Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 2.53.16 PMWhen talking about international agriculture, it’s inevitable that a great deal of the conversation will center around development or more specifically the buzzword subject of ‘sustainable development.’ Sustainability, in my personal opinion, is an overused word. In today’s language, it can mean so many things that without further elaboration it hardly means anything at all.

Today we were privileged to have guest lecturer Katelyn Morris lead the discussion. Katelyn is a research associate at the University of Vermont, and her focus is on climate change, agriculture, and food security. She began class with one of the best definitions of sustainable development I have heard yet. Quoting Lao Tzu, he says

“Go to the people, live with them, learn from them, love them, start with what they know, build with what they have, but of the best leaders, when the job is done, the task accomplished, the people should say “We have done it ourselves.”

That those you are trying to better can say “we have done it ourselves,” lies at the heart of successful development. This is a concept that seems so obvious and yet was neglected in the early years of development work. Over the years, the dialogue has shifted to incorporate more of this emphasis. Development needs be more holistic; reducing vulnerability means improving resilience; food security must be coupled with a livelihoods framework. And that transition in language reflected more than a change in wording, but it marked the beginning of new approaches to development as a whole. But as simple as it is to say enable the people to help themselves, this is a complex concept to actually implement.

Katelyn focused her lecture on 3 case studies, one of which focused on renewable energy in rural Mexico. Through solar panels providing electricity to villages, these projects aimed to reduce poverty through in environmentally sustainable ways. The first part of this project donated solar panels to a community, but it was ultimately a flop. Because there was no community buy-in, they were not invested in maintaining the solar panels. Without proper training, as soon as one broke, they sold it for parts.


The remarkable thing about this case study is the progression of changes and the ability to respond to mistakes. The next time around, solar panels were always coupled with technical assistance and training, and they operated in communities that already had specific productive uses for electricity, for example using solar panels to operate well-pumps for irrigation. Operating within already present community goals, providing training and a direct economic benefit as incentive transformed the projects into viable, successes. Those communities truly are able to say, “We have done it ourselves.”

But operating at such a local scale is not without its challenges. In another case study, we looked at a program called COMSERBO which translates into the Incentive Program for Forest Conservation, Integrated Management, and Services. This reforestation pilot project was implemented in  Pando, Bolivia and the agenda aligns with the sustainable framework mentioned above. Working at a very the community level, COMSERBO placed the responsibility on those who actually live in the forested areas, incentivizing those communities to continue current beneficial practices rather than attempting to change community behavior. With a flexible design, the incentive was less financial and more technical assistance and capacity building to foster a viable long-term reforestation plan.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 2.52.47 PMOperating on this small-scale, the pilot project provides another positive example of community-focused conservation that targeted specific needs. Like all things development, however, it is not without its faults. Although successful on the small scale, the challenges facing the both renewable energy goals in Mexico and the COMSERBO project brings up valid questions. These approaches start at a local level and grow from the people, but how can they be scaled up to operate on a national level? It would require coordination from actors on a national, departmental, municipal, and community level that is very difficult to achieve. Even more challenging, with COMSERBO in particular, it was very difficult to evaluate success when the project has such flexible long-term goals. What are feasible indicators for  environmental and social gain and can they actually be monitored?

To add to these questions, we looked at one final case study. This study took place in El Salvador, shifting to specifically focusing on a small coffee cooperative of 29 farms. The approaches from the first two studies carry through using a sustainable livelihoods framework, but this research goes a step further and utilized the Participatory Research Approach. PRA is designed to better identify the needs in a community through open dialogue. Rather than entering with a specific problem and solution in mind, PRA facilitates less prescriptive discussion to hear what community members identify as the needs and potential solutions for the community.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 2.54.45 PMIn this case, the focus groups that came form the PR approach brought out unexpected needs. From conservations with the farmers, Katelyn began economic assessments of production for both coffee and corn, and gained a better insight into their current system of production. In this community, they were growing organic coffee but also growing corn for subsistence and paradoxically using fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, and sometimes even fungicides for the corn. With a focus on vulnerability, adaptive capacity, and resilience it seems logical from my Western environmentally minded viewpoint to target more sustainable methods of corn production, but that that was not the goal of the community. The community simply wanted to learn how to reduce costs, to monitor finances, etc.

And that brings me to the final challenge in community development. It’s clear from all three of these studies that certain concepts are key to success. Development must remain less prescriptive and more flexible. It must emphasize resilience and long-term solutions, and most importantly, it must center around community choice and engagement.  But, there are still overarching global goals that sometimes conflict with these local-approach methods.

How do you accommodate what is a practical, sustainable solution within the framework of what a local community actually wants to change for themselves? How do you reconcile global imperatives that are so far beyond the scope of a single village? And with a livelihood focus, how do you even define development success?

These are the problems that remain unanswered when it comes to community development. Perhaps this reflects the influence from the more bureaucratic top-down method of development that is so ingrained in my way of thinking. I feel a need to define community development in a prescriptive and tangible way, but when I reflect on these case studies and the lessons learned here, it seems like that is where the problems arise.  Community development may need to be less defined in it’s complexities. To quote Katelyn Morris, it should simply be enabling local communities to “make a living, and make it meaningful.”