest biodiversity data management groups in the country, it has done so by manipulating and analyzing data sets that do not live in its portal. Given the urgency to inform government decision-making and advise other groups such as the World Bank and WCS, REBIOMA has placed its own portal on the backburner. It now needs to decide whether continuous development of a biodiversity data portal is a priority even if the government has already reached its goal of protecting 10% of species-rich areas. In one hand, such a portal could be central to continuous monitoring of the protected areas and endangered species and identification of new areas. In the other hand, the organization has seen just how tough it is to build the darn thing. Most organizations are reluctant to share data and many of those who are willing to share have their data in notebook and pencil format (picture very poor university departments and botanical gardens with no budget for computers, interns, or data-entry training).
Aside from development of its own portal, REBIOMA has the option to continue its focus on what it has done for the past several years: 1) advise government on policy decisions by interpreting existing data sets; 2) train local organizations on best-practices for data-entry, manipulation, and sharing.
#2 Local vs. Global: Like many developing countries recovering from periods of European neo-colonialism and paternalistic international aid, Madagascar has its understandable share of nationalism. Being tied to WCS – an international NGO – has not helped REBIOMA gain the trust of local authorities and data providers. After one week of stakeholder interviews, we have heard many different viewpoints but one consistent message: “REBIOMA needs to be independent and Malagasy”. This will come at a cost that we need to quantify. WCS offers a nice low-risk environment for REBIOMA employees who do not need to deal with fundraising and administrative tasks. Ties to UC Berkeley and WCS also provide REBIOMA with a direct channel to private foundations (Thank you Mr. MacArthur) and bilateral development groups. After our analysis, we will advise REBIOMA on an institutional structure that will minimize risks while maximizing impact for the organization.
#3 Show us the money: After helping REBIOMA define its long-term vision, goals, core activities and ideal institutional structure, we will provide the organization with a suite of creative financing mechanisms to best fund its operation – whether it stay with WCS or go independent. Options that we are studying include: 1) establishing a consortium of international organizations that fund REBIOMA and access its modeling/advisory services in return; 2) creating a trust fund through bilateral institutions and private foundations to fund operating activities through the interest form the fund; 3) baking REBIOMA into the annual operating budget of WCS and remaining as a division within the global NGO.
Over the next few reports from Tana (short for Antananarivo), we will update you with what we have learned throughout the project, the challenges we face as we dive into the nuance of the project, and the recommendations we will be drafting for the organization.
We also hope to report on some adventures of our travels in Tana and outside of the capital.
Over and out.