The Right to Fail? Problematizing failure discourses in international conservation

Authors: Kate Massarella, Wageningen University, Josie Chambers, University of Cambridge, Robert Fletcher*, Wageningen University
Topics: Human-Environment Geography
Keywords: political ecology, conservation, success, failure
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/9/2020
Start / End Time: 1:45 PM / 3:00 PM
Room: Spruce, Sheraton, IM Pei Tower, Majestic Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


A growing body of critical literature interrogates the tendency within international conservation circles to present interventions as successes, even when evidence points to unintended consequences and negative impacts. The flip side of ‘selling’ success is a growing emphasis on the importance of embracing and even celebrating failure, a dynamic that is yet to be explored in depth. Here, we begin to unpack this trend in international conservation, first tracing the origins of the embracing failure narrative within the business world and its subsequent adoption by international development organizations. We then describe how similar narratives have been increasingly promoted by conservation organizations, drawing on examples at international, national and project levels. Finally, we explore some of the real and potential impacts of this growing failure discourse on the ground where interventions occur. Based on this analysis we argue that by giving conservation interventions the ‘right to fail’, success narratives are actually reinforced, rather than challenged. Failure is framed as a necessary outcome of new and innovative conservation initiatives, thus explaining away aspects of policy and intervention that would otherwise compromise the broader narrative of success. While it is of course important to acknowledge failure in order not to repeat it, we caution against celebrating failure in conservation, especially as the consequences of failed interventions can be significant and long-lasting for target populations. In fact, we argue that the framing of failure as a positive outcome can also lead to a reduction of accountability for these consequences, further exacerbating conservation injustices.

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