By Grace Chua, Straits Times, Feb 6 2012
A HOST of international non-governmental organisations, whose work involves the environment, are setting up shop here.
More of these NGOs are moving to town, drawn by the space, resources and prospect of generous funding available.
In the coming months, conservation groups BirdLife International and Fauna Flora International will be opening offices here.
Others, like the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Conservation International (CI) and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) have already done so.
But challenges remain, namely raising environmental awareness – and therefore funding – among Singapore residents and Asian companies. Still, one major factor in bringing NGOs here has been government support.
In 2007, the Government started a formal programme to attract international organisations, setting up the International Organisations Programme Office at the Economic Development Board (EDB) to inform non-profit organisations of opportunities here, said Mr Quek Swee Kuan, the board’s assistant managing director.
Environment non-profit organisations, he added, do not typically think of Singapore as a base for work, as most of their beneficiaries are elsewhere. Five years ago, for example, the only big name in town was the WWF.
International NGOs say they have received various government grants, tax incentives and help.
For instance, the WWF, which set up an office here in 2006, received tax incentives and help getting registered as a charity. Tanglin International Centre, located at the former Ministry of Education grounds in Kay Siang Road, opened last year as a dedicated space for non-profit groups.
WWF and WCS are located at the centre, while the Singapore Environment Council (SEC) and Fauna Flora International are expected to move in later this year.
The EDB aims to get 150 international non-profit organisations from all sectors here by 2015, and create 2,500 jobs in the process.
Some NGOs are drawn here by the availability of specific technical skills. For example, WCS managing director Colin Poole said it sought veterinary, animal husbandry and genetics expertise.
But the biggest challenge, all of them said, has been getting Asian firms to be more sustainable, and help fund environment groups.
Dr Kashyap Choksi, managing director of CI, said: ‘Corporates… will give money to a charity or marathon, but on sustainability and greening the supply chain, this region has not got the message yet.’
Given the challenging funding climate, what will happen when government grants run dry?
The WWF is a charity and Institution of a Public Character (IPC), so it can collect donations from the public. But CI and WCS are not set up to do so here, and rely on corporate partnerships or foundations. CI’s million-dollar grant, matched by its own funding, will cease later this year.
Dr Choksi acknowledged this is a challenge, but said companies’ perception of sustainability is changing. ‘It’s slowly dawning on them that unless they change… they may not exist as a business in the next 20, 30, 40 years.’
WCS’ Mr Poole explained that costs here are minimal, and that staff who are based here but manage regional projects can tap funds earmarked for those projects.
So far, international environment groups have not lobbied the Singapore Government like some might in the West. This is simply not their mission here, they say.
Mr Poole said: ‘We’re not an advocacy organisation, we’re not Greenpeace, we don’t mount campaigns. We gather data, document what’s going on, partner governments. It’s about wildlife, ecosystems, forests. It’s not about politics and it never has been.’
Local NGOs agree. SEC executive director Jose Raymond said international NGOs typically focus on work outside Singapore.
He said their work, like curbing deforestation in Indonesia, was a vital contribution to Singapore as it helped mitigate the transboundary haze; this was as important as domestic political advocacy would be.
What is more, he added, outspoken environmental advocacy by local NGOs has been on the rise in the past few years. He did not specify any, but issues such as conserving the Bukit Brown cemetery and dolphins in captivity have made headlines in recent years.
Local groups, initially, were concerned that slices of the already small funding pie would get thinner, said Nature Society (Singapore) president Shawn Lum.
But that has not been the case. Instead, local and global groups have complemented each other.
‘The pie itself has gotten bigger, the environment community is bigger, and there’s more buzz and awareness.’