Reinstating UK Government funding to the UKOTs

Mangrove, Tortola, British Virgin Islands
Mangrove, Tortola, British Virgin Islands

In terms of the funding that UK Government makes available to conservation in the UKOTs, UKOTCF pointed out in August 2005 (Forum News 27) that the British Government’s spending figures indicated that it valued conservation of globally important biodiversity in UK Overseas Territories 5000 times less important than it valued the equivalent in Great Britain. This was later amplified by other NGOs and even by the UK Government’s statutory adviser, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC).

The most fundamental problem in resourcing conservation work in UKOTs is that they cannot benefit from international funding bodies which support conservation in small independent states. These resemble the UKOTs in many respects. Although bodies such as the Global Environment Facility and others receive major funding from UK Government, UKOTs are not eligible for funding from these sources. This is because these international bodies classify the UKOTs as what they legally are: parts of the sovereign territory of well-developed UK. The international bodies’ rules are based on the concept that the “parent” state will look after the needs of its overseas territories. Whilst this is largely true for the overseas territories of Denmark, France, the Netherlands and the USA, it is not the case for UK.

It was partly as a compensation for this, at least for small projects, that FCO’s Environment Fund for Overseas Territories (EFOT) was set up in 1999. This was part of the results of the White Paper of that year, and to support the Environment Charters, being negotiated also as a result of the White Paper. The philosophy of EFOT was that FCO, the UKOTCF network and the UKOTs were a team with a shared responsibility for, or commitment to, conservation in the UKOTs. Thus, help was available from FCO and/or UKOTCF to prepare proposals and implement the work. The Charters, signed in September 2001, include UK Government’s Commitment 8: “Use the existing Environment Fund for the Overseas Territories, and promote access to other sources of public funding, for projects of lasting benefit to the Territory’s environment.” Less than a year after this agreement, FCO unilaterally cancelled this fund, having apparently overlooked the signed commitment (which it had itself drafted). The outcry from UKOTs and NGOs, especially at UKOTCF’s Bermuda Conference 2003 (at which a strong and senior FCO team were present), was so clear that FCO temporarily restored the fund for that year, albeit with a less appropriate structure. The FCO staff (at Department Head and below) who worked hard to reverse this error, at a higher level, are to be commended.

Shortly afterwards, after a 5-year delay from the original intention, but through the efforts of at least one key officer coming into post with experience and understanding of the subject, DFID joined in with FCO. This created the Overseas Territories Environment Programme (OTEP) in 2004. OTEP had a more formal structure, so that UKOTs became applicants and the OTEP departments just a funding body. Rather than sharing the problems and responsibility with them, the attitude was more that the territories were supplicants for UK aid. This put UKOTCF and its British partner organisations into a difficult position, as DFID/FCO would never clarify the rules as to what UKOTCF could do/not do to help applicants. This meant that they usually took varying retrospective positions. With time and changing FCO and DFID personnel (and later DEFRA & JNCC ones as these bodies became involved), this situation steadily became worse, with a decreasing proportion of advisory panels consisting of NGO participants and of those with experience of UKOT issues and project management.

In 2009, following committed preparatory work by the then head of the relevant DEFRA unit, a DEFRA minister at UKOTCF’s Cayman conference brought the good news that part of the Darwin Initiative budget would be ear-marked for UKOT projects. However, this was followed, within months, by such a severe cut in DEFRA’s overall budget that it had to seek funding from other government departments, particularly DFID. This resulted in a changing of the nature of funding, so that most UKOTs were excluded from accessing most of the fund.

In 2012, apparently to the surprise of its funding partner DFID, and with no consultation with NGOs or UKOTs, FCO cancelled OTEP without notice. FCO officials said that this was not due to shortage of funds. (The funds for that year were later allocated by FCO in a closed process with no open call or listing of grants).

With the incorporation of grants into the Darwin Initiative in 2012, there remained very few members of the advisory panel closely familiar with current UKOT issues or involved with most of the on-the-ground work in UKOT conservation. It therefore became very much a them-and-us exercise. This may have been exacerbated in that the Darwin Initiative tends to have quite an academic panel, used to working in highly competitive research council situations, rather than the collaborative conservation attitude which prevailed under EFOT and, to some extent, the earlier stages of OTEP. Nevertheless, the dedicated fund, now called Darwin Plus has had some outstanding achievements. Many of the results of these projects were presented during our conferences for conservation practitioners, the last held in 2015. 

With the exception of the limited-term – and very welcome – current major funding, in support of certain marine protected areas, that was announced in 2016, UK Government’s basic fund for grants to support conservation in the UKOTs has increased only marginally, if at all, since the Parliamentary Select Committees’ comments in 2008, standing at about £2 million pa across all UK Overseas Territories.

However, this is now spread more thinly, with its remit being stretched much more widely than the earlier remit of biodiversity conservation. An increased emphasis on uninhabited territories (welcome in itself, but without a proportionate increase in resources) means that inhabited territories are looking at a smaller share. Furthermore, in the earlier years of the availability of these funds (from about 1999), there was an expectation that the fund would not normally fund HMG’s own departments and agencies. However, this expectation has gradually been eroded.

Application and reporting requirements means that funds are increasingly inaccessible to some of the smaller UKOT government conservation departments and NGOs based in the Territories with low capacity. The general tendency for decreasing funding via NGOs deploying skilled volunteers has led to reduced ability to deploy this unpaid resource.