The right to fail? Problematizing failure discourse in international conservation

Josephine M. Chambers, Kate Massarella, Robert Fletcher

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


A growing body of critical research interrogates the tendency within international conservation circles to present interventions as successful, even when evidence points to substantial negative impacts. The flip side of this ‘selling’ success is a growing emphasis on the importance of embracing and even celebrating failure. Yet this important trend in international conservation policymaking has yet to be examined in depth. We address this research gap by first tracing the origins of the embracing failure narrative, linking it to the historical handling of failure in conservation and in fields such as business management and international development. We then explore the implications of this framing of failure for international conservation policy and practice by examining relevant policy literature and illustrative case studies in Tanzania and Peru. Based on this analysis, we demonstrate how a ‘right to fail’ can justify both continuing and discontinuing conservation interventions in highly problematic ways. We show how the framing of failure as a positive outcome for global learning can reduce accountability for significant and long-lasting negative consequences of failed interventions. Furthermore, the emphasis on approaches to learning that employ narrow technical frames can depoliticize issues and limit possibilities to fundamentally question and transform dominant conservation models with histories of persistent failure. Consequently, we argue that by affording interventions the ‘right to fail’, conservation actors with a stake in dominant models have taken control of failure discourse in ways that reinforce instead of undermine their ability to ‘sell’ success amidst negative (or limited) local outcomes. While it is of course important to acknowledge failure in order not to repeat it, we caution against embracing failure in ways that may further exacerbate conservation injustices and hinder transformative societal change. We advocate instead for an explicitly political approach to addressing failure in conservation.
Original languageEnglish
Article number105723
Pages (from-to)1-13
JournalWorld Development
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2022


  • Conservation discourse
  • Development
  • Failure
  • Success
  • REDD+
  • Learning


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