Brit-Yank journalist & environment consultant.
Fellow @ Center for Climate & Security, TED fellow, Reporting @NatGeo, @NYT, @bbc etc


published on Mediterranean Dialogue/EU on Mar 3, 2021

read on original website

Environmental Activism along
a Warming Mediterranean.

Forging Regional Engagement at a Time of Climate Crises


Crippled by inattention and insufficient cash, the environment has traditionally been the poor relation of Mediterranean civil society. But as climate change and pollution cut an increasingly grim swathe across the region, that’s starting to change. Around the sea, environmental groups are enjoying newfound popularity, even as they face new and old challenges. Given that the Mediterranean littoral encompasses a wide array of economic and political systems, ranging from authoritarian states to advanced democracies, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Environmental civil society shares considerable common threads, though. For instance, they tend to be among the most poorly resourced and among the most dependent on volunteers of all CSOs. This is a questionnaire-based analysis of their prospects in generating superior future environmental action.

The Mediterranean region is reeling from a wide array of ecological challenges, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it to see the state of much of its civil society. Environmental organisations are even more strapped for cash than many of their NGO peers. Their capacity to cooperate across borders can be severely limited, despite the largely shared nature of the Mediterranean’s environmental problems. And with mounting pressure from repressive governments, hostile domestic actors, demanding donors, among others, many organisations face more obstacles than ever before. In other words, conservationists and campaigners are struggling to perform their jobs during the environment’s time of greatest need.

In its mapping of roughly 30 environment-related civil society organisations (CSOs), the Med Dialogue Programme paints a picture of an environmental scene that’s under attack and struggling to gain traction, yet simultaneously unprecedentedly energised and popular. Budgets are low and, in many instances, shrinking due to the pandemic, but volunteer numbers are up. The volume of environmental NGOs appears to be at a record high, but so too is the degree of environmental destruction. “We have more friends, but also more enemies,” (Anonymous, personal communication, September 2020) as one Lebanese activist put it. Across the sea, campaigners and conservationists tell a consistent tale of fear and hope for the future.

The nature of the Mediterranean – and its periphery – is such that it requires more cross-border and interdisciplinary collaboration than most ecosystems. As a semi-enclosed sea with a large littoral population and waters that are thought to take up to a century to renew themselves, it’s acutely vulnerable to pollution. So it has proven in recent decades. Microplastic concentrations are among the worst in the world, with the equivalent of 33,800 plastic bottles entering the sea every minute, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) (Dalberg Associates, 2019). Toxic waste from one country frequently ends up in another (Shira et al., 2018). Inland, too, most states are wrestling with climate stresses, resource scarcity and crumbling biodiversity that can’t help but reverberate with neighbours near and far. The environment knows no borders, as the saying goes. The Mediterranean states are a powerful exemplar.

Yet, history and geopolitics have just as often conspired to complicate cooperation as they have to propel it. With twenty-two coastal states, along with several other interested parties,the Mediterranean has an awful lot of stakeholders, many of whom are at loggerheads or seldom engage with one another, which means CSOs can’t or won’t either. And with wildly divergent political systems, levels of prosperity and attitudes towards the environment around the sea, building consensus and sparking collective action can be difficult to the extreme. Amid myriad other challenges – conflict, economic and governance crises, and now COVID-19 many environmental CSOs say it can be a struggle to make any headway, no matter how bleak the Mediterranean’s prognosis might be.


The disparate nature of the region ensures that environmental CSOs operate in a wide variety of socio-political climates that range from conflict zones in which work is all but impossible (e.g. Syria and Libya) to authoritarian states (e.g. Egypt and Turkey), right through to European and some other democracies. However, despite these considerable differences, there are a number of common threads across the regional environmental scene.

Environmental CSO finances are consistently weak compared to other CSOs, many of which aren’t exactly well-endowed themselves. The median operating budget among environmental respondents is 150,000 euros, as opposed to an overall median figure of 277,500 euros. Some must make do with as little as 20,000 euros annually, in the case of one Tunisian NGO. But the real figure might actually be even lower given that ten of 28 mapped organisations declined to divulge their finances on the questionnaire and many of those appear to be among the most poorly resourced of all.

