The Paradox of Scale: How NGOs Build, Maintain, and Lose Authority in Environmental Governance

Posted by Lauren Hertel on Sunday, August 4 2019

Fellow Cristina Balboa has published a new book, The Paradox of Scale: How NGOs Build, Maintain, and Lose Authority in Environmental Governance. It is an examination of why NGOs often experience difficulty creating lasting change, with case studies of transnational conservation organizations in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

Summary from MIT Press

Why do nongovernmental organizations face difficulty creating lasting change? How can they be more effective? In this book, Cristina Balboa examines NGO authority, capacity, and accountability to propose that a “paradox of scale” is a primary barrier to NGO effectiveness. This paradox—when what gives an NGO authority on one scale also weakens its authority on another scale—helps explain how NGOs can be seen as an authority on particular causes on a global scale, but then fail to effect change at the local level. Drawing on case studies of transnational conservation organizations in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, The Paradox of Scale explores how NGOs build, maintain, and lose authority over time.

Balboa sets a new research agenda for the study of governance, offering practical concepts and analysis to help NGO practitioners. She introduces the concept of authority as a form of legitimated power, explaining why it is necessary for NGOs to build authority at multiple scales when they create, implement, or enforce rules. Examining the experiences of Conservation International in Papua New Guinea, International Marinelife Alliance in the Philippines, and the Community Conservation Network in Palau, Balboa explains how a paradox of scale can develop even for those NGOs that seem powerful and effective. Interdisciplinary in its approach, The Paradox of Scale offers guidance for interpreting the actions and pressures accompanying work with NGOs, showing why even the most authoritative NGOs often struggle to make a lasting impact.

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Additional Resources

The Environmental Leadership Program (ELP) also published the following interview with Cristina on their website:

Cristina Balboa (ELP 2003 National Senior Fellow) is an Associate Professor at the Marxe School of Public & International Affairs, Baruch College – City University of New York and a faculty member at Baruch's Center for Nonprofit Strategy and Management.  Her research incorporates international relations, comparative policy and organization theory to demonstrate how internal organizational traits (i.e. capacity, structure, ethos, diversity and leadership) contribute to or detract from the accountability and effectiveness of the political institutions of private environmental governance – from nonprofits to networks, certification mechanisms, and global governance organizations. Prior to her academic work, Cristina spent almost a decade working in nonprofits in Washington D.C. and Ecuador on environmental issues in Latin America, Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Cristina sat down with ELP to talk about her exciting new book and reminisce about her ELP experience.

ELP: Welcome! Can you provide an overview of your career up to this point?

CB: My work experience has been within environmental nonprofit organizations, including work with the relationships of gender and development in an Ecuadorian forestry project. Later on I studied the live reef fish trade in Southeast Asia and the Pacific while working at an environmental think tank in D.C. I then went to graduate school because while working in D.C., I kept reflecting on the role of environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and conservation. It took me while to see the bigger  arc that connects all these different areas of study: it is power and power relationships. I've studied them at the household level (looking at gender), at the trade level (looking at the interactions between fishers and the various actors in the chain of custody). And I studied the relationships between NGOs and the communities they work in and serve. So it's all about power and resources are power.  

ELP: How does your new book, The Paradox of Scale, dive deeper into some of those challenges and power structures?

CB: It seems like there's bit of a growth imperative for NGOs. The problems that non-governmental organizations seek to solve are huge and systemic, so to have a piecemeal response really doesn't get us anywhere. It doesn't make any meaningful impact. For this and a lot of other reasons, NGOs feel the need to scale up their operations to have a bigger, broader impact. But we keep seeing problems in these attempts. Globally successful NGOs encounter controversy and critique when they start implementing problems on the ground, while locally successful NGOs either can't break into the global funding game or they find that what made them successful locally won't make them successful globally.

I proposed that these problems come from a paradox of scale - that what gives an NGO authority or effectiveness on one scale will hurt its authority or effectiveness on another. The book is largely qualitative research, and there's lots of different strands of concepts and examples throughout. For simplicity sake here, I'll say that authority boils down to two basic concepts - capacity and accountability. But capacity and accountability are both context-specific concepts.  For example, the capacity needed to change behavior in Washington, D.C., in the negotiation halls of the United Nations, or the global headquarters of Wal-Mart is very different from the capacity needed to change the way fishing communities fish for their livelihoods. A logical framework analysis for funders seems like a perfect expression of accountability at the global level, but you wouldn't want to send that framework to the village chief where you're working! They require a more personal, relational approach to accountability. Problems arise when we try to apply the global norms of accountability or capacity at the local level, or the local norms at the global level. This is the paradox.   And it is shown in three cases in the book, Conservation International in Milne Bay, International Marine Life Alliance in the Philippines, and the Community Conservation Network in Palau.

ELP: Who is the audience you envision reading The Paradox of Scale?

