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Building trust to create change

May 13, 2013
Scott Parker

Helping a Botswana community transition from a hunting economy to an ecotourism destination is not an easy task. Success requires trust, respect and partnership. That’s according to MA in Conflict Analysis and Management alumnus Scott Parker, a conflict analyst who is helping Swiss NGO the Comanis Foundation launch a conservation initiative in a large wilderness area in the wake of Botswana’s ban on hunting.

“The Comanis Foundation was having problems working with the local community, so I went in to reorient and redevelop that relationship between a foundation that wanted to create a non-consumptive tourism project and a community trust that wanted the same thing, but didn’t have any amount of trust and very little respect for the foundation,” Parker says. “Understandably so, the way that Africans are often treated by NGOs, which is by no means an equal partnership.”

To establish a strong foundation from which to work, Parker aimed for small successes with the community in Zutshwa, Kgalagadi District 2. The outhouse at the community trust’s guest house was in disrepair, so the trust and Comanis worked together to fund and co-ordinate its rebuilding. “Sometimes those things can be fraught with difficulty, but it went really well,” says Parker, who spent eight months in Botswana over the past two years. His home base is Edmonton, where he also works as a film editor.

The next project was to build a permit station that allows visitors to pay for camping. The model was taken from North America and the permit station may be the first in Africa. Again, the project was a success. “Through these practical applications of co-operation with very low risk, we were able to solve some of our relationship problems in the midst of them, so it was really effective,” notes Parker, stressing that all of the initiatives are a team effort with his Comanis colleagues.

Now it’s on to the bigger project: creating isolated regions (totalling 6,500 square kilometres) where wilderness enthusiasts can drive around in their 4x4s. The areas are flat depressions in the forest, called “pans,” where a lot of wildlife gather. “The interesting thing about these routes is they’re just so remarkably isolated and wild and this is getting harder and harder to find anywhere you go in the world,” Parker says. 

Royal Roads associate faculty member Hrach Gregorian recalls Parker as an ambitious, sophisticated student with a good deal of international experience. “What impressed me most was that whatever he said he was going to do, he would end up doing,” says Gregorian, who is president of the Institute of World Affairs. “I knew that he had a good bit of Africa experience prior to studying with me, but he had a vision for doing much more and a clear sense of direction.”

To assess the viability of the initiative, Parker has been working with fellow MA in Conflict Analysis and Management alumnus Steve Hart, an army logistics officer, on a market survey. The men, who have been on an African safari together, have been soliciting feedback from the South African 4x4 community, their primary target audience. Parker and Hart are incorporating the feedback into a business plan and a tender plan, which they will submit to the Botswana government in the fall. As for the community, Parker says the people are supportive and enthusiastic. 

“People in the community want two things: They want to be able to realize value from this resource that they have and they also want to ensure that they get fair compensation when people are using it,” Parker says. “We’re working with the community and the government to be able to develop a really successful low-impact, low-cost and frankly low-profitability project that the community can eventually run in the next five years or so.”

Parker attributes his success with the community thus far to his experience in Africa – he’s worked in ecotourism in Zimbabwe, transportation in Sudan and currency trading in Somalia – and an analysis technique he learned at Royal Roads.

“Soft systems analysis is a way of looking at something from the perspective of, if this was going to work really well, how would it work really well?” Parker explains. “How this system should work is we should be able to go into the community with a really good idea and they should all rally around it, support it and go with us to the various government stakeholders and say, ‘These guys are great. This is a great idea. We all want to do it.’”

When you work backwards from that point, Parker adds, you can start to see barriers, such as lack of trust, and explore them. “Getting over these barriers really helped us build a trusting and collegial relationship,” he says.

“His approach makes perfect sense and I like the way that he’s working at a grassroots level and providing really concrete incentives for engagement at various levels of society,” Gregorian says. “He’s building this thing organically and I think that’s the kind of project that we like to see because it holds the greatest promise of actually yielding concrete results. It’s a very practical and, at the same time, rather creative, almost visionary approach.”

For Parker, the greatest payoff so far came when community members expressed their support and gratitude for what he was doing. “I would be at my little house at night and people would come up from the community to talk and say, ‘We heard you guys are thinking of doing this and we just want to come and say we think that’s a really good idea and thanks a lot of coming here.’”