Naturally, this cash crunch bodes ill for NGO operations. Hamstrung by a lack of funding, many environmental CSOs are severely limited in the number of paid staff they can take on – a median of 11 – and the number of projects they can initiate – a median of seven; both of which also fall considerably below the CSO average. Organisation heads report considerable difficulties in hiring expert conservationists and/or getting expensive and often years-long
environmental studies and clean-up operations off the ground. Though there are frequently other mitigating factors in both cases. That shortfall in paid staff is partially offset by volunteers, who appear to make up a larger share of the environmental CSO workforce than in other fields, while environmental projects can require inordinate time and money to yield results. As ever, quantity isn’t necessarily a reflection of impact.

And despite explicit efforts to diversify income streams, the funding that many environmental CSOs do receive is especially likely to come from a small and sometimes unreliable coterie of donors. Twenty-three of 28 respondents receive funds from philanthropic foundations or small private donors, whose support can quickly drop off at times of financial stress or waver if civil society doesn’t subscribe to a donor’s own occasionally conflicting priorities. Twenty of these twenty-eight environment-related organisations receive assistance from the European Union, a greater percentage than the roughly 56 percent of all NGOs mapped by the Med Dialogue Programme and a source of occasional consternation. Though EU funding is considered vital, some organisations feel Brussels can have insufficient understanding of their challenges and hence unrealistic expectations of their ability to effect change (Anonymous, personal communication, September 2020). Notably, only eight polled organisations receive state aid, a reflection, perhaps, of the environment’s lowly stature in many North African and eastern Mediterranean countries.

There is some evidence, however, that cross-border CSO collaboration has increased in recent years as environmental concerns have proliferated. Sixteen of the twenty-eight polled respondents work on both sides of the Mediterranean, a little more than the 49 percent among all CSOs; a clear improvement on past levels of cooperation. In other bright spots, a host of new environmental organisations have sprung up in the last decade, particularly on the south side of the sea. A number of more established environmental CSOs also report fewer difficulties in collaborating with foreign partners. From Morocco to Tunisia, the political climate appears to have eased in some states, as they look to polish their green credentials, and as others loosen their restrictions on local CSOs across the board.

Transnational environmental organisations and sea-wide campaigns have, however, struggled to gain ground across the region. Among southern Mediterranean countries, Greenpeace has few operations – and no offices – beyond Israel, Lebanon, Tunisia and Morocco, while WWF has made few in-roads, despite a number of attempts to expand its work in the Arab world.

But despite notable success stories, environmental NGOs have, by and large, suffered the same kinds of setbacks as much of the southern Mediterranean’s civil society since the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings; with all the curtailed or stifled cross-border collaborations that have come with that. Almost half of respondents declined to identify their sources of pressure for fear, in some instances, of renewed or escalated trouble, according to several polled
organisations. Among those who did answer, just under half said they faced government pressure and about the same number reported repercussions from powerful domestic players, such as political parties or religious institutions. Many of their counterparts in Europe suffered a serious drop in funding during the last recession from which they’ve yet to fully recover. Few campaigners harbour much hope that this will let up anytime soon; particularly as COVID-19
fuelled economic crises eat into funding streams.

Future Trends

The environmental movement is currently at something of a crossroads around the Mediterranean. On the one hand, popular interest is on an upward spiral and is only likely to grow as awareness of the region’s ecological crises mounts. Many of the polled organisations have been founded relatively recently, particularly in North Africa, and as these NGOs expand, mature and develop wider international networks, the potential for superior pan-Mediterranean
cooperation will increase with them. Anecdotally, the average age of environmental CSO employees appears to be significantly below the CSO average. There is perhaps no field that’s in greater need of generational change than the environment, which often lacks champions among those in positions of authority.

Even more importantly perhaps, some environmental CSOs anticipate that that heightened concern will translate into improved – and potentially game-changing – financial opportunities. With more money, campaigners feel they’ll soon be in a position to help communities who’ve never had much to do with the environmental movement and thereby reel in demographics that might otherwise have been repelled by what’s often considered an elitist component of
civil society. More money might also enable the smallest of organisations to recruit personnel and devote the time required to work further afield. At the same time, greater domestic giving might loosen the financial stranglehold that some authoritarian states have been able to exert over environmentalists precisely because of their dependence on foreign assistance. Egypt is a grim case in point. Largely beholden to EU and international foundation grants, environmental CSOs there have been paralysed by recent laws, which make it exceptionally tricky for them to accept funds from abroad.