CB: I'm an academic, so my job is to write for academia, but because I've been through ELP I always try to think about the practical implications of my work. We've had some events recently where international NGOs have been in the audience or helped facilitated a discussion on the book, taken home the lessons and tried to implement them in their strategic plans. So I am working on some follow up papers that could serve as a practitioner's guide for the field. In part, I study how we are educating our future leaders of the field to figure out how we can build what I call “bridging capacity,” which is exemplified in each of the cases in the book. I show how the paradox of scale developed, but I also show that they maintained a balance and authority for a while, because of the bridging capacity in their organizations.

There are three pillars to bridging capacity. One is cross-cultural and intercultural understanding. The second is enough power within an organization to change the way it operates or manage the differences between scales. And the third is incentive to act as a bridge, even when the choices may not be popular. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, about how we build this bridging capacity in the environmental movement. I actually think ELP has a place in this. I think funders have a big place to do this kind of work to build this capacity, but I think ELP is actually already doing it.

ELP: Thanks! Speaking of ELP, at what point in your career did you decide to do the Fellowship Program and why?

CB: I did ELP as a first year doctoral student. They wanted people who were doing things right then in the field. And I was kind of more in a reflective moment, but my colleague John Parks had just gone through the program and it seemed like such an amazing experience that I wanted to be a part of it. So I applied to the National Program and was fortunate to be selected as part of the 2003 cohort.

ELP: How has ELP helped shape your own personal and professional pathways?

CB: Well, actually I want to think back to this whole bridging capacity concept for a second, and give an example of how ELP builds that idea of understanding cultures different from your own. I recall observing a conversation at one of our retreats where one person said to another, “I'm so challenged by you and I'm trying to figure that out.”  It wasn't angry. It wasn't offensive. It was genuinely curious. It was a conversation about how different they were in perspectives, experience, and in communication styles, and in leadership strategies. What they were saying was that we can learn so much from people who are different from us if we're open to the learning, and that has stuck with me for 15 years. It goes to the heart of a lot of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work, too. That when you're challenged, lean into that discomfort and see where the lesson takes you.  And so approaching conservation work (particularly international work) that way, and thinking about how these differences can challenge us, and how we can learn from them. I think it's an important part of building bridging capacity that ELP embodies.

ELP: Balancing personal and professional lives are a common theme in ELP Fellow’s Personal Leadership Plans. How do you seek out that balance, and any advice to Fellows who are trying to navigate this as well?  

CB: I attended one of the Women’s Retreats with ELP about a year after my twins were born, and I just can't overstate the value of attending that retreat. Being a working parent is sometimes pretty lonely, and it’s difficult because we're always rushing from one thing to the other. And social media makes it looks like everybody's got it all under control and I felt like I just couldn't figure it out. So I met with these incredible women at the Women’s Retreat, all in various stages of their career and on diverse personal paths. And it made me see and feel what was possible, and it also made me realize that we're all just figuring it out as we go. And there's some comfort in that, right? We’re in this stage where we're all just figuring it out and it feels like the rules keep changing. So for me, having this group of women who are all figuring it out together was so helpful. To have that space to talk about how work life balance happens or doesn't happen was just great. It wasn't the posturing that happens on social media; it was real people talking.

ELP: This year ELP will run 7 Regional Fellowship Programs and 1 National Fellowship Program. Do you have any advice you would have for this year’s cohorts?

CB: I think a lot about the idea (that comes from a lot of different people) that all emotions boil down to only two: love and fear. If we're not motivated by one, then we're motivated by the other. And we're in a time of some pretty big fear. I would like to suggest that ELP is a place to figure out how to be motivated by love. For me, it's always been a place to soften my heart and have real connections. At times we use language like, “we’re in a battle, we’re in a fight.” But if we can have this ELP space to soften our hearts, have real connections and learn new ideas and approaches, then maybe we can build that skill enough to be able to interact with people who we fear or who fear us, and start having those connections more authentically.

ELP: How might you describe ELP to other people? 

CB: It’s been a long time, but I'll say that ELP is still one of the most transformative professional experiences I've ever had. It is still a daily touchstone for me in my work. I’ll ask myself, is what I'm doing actually helpful to the real world? As an academic, that's a question I need to ask a lot. I ask what would my ELP friends - who walked so many different paths from so many different perspectives - what would they think of the work that I'm doing? How am I going to pass this experience onto my students as a teacher to help them understand complexity without feeling overwhelmed? How does my daily work contribute to justice? So what's fascinating to me is that even if I haven't talked to my ELP friends in a long time, I literally think what would each of them would think or say, or call me out on. I have made true connections with people who approach things very differently from what I do. It's like a, “What Would ELP Do?” kind of bracelet (laughs).  It's kind of like a filter for the work that I do and I use it on a daily basis. And I literally have the heart-shaped touch stone that was given to me at the very first retreat on my desk.

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