Which has the biggest impact when investing for conservation: the value of the dollar or the effects of corruption? That was a question Kerstin Zander and I, with some colleagues, attempted to answer last week in a paper in PLoS One, an on-line open access journal: Investing in Threatened Species Conservation: Does Corruption Outweigh Purchasing Power?
What we showed was that it is worthwhile investing in conservation in poorer countries, even if some money is lost to corruption. Some people have suggested that conservation investments are just not worth making where corruption is really bad. What we have been able to demonstrate is that, in most such countries, the amount lost is very little compared to the purchasing power of the dollar (PPP).
By trading off the amount paid in corruption against the PPP we were able to show that the top five countries for investing in the rarest species should be Ethiopia, Pakistan, Guinea, Sao Tome and Kyrgyzstan. Basically the species we are talking about occur nowhere else, and won’t be saved without outside help.
Conservation investors need to take what precautions they can to be sure funds are spent for the purposes intended, but they are better off investing in these countries than in many rich countries where so much less can be purchased with each dollar. Importantly such conservation investments are also likely to provide greater benefit to the human communities where the rare species live than they would in rich countries.
The idea for the paper came a couple of years ago when Cindy Huchery and Clive McMahon were organising regular meetings at the School for Environmental Research to discuss recent publications. I put forward one looking at the distribution of single site threatened species. It struck me at the time how many were in poor countries but also ones where there was a fair amount of corruption.
So some of us wondered how that might affect conservation of those species. So we assembled corruption indicators for each country in the world, and then compared it to how much could be purchased with the dollar.
However we were held back by two things. First we wanted to know the best way to prioritise the different countries – and were lucky enough to discuss the idea with Liana Joseph and James Watson, now with the Wildlife Conservation Society but then with Hugh Possingham’s lab at the University of Queensland. They had a simple way of assessing value for dollar by investment in each country and helped us write the paper. But we were also unhappy with the comparative indices of corruption as they did not say exactly how much was actually lost that way, which made a big difference to priorities.
Luckily I found a global survey of businesses done by the World Bank asking how much they paid in bribes in different countries. I was able to regress that against the corruption indices so we could get an estimate of corruption in every country. I say lucky because the site disappeared from the web the next week and I could only find it again through the wayback machine that looks for old websites (thanks to Robyn James for her help with that).
Combining real dollar figures on both corruption and the dollar’s purchasing power had never been done before. Interestingly, after the paper was published, Kerstin and I were asked to provide advice on investments to conserve African lions. We have accepted, but really think we need to look at the situation in the field as well…