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COVID-19 and its impact on the eNGO sector: the view from across the UK

By Chief Officers the Environment LINKs, 20th May 2020

In the first of a blog series about the impact of COVID-19 on the environmental sector, we asked the Chief Officers of the environmental NGO networks, the Environment LINKs, how their members were coping. Here are their answers to the questions we posed.

Q1: How is the crisis affecting the sector, in your views?

Craig McGuicken, Northern Ireland Environment Link (CG): The environment sector in NI has already dealt with major issues in recent years – from big funding cuts, to Brexit, to the suspension of the Assembly. Northern Ireland has fewer environmental funders than other parts of the UK. There is a real risk that some organisations may not get through this.

Deborah Long, Scottish Environment LINK (DL): The immediate impact has been on those organisations who rely on spring and summer visitor activity income and which can’t be generated. In 6-12 months, options are limited. Alongside a season with no income generated, we’re seeing dramatic drops in memberships and donations, drops in investment returns and the immediate, and understandable, diversion of grant funding towards tackling the pandemic. However, unless we can somehow resurrect some of these income streams, eNGOs will not be able to continue their crucial work against the other emergencies the planet is facing: climate change and nature loss. 

Karen Whitfield, Wales Environment Link (KW): Whilst all of our members are facing financial difficulties, many eNGOs in Wales are very small and we’re worried that some of these brilliant organisations won’t be there in six months’ time. They’re not eligible to apply for a lot of the support packages that are out there, but these organisations are home to expertise that is difficult to replace.

Richard Benwell, Wildlife and Countryside Link (RB): Almost every organisation is facing a financial hit, with the most acute for those that rely on footfall, but it’s the long-term losses that are most worrying: a big fall in membership and giving. This could mean hundreds of millions of pounds of shortfall that won’t be invested in peatlands, trees, rivers and access to nature in the years ahead.

Q2: What opportunities are you seeing and seizing?

CM : More than ever, there is a clear need for the sector to work together – NGOs, government and business. Since the crisis began there has been very good engagement across the sector, and a real sense that we need a ‘green renewal’ for everyone in our society. 

DL: Nature is proving a real solace in these difficult times, whether it’s a view from a window, nature on your daily exercise or in your garden. This proximity to nature and the positive benefits it brings to physical and mental health really underlines how important it is that as we come out of this pandemic we tackle the problems facing nature. It has to be a key element of a green recovery. 

KW: We’re seeing people discover and appreciate their local area for the first time, spotting local wildlife and finding new places right on their doorstep to go walking and cycling. Our members are providing information and online educational material to inspire people and help children learn about our environment while they are in lockdown.

RB: There’s a real appreciation of people’s need for nature and a realisation of how unequal things are today. Access to a healthy environment is still tied to wealth and social background. We’re hoping for a green recovery that will “level up” access, bringing nature into the hardest-to-reach urban areas, as well as massive restoration at the landscape scale.

Q3: What are the key challenges?

CM: The economic recovery can’t be at the expense of the environment. Pre-COVID, 2020 was shaping up to be an important year for raising awareness and action about the environment. The challenge is to keep it on the political agendas, and to do this we need to ensure our environmental NGOs have the required capacity.

DL: There is real appetite in society and in Scottish Parliament to see a just and sustainable recovery. The focus of the recovery must be on wellbeing – of people and of nature. This isn’t easy – it means instituting real and sometimes radical changes to how we manage our land, how we travel, what food we eat. The good thing about all of these, however, is that positive action increases the nation’s wellbeing, tackles the climate and nature crises and puts in place better preventive strategies against future pandemics. It’s a win-win-win.

KW: We need a new focus for investment so that environmental growth is prioritised as much as economic growth. The public doesn’t want to see business as usual as we come out of this crisis, they want to invest in people and planet. We need politicians in all four countries to commit to a green and socially just recovery.

RB: We need to convince Government that an old-fashioned recovery – deregulation and hard infrastructure – would not really be a recovery at all. The world’s economy has been brought to its knees by a natural disaster, probably caused by people. We won’t have a truly resilient recovery unless it guards against other anthropogenic environmental risks like climate change, flooding, soil degradation and pollinator decline.

Q4: What do you want funders to know and do?

CM: So far, I think funders have reacted really well. Flexibility is the key ask, around things like targets, programmes and match funding. We need a strong, resilient environment sector, and this means funders need to be willing to invest in organisations, not just actions. Lots of funders have focused on the short-term response to COVID. Now we need them to think about the longer term, and the types of programmes required to drive the green renewal.

DL: Funders have been doing their best to provide immediate support to our members through increased flexibility on current grants and new resilience funding packages. The concern in the sector, however, is that momentum on addressing the climate and nature crises has been lost. The pandemic has sprung out of the nature crisis and future ones will be compounded by the climate crisis. In 12 months’ time, we need to see a strong eNGO sector able to help deliver real and effective action – but at the moment the sector is weakened with lower levels of confidence for the future. 

KW: Flexibility on existing funding for projects is necessary and many funders are responding admirably to this. Core funding is critical and we’d love to see more funders providing core funding to help organisations while they recover from the loss of their core membership funding. Good projects just aren’t possible if organisations have no stable core from which to organise their work.

RB: Obviously help to keep critical projects on the road will be hugely welcome, but the gap will be impossible to fill completely. We need to make sure that policy and advocacy are supported, too, so that we can influence Government in setting the legal and fiscal frameworks that will lead to investment in nature. So, please don’t forget the less flashy funding for people working on policy.

And finally, where do you want to see the sector in your country in 12 months’ time?

CM (Northern Ireland): The UK seems increasingly disunited in the way our politicians relate to each other, and we’ve seen this in the COVID response . As an environment sector, however, we have always valued working together and I really hope that we can continue to build on this. There are major risks and opportunities, and we will all be stronger and more successful if we can navigate our way through this together.

DL (Scotland): We want to see Scotland on a clear path towards national wellbeing with everyone able to access high-quality green space close to where they live, using active travel as the easy option, able to afford locally-produced, high-quality food and knowing that Scotland’s internationally famous landscapes and wildlife are in good and improving ecological health. This is achievable if the ambition for a green recovery keeps that vision in mind and doesn’t stoop to business as usual, which leaves society fractured and wildlife declining.  

KW (Wales): We’ve seen businesses and charities adapt to more flexible, home-based working and adopt new technology that could end the constant battle over how to resolve rush-hour road congestion and excess emissions from transport. We’ve seen people take solace in nature and discover their local footpaths and cycle routes – many for the first time! We need significant investment in these and other positive changes as part of Wales’ move toward environmental growth.

RB (England): We’ve got to seize the agenda. Let’s make the case for measures of natural prosperity beyond GDP. Let’s lock in the best of lockdown and not revert to old ways. Let’s press for nature restoration on an unprecedented scale. I hope we can use this moment to set a lead for the world in the vital multilateral negotiations on oceans, nature and climate next year.

Find out more about the Link networks:

Northern Ireland Environment Link 

Scottish Environment LINK

Wales Environment Link

Wildlife and Countryside Link

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