Catchment groups are proliferating around Aotearoa New Zealand as communities seek to tackle some of the difficult challenges facing water quality and river health. Given the magnitude of these challenges, and the public concern associated with them, there is a lot that government agencies, industry bodies and other entities could do (and are doing) to support catchment groups. A key question is: what types of support are needed?
A recent survey of 240 catchment groups and community environment groups showed that around 10% of the groups each received more than $500,000 in funding over the past three years from a variety of government and private sources.
Funding enables these groups to do a lot of good in their catchments and local communities. However, such support comes with strings attached, which can pose risks for catchment groups.
Aims of catchment groups and ‘supporting’ organisations are not always cleanly aligned. Catchment groups form for a variety of reasons, have diverse aims, and are differently connected with regional councils, tangata whenua, government agencies, industry bodies, and their wider communities. Given that each group is unique, effective support for a catchment group would ideally be tailored to its needs.
‘Supporting’ entities like government agencies and sector groups also have their own goals and unique motivations for engaging with catchment groups. They face constraints of their own, especially where they are accountable for the distribution of public funds and need to demonstrate transparency, consistency and efficiency in the use of these resources. This makes it more difficult for agencies to craft a tailored response for each group.
What does this mean for catchment groups and the entities that support them?
It is important to enter these relationships with an understanding of each other’s goals, motivations and constraints, so the partnership aligns with the core purpose of all parties.
Catchment groups need a firm handle on their primary aims. Knowing which principles or goals are not negotiable, and where flexibility is possible, puts a group in a solid position to engage with supporting agencies.
Being able to compromise where necessary, while holding to a core shared purpose, means a group is better able to build enabling relationships and avoid becoming dependent on external support.
Agencies also have some work to do to clarify the purpose of their interventions. Some have long histories of working with community groups, but the aims and structures of particular catchment groups may be different. For other agencies, support to catchment groups is a new form of investment in achieving their objectives, and they are yet to fully understand what this investment might achieve. For all agencies, there is also the question of how their involvement with catchment groups works alongside the interventions of other supporting organisations.
Both catchment groups and agencies need to plan for support relationships to change through time. As the group evolves and progresses, as relationships with stakeholders and partners develop, and as new issues and policy responses emerge, the needs of the group and the availability of support will also shift.
A group may be engaged with several supporting agencies, and each of these relationships will ebb and flow. Support from any given source is likely to be time-limited, and the catchment group will need to anticipate and plan for what happens when support dries up.
In Australia, community-based natural resource management groups foundered when state support was cut. When funding comes to an end or is withdrawn, this may damage trust in government agencies – especially where groups have not been able to develop sustainable sources of funding and remain dependent on financial support from external groups.
Ultimately, catchment groups should seek support that fosters increasing self-reliance and independence through capacity-building, so that they can become less dependent on external support.
The groups we are working with are aware of the need to think beyond current support and relationships, and to plan for when regional council or central government funding dries up. They are thinking about how to become more self-reliant and focused on aligning members’ goals with group activities.
Catchment groups have expressed a need for support in a range of areas, including funding and funding applications, environmental monitoring, and technical support and advice. While many groups need funding (particularly for operational costs), funding is just one possible means of support to groups. In fact, catchment groups have reported that funding often comes with fishhooks.
Our research Catchment Forum in March 2022 brought together tangata whenua and catchment group leaders from four rohe across Aotearoa. We discussed several examples of where ‘support goes awry’.
When money has to be spent on measures that don’t align well with catchment priorities or group objectives, then funding can create tension and even divert groups from their desired path. As one catchment group member remarked, funding that doesn’t align with group goals can be problematic.
“The support is offered but it’s often in a package… Sometimes the group has to change because that’s part of the relationship, but other times, they just walk away from that support.”— Catchment group member, March 2022
As groups adapt to new and emerging challenges, they may find that alignment with the requirements of existing funding and support shifts in challenging ways.
Experience from another group bears this out: “[Our group] has to spend the money to meet its objectives with MPI. The group [members] don’t feel that it’s great use of the money, so … they’re potentially gonna lose this funding because they haven't met the objectives of the application, which is a real shame ‘cos things change, as we know. Something might have been in the application two years ago [but] as more information comes through, you need to retain the right to change your mind.”
Supporting agencies could explore non-financial means of support for groups, such as capacity-building, advice and training, as well as funding options that foster some of these capabilities, so as to support longer-term group goals and promote group self-reliance.
Effective support for catchment groups requires a mutual appreciation for why everyone is involved and what they are trying to achieve. If intentions and motivations are not well understood, there is a risk that people end up working at cross-purposes or feel let down as processes and outcomes fall short of expectations. Poor alignment risks sapping energy and undermining trust among catchment groups and local communities.
Therefore, both catchment groups and their would-be supporters should open dialogue early in the process to understand each other’s needs and goals. This can help the parties to find common ground and align their objectives, which will underpin strong supportive relationships.
Where strong relationships are in place, support to catchment groups can effectively advance shared environmental and social goals at the catchment scale.