Unpacking “development” from on high: Aaron Ebner in the Peruvian Andes

Armed with Skype, cell phones, and our virtual meeting tool, WebEx, Aaron Ebner’s voice finally came in loud and clear, and we began our first seminar in “International Perspectives on Agriculture, Food and Environment.” Seven students from the Tufts Friedman School for Nutritional Science and Policy sat around a computer, listening to Aaron tell the story of his work with sustainable agriculture, climate change, and community-led development in the Peruvian Andes.

Aaron works at the Andean Alliance for Sustainable Development (AASD), a small non-profit with seven full-time staff and a mission “to harness the collective intelligence of the indigenous communities in the highlands of Peru to support community-led development projects.” At the heart of AASD’s approach is a rejection of a one-size fits all approach.  The organization addresses the unique needs of each community it works with, searching for innovative solutions to a variety of problems. This perspective is incredibly important in the context of the Andes, where small changes in geography and altitude play can make significant differences in communities’ ways of life and needs.

The “flagship” program of AASD is their school and family greenhouse project aimed at reducing malnutrition.  High altitude farmers in the Andes are often restricted to growing a small number of grain and root crops, but building greenhouses makes vegetable cultivation possible where it has not been before. This is a particularly salient issue as climate change is impacting the region. Temperature changes affect the ranges in which people can grow particular crops, and changes with pests and water availability are also of concern.

The greenhouse projects at AASD grew out of previous work Aaron had done where he realized that a lack of training and follow-up in school garden projects eventually led them to failure. In our discussion, Aaron talked about his struggle with “traditional development,” which is frequently constrained by project cycles and milestones that suit donors rather than communities. Funding timelines rarely allow for the meaningful relationship building that ultimately leads to sustainable projects. Similarly, monitoring and evaluation standards frequently mean sacrificing accountability to the communities an organization serves in order to remain accountable to funders.

This perspective hit home with our group, where there seems to be a collective confusion about the best way to engage in “development” without undermining the knowledge, abilities, and sovereignty of the people projects and organizations aim to “help.”

Aaron touched on this idea of helping as well, pushing back against the patriarchal, “savior” attitudes often expressed (perhaps unwittingly) in the development field.  A big part of AASD’s work, and funding stream, involves working with students, and Aaron makes sure to underscore a narrative that is not centered on the idea of help or aid. Rather, groups are there to learn from the communities of the Andes, and collaborate with partners to design impactful solutions (see their immersive education model below).

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(“Experiential Learning,” Andean Alliance for Sustainable Development)

Initially, I was struck by Aaron’s criticism of service learning projects, which he presented as paternalistic. Throughout high school and college, I felt as though I benefited immensely from these so-called service-learning trips, and immediately felt defensive of these initiatives.

But Aaron framed it perfectly to demonstrate how much we have to learn from communities like those he works with in the Andes. He talked about instances of positive deviance, which is a theory based on “the observation that in every community there are certain individuals or groups whose uncommon behaviors and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers, while having access to the same resources and facing similar or worse challenges.” [1]

Positive deviance: Nesario’s turkeys

This example that Aaron shared with us, of Nesario and his turkeys, showed how a community member found a low-cost, low-tech solution to a local problem. Aaron challenged us to think about how a Western organization might try to solve this problem- and the potential vulnerabilities that solutions could introduce (i.e. caging in chickens would require costly feed, increased labor, etc.).

There is much to learn from the people of the Andes, who have lived sustainably off the land for generations. Their resourceful nature and traditional knowledge has allowed them to survive in a remarkably harsh climate. Solutions for food storage, and other innovations, are what we should focus on- the strengths of communities, rather than their weaknesses. Aaron posed this in sharp contrast to the ideas that are commonly presented about agricultural communities in the Global South. These portrayals often harp on weaknesses and poverty, without recognizing alternative value systems and priorities, or exploring their strengths.

Ultimately, Aaron highlighted three challenges in “sustainable development” that stood out for me:

  1. Relationships. Of primary importance to AASD’s work are the relationships that the organization builds with communities and outside partners. Aaron emphasized that “traditional” development funders tend to require proof of impact within a particular time frame, one that is often too short to build the relationships necessary to achieve valuable outcomes. Aaron talked about how these timelines tend to neglect community rhythms and processes. AASD values community-led methodologies above all, and has made a pointed effort to become involved in the right amount of projects so as not to overextend themselves. 
  2. Research. AASD engages in research to understand communities needs, and to develop deliverables that are impactful. This is done partially in collaboration with graduate students, using mixed methods that uncover issues of importance to communities. While academically rigorous outputs are produced by these students, Aaron talked to us about the need for materials and knowledge that are useful to the communities, such as presentations in Quechua, for example, or the  “Garden in the Clouds” Story Map which has been useful to government ministries. Often times, research is focused on needs of researcher rather than the intended beneficiaries; the information leaves without ever being presented or made useful to the communities.
  3. Scale versus “scaling-up.” One weakness of many development paradigms is the explicit emphasis on “scaling up,” often at the detriment of projects’ long term viability. The idea is to have a greater impact by reaching a larger number of people, or addressing a larger number of indicators. Unfortunately, this often leads to the opposite- failed projects and communities left without the necessary tools to sustain outcomes. For me, AASD’s final principle says it all: “We value people over projects, and impact over quantity.”

Aaron offered great insight into the struggle many of us who aspire to do development work are working through. Do you work for, or know of, organizations or projects that you believe have struck a good balance?

Perhaps most importantly for me is the question of how to reconcile paternalistic attitudes about “helping” with the strong desire to be a part of global solutions.

Personally, I’ve preferred to think of development as an effort towards a common goal. There is so much I have to learn from others, and I like to think I can bring something to the table- in my view, there is no need for one-way interactions. Especially with issues as multi-faceted as climate change and food insecurity, a global effort and fruitful exchanges are needed. The question for introspection, at least for me, is how to achieve these exchanges in a way that is equitable and respects sovereignty? 

[1] http://www.positivedeviance.org/