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Animals and people can thrive together

20 May 2019 at 8:40 am
Maggie Coggan
Azzedine Downes is CEO of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, a global animal welfare charity fighting to protect animals and the environments they live in, as well as inspiring a global community to take action on the issue. He is this week’s Changemaker.

Maggie Coggan | 20 May 2019 at 8:40 am


Animals and people can thrive together
20 May 2019 at 8:40 am

Azzedine Downes is CEO of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, a global animal welfare charity fighting to protect animals and the environments they live in, as well as inspiring a global community to take action on the issue. He is this week’s Changemaker.

Just two weeks ago, a report on the current state of life on Earth painted a dismal picture of species extinctions, habitat loss and the depletion of ecosystem services at a rate never before witnessed by humankind.

The effects of climate change, as well as the practice of illegal poaching and hunting, have decimated habitats and pose a severe threat to both animals and humans.  

With over 25 years experience in the conservation space, Downes knows there is a big challenge ahead if we are to save and protect our animal species.

As president and CEO of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) he has successfully lobbied for Australia to take Japan to court over whale hunting in the Antarctic and has secured over 6,000 hectares of land in Kenya to protect habitats for elephants.

One of the greatest challenges he still faces as a leader in the space is communicating effectively to a global audience that individuals can, in fact, make a difference if they come together.

In this week’s Changemaker, Downes talks about what inspired his leap into the animal welfare sector, what the charity sector can learn from corporates, and the good and bad powers of humanity.          

Was there a specific moment that inspired you to get involved in the NFP sector?

I have spent much of my life in geographical locations with extreme landscapes in the Middle East.  It is much easier to see the impact that habitat destruction has on wildlife living in those areas.  Life is much more tenuous and wildlife must struggle on a daily basis for survival.  

It was when I was living in Jerusalem and spent time hiking in the mountains around the Dead Sea that I saw a little animal called the Rock Hyrax running around the rocks.  When I asked what it was, I was told by a hiker that it was the cousin of the elephant! I thought to myself, “that can’t be true”. But whilst some scientists are still debating, it is the closest relative of an elephant! At the same time, I learned that the last leopard of the region had died. It was then that I had to learn more and become involved in protecting the incredible diversity that was surrounding me.

You’ve overseen some enormous periods of growth in IFAW, how did you make sure you were still maintaining impact while growing the organisation?

I’ve been fortunate enough to lead IFAW through a period of groundbreaking geographic expansion and strategic consolidation, opening offices on four continents, including our first office in the Middle East, and establishing new programmes such as Wildlife Crime.

To date, our biggest challenge has not been doing the on-the-ground work but talking about it. We were finding it hard to convey why saving one elephant is important to a person who lives in a city of more than nine million. Or how drone technology could be used to help save marine mammals, or how detection dogs can help us save koalas. But it was clear to us that people care and they want to help. Our recent website update and rebranding were important in achieving this because with our new look we stand out from others in the conservation and animal welfare space. We have created a brand that gets us in front of millennials and Gen Z and will, hopefully, persuade them to become the new environment and animal welfare advocates.

Can the NFP sector learn anything from the corporate sector, and vice versa?

There are so many similarities between running a business in the private sector and working for a charity – both are hard work. In order to have a sustainable impact, it’s important to have clear objectives and always be focused on the outcomes. It all comes down to the bottom line and that’s why a good strategy and strong discipline is required.

So, don’t be afraid to think strategically, or even assertively, when running a charity. It takes a great deal of care and skill to run a business – no less is required in the charity sector. This method of management won’t detract from the charitable nature of your work but will help to maximise the impact of your actions ensuring that they are sustainable, rather than simply being temporary.

Downes helping rescue elephants. Credit: IFAW

What challenges are NFPs facing currently?

There are just so many issues and in some respects competing voices because of the number of NFPs out there. People might feel overwhelmed with the size of the issue – how can they do anything to reverse climate change, stop the oceans being overrun by plastic or stop species decline. The challenge is showing people that individuals can make a difference – getting them to engage, spread the word, advocate change, donate to support a cause, plant trees and say no to plastics. We believe that animals and people can thrive together.

IFAW recently rebranded, why was that important, and how will that help grow your impact?

The world is at a critical juncture for animals and habitats. If they are to survive and thrive we have to ensure conservation issues remain top of mind – we need to create a movement. That is why IFAW decided to transform the way it communicates. The new brand feels different and is definitely not institutional. It is visually and editorially bold and compelling. It includes a new logo and website to drive the brand concept of “animals and people thriving together”. And it focuses on IFAW evolving into a “digital first” organisation to reach a younger audience. This rebrand is a multi-year, cross-departmental investment, so there are more exciting things to come.

Downes on location in Chobe National Park, Botswana. Credit: IFAW

What are some of your biggest achievements?   

One of the biggest achievements in this region was our lobbying of the Australian and New Zealand governments to take the Japanese government to the International Court of Justice.

March 2014 saw a historic victory that IFAW was incredibly proud to be part of.  That was when the International Court of Justice delivered its long-awaited verdict on Australia’s case against Japanese whaling in the Antarctic. The decision could have gone either way, but we were part of a team that helped Australia deconstruct the pretence that Japanese whaling was for “scientific” purposes.

IFAW had long championed that whales should have their day in court and we were delighted that justice was served. Back in 2005, IFAW began investigating whether international legal action was possible. We commissioned a series of panels of experts in international law, which looked at the issue in detail and consistently found Japanese whaling unlawful. Following these findings, IFAW lobbied strongly for Australia to take on a case against Japan. Australia launched the case in 2010. This landmark case remains a reflection of the near-universal abhorrence of whaling across Australia that it is one of the few issues in Australian politics that all sides broadly agreed on.

How has the experience of working for an organisation like IFAW changed you and your perspective on the world?

If there is one thing I’ve learned through this work it is that as humans, we have destroyed, but we also have the capacity to repair.  In our work, we know that people around the world hold different views and propose different solutions. And what makes our work at IFAW special is that we can combine those approaches to create a healthier, more sustainable, and just world. We’re proud to be a part of global efforts to change the way humanity interacts with nature and the planet we call home.

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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