In contrast, rising interest likely will fuel, and in many instances already is fuelling, a fiercer crackdown. Authoritarian states such as Turkey had, until relatively recently, seen environmental groups as largely harmless and treated them accordingly. An increasing understanding of the environment’s capacity to mobilise popular action, which has been reinforced by water-related protests across the Middle East, is changing that (Schwartzstein, 2019). Many of these groups have been recast as sources of potential instability, not least due to their habit of engaging in the kinds of activities that often incite security state attention, like information and data sharing across borders. (It’s notable that many Egyptian groups and a number of others who operate in hostile political climates did not respond to the mapping questionnaire.) As climate change continues to gnaw away and environmental degradation worsens, campaigners say that unwanted attention will only intensify.

Many organisations are guardedly optimistic about the future. In conversations conducted over the past decade, environmentalists suggest that deteriorating conditions will ultimately force repressive states to bring them in from the cold and force democratic states to accord them the support and funding they need. But almost all feel that the environment’s prospects hinge much more on improvements in governance than in addressing specific environmental challenges. The questionnaire bears out that analysis. Very few polled CSOs list ‘tackling ecological challenges’ as an absolute priority; and many of those who did appear to work elsewhere in civil society. Environmental CSOs, for their part, prioritise consolidating democratic spaces, influencing institutions and tackling socio-economic inequalities. The story of environmental failure is the story of state failure in general.


Q Amid the pandemic and ensuing economic crisis, funding for civil society organisations
is at a premium. Environmental groups around the Mediterranean are no different. Many
are suffering severe cuts in domestic, foundation and state giving, which is compounding
existing financial woes. It is incumbent on the international community, and particularly
the EU and other European institutions, to maintain and ideally escalate their support for
these organisations at their time of great need. This isn’t purely a matter of altruism, of
course. What flows into the Mediterranean or seeps across its borders ultimately affects
the entire coastline;

Q In some southern Mediterranean countries, environmental CSOs have yet to solicit
as much corporate or private sector funding as they might. This is a mistake. Many
companies appear to have expanded their corporate social responsibility (CSR) giving
in recent years. The environmental scene would do well to mimic the success that some
humanitarian organisations have had in tapping into this;

Q It’s also vital that international donors display a greater understanding of the obstacles
that aid recipients face on the south side of the sea. Some questionnaire respondents
identify the European Union as a very welcome, but frequently overbearing donor.
There’s a limit to how effectively the EU can distribute aid and provide guidance unless
it better appreciates the nature of their challenges, organisations say;

Q Despite improved cross-border collaboration in recent years, many organisations, and
indeed many countries, remain largely frozen out of trans-Mediterranean environmental
discourse because of their small stature and/or meagre finances. If the peoples of
the Mediterranean are to feel the full benefit of cross-border engagement, then the
international community will need to help facilitate more thorough cooperation. This
could take the form of regular environmental summits, as suggested by a number of
southern Mediterranean environmentalists, or ‘twinning’ schemes, whereby CSOs from
one country are paired with like-minded groups in another;

Q In places where environmentalists are experiencing repression, European institutions
can and must apply greater pressure to alleviate their plight. In cracking down on these
organisations, authoritarian states are fuelling environmental degradation in their own
countries, while also contributing to the Mediterranean’s increasingly parlous state. Given
that the EU and member states are among the biggest donors to culpable governments,
they have the leverage and the responsibility to intervene. For all the difficulty of stifling
human rights abuses, the fact that the environment is still seen as a slightly ‘softer’ field
may ease policymakers’ task; and

Q More importantly, European stakeholders must impress upon their Mediterranean
counterparts – and, indeed, many within their own institutions – that the environment is
a priority. The less governments do, the more NGOs must, and even with more funding
and support, as most organisations concede, there’s a limit to how much can fall on their
shoulders. A fully functioning civil society requires willing and able government partners.
From elevating environmental issues within pan-Mediterranean political discourse to
assisting in climate adaptation and mitigation measures along the south side of the sea,
the international community must give environment the stature that its severity warrants.