NGOs and odd bedfellows point the way


Back in the 1960s, plastics were the future. As a result, a significant part of that future will be spent cleaning up after the past. So here is a tip for those of you making plans to help save the Earth: Consider a career in environmental economics. And if you’re already working as an environmentalist, economist or scientist, consider broadening your horizons to include one of the other two fields.

These three professions may seem odd bedfellows, but as environmental concerns and economic policy-making have become increasingly intertwined, a new discipline — environmental economics — has emerged. In the years to come, this is likely to alter decision-making at every level of government, industry and civil society.

To delve deeper into this field, I called on a former student of mine, Yoshifumi Konishi, who has gone on to get an M.A. in Policy Analysis from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. Currently a financial analyst in the Investment Research Department of Goldman Sachs (Japan) Ltd., he is heading back to the United States later this year to begin a Ph.D in Applied Economics, focusing on environmental and natural-resource economics.

Two weeks ago in this column, Konishi explained the fundamentals of environmental economics. This week he offers some insights into environmental economics education, and some thoughts on the role it can play in Japan’s nongovernmental organization sector.

According to Konishi, environmental economics has become widely accepted in university education, but unfortunately — and especially at Japanese universities — it is often taught as policy studies rather than as an applied field of economics. As a result, many students lack a solid disciplinary foundation, which limits their ability to establish careers in the environmental sector. For this reason, Konishi advises those who are serious about a career in this field to have more than one leg to stand on. Future environmental managers will, he says, need to master economics and at least one other field of environmental science.

The problem is which other field to choose. “There are an astonishingly large number of areas in environmental management, besides environmental economics,” says Konishi. “Areas include environmental-impact assessment, recycling management, solid-waste management, environmental ISO certification, environmental accounting, ecological labeling, life-cycle assessment, forest-resource management, marine conservation and pollutant management, to name a few.”

Another challenge in this field is that environmental economics lacks systematic theorization. “Because the approaches that environmental economics can take are as diverse as the number of environmental issues, there is no universally agreed approach for dealing with a given environmental problem,” says Konishi.

This means that environmental economists often have to find unique means of analyzing a particular concern. “As a result,” he notes, “environmental economists need not only a solid disciplinary background in economics and in natural science fields, but also the ability to apply analytical tools and disciplinary perspectives to a given environmental problem.”

There is one further obstacle to a successful career in this field. In Japan, environmental economics and environmental-valuation techniques still play a limited role in public-policy making, Konishi points out. “This is partly because government officials and private institutions are not sufficiently exposed to the concepts and analytical tools of environmental economics, and partly because there are no independent, nonpartisan environmental research NGO/NPOs in Japan that are comparable to such U.S. organizations.”

Konishi would like to see nongovernmental organizations play a much more active part in shaping Japan’s future, and laments that they garner so little support. In particular, he believes that the non-profit sector should play a far greater role in monitoring, evaluating and influencing public policy — roles that would benefit from wider acceptance and use of environmental economics in this country.

He feels that one reason NGOs are not taken as seriously in Japan as they are in other developed nations is that the government promotes them as volunteer-based organizations. “Many government officials consider NGOs as service-delivery organizations that ‘do business for the government,’ but at cheaper prices,” he notes. “This is very harmful to the Japanese nonprofit sector.”

Konishi believes that Japan must “nourish a much deeper notion” of NGOs, recognizing that the NGO/NPO sector is “a third force that works professionally for societal needs.”

He believes NGO/NPOs should employ both volunteer and paid professional workers, and should be supported by a voluntary or philanthropic workforce and contributions. Nevertheless, he also feels “NGOs need to be professionally structured and operated in order to improve the quality of their activities.”

However, Konishi is keen to stress that he is not being critical of the Japanese non-profit sector. “I know some NGO professionals who are amazingly dedicated, passionate and capable,” he explains. “Rather, what has to be criticized is our current social system, including our political, governmental and legal systems.”

He identifies three reasons why the Japanese NGO sector is still “significantly underdeveloped.” The first is that NGOs have scant financial resources, particularly in view of the high setup and operating costs required in Japan. Second, there is a lack of well-trained research personnel. Konishi notes that those who hold Ph.D and Master’s degrees rarely take full-time positions in the non-profit sector. Finally, he notes the lack of networking with American, European and other international NGOs.

Overcoming these shortcomings will require public awareness of, and demand for, a strong, independent NGO sector. In the meantime, Konishi suggests that NGOs may need to establish “for-profit organizations” that can finance not-for-profit activities and personnel.

Over the longer term, environmental economics may well provide the key to vitalizing Japan’s NGO sector. Since one of the goals of environmental economists is to help structure an efficient and just society, perhaps it will be Japan’s young enviro-economists who finally solve the riddle of how to nurture a vibrant NGO community in this country.