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Capacity development is increasingly recognized as central to conservation goals. Efforts to develop individual, organizational and societal capacity underpin direct investments in biodiversity conservation and natural resource management, and sustain their impact over time. In the face of urgent needs and increasingly complex contexts for conservation the sector not only needs more capacity development, it needs new approaches to capacity development. The sector is embracing the dynamic relationships between the ecological, political, social and economic dimensions of conservation. Capacity development practitioners should ensure that individuals, organizations and communities are prepared to work effectively in these complex environments of constant change to transform the systems that drive biodiversity loss and unsustainable, unequitable resource use. Here we advocate for a systems view of capacity development. We propose a conceptual framework that aligns capacity development components with all stages of conservation efforts, fosters attention to context, and coordinates with parallel efforts to engage across practitioners and sectors for more systemic impact. Furthermore, we highlight a need for practitioners to target, measure and support vital elements of capacity that have traditionally received less attention, such as values and motivation, leadership and organizational culture, and governance and participation by using approaches from psychology, the social sciences and systems thinking. Drawing from conservation and other sectors, we highlight examples of approaches that can support reflective practice, so capacity development practitioners can better understand the factors that favour or hinder effectiveness of interventions and influence system-wide change.
Capacity development is critical to long-term conservation success, yet we lack a robust and rigorous understanding of how well its effects are being evaluated. A comprehensive summary of who is monitoring and evaluating capacity development interventions, what is being evaluated and how, would help in the development of evidence-based guidance to inform design and implementation decisions for future capacity development interventions and evaluations of their effectiveness. We built an evidence map by reviewing peer-reviewed and grey literature published since 2000, to identify case studies evaluating capacity development interventions in biodiversity conservation and natural resource management. We used inductive and deductive approaches to develop a coding strategy for studies that met our criteria, extracting data on the type of capacity development intervention, evaluation methods, data and analysis types, categories of outputs and outcomes assessed, and whether the study had a clear causal model and/or used a systems approach. We found that almost all studies assessed multiple outcome types: most frequent was change in knowledge, followed by behaviour, then attitude. Few studies evaluated conservation outcomes. Less than half included an explicit causal model linking interventions to expected outcomes. Half of the studies considered external factors that could influence the efficacy of the capacity development intervention, and few used an explicit systems approach. We used framework synthesis to situate our evidence map within the broader literature on capacity development evaluation. Our evidence map (including a visual heat map) highlights areas of low and high representation in investment in research on the evaluation of capacity development.
Meeting the complex demands of conservation requires a multi-skilled workforce operating in a sector that is respected and supported. Although professionalization of conservation is widely seen as desirable, there is no consistent understanding of what that entails. Here, we review whether and how eight elements of professionalization observed in other sectors are applicable to conservation: (1) a defined and respected occupation; (2) official recognition; (3) knowledge, learning, competences and standards; (4) paid employment; (5) codes of conduct and ethics; (6) individual commitment; (7) organizational capacity; and (8) professional associations. Despite significant achievements in many of these areas, overall progress is patchy, and conventional concepts of professionalization are not always a good fit for conservation. Reasons for this include the multidisciplinary nature of conservation work, the disproportionate influence of elite groups on the development and direction of the profession, and under-representation of field practitioners and of Indigenous peoples and local communities with professional-equivalent skills. We propose a more inclusive approach to professionalization that reflects the full range of practitioners in the sector and the need for increased recognition in countries and regions of high biodiversity. We offer a new definition that characterizes conservation professionals as practitioners who act as essential links between conservation action and conservation knowledge and policy, and provide seven recommendations for building a more effective, inclusive and representative profession.
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