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24 August 2018

Rethinking development: One perspective never tells the full story

Photo: Jarjan Ficher/Flickr.

We are in the midst of the quest for sustainable development. The ambition to leave no one behind, together with the global political consensus that the challenges we are facing are common and interrelated frame the new development narrative.

However, this inter-connectedness does not always trickle down to the local level.

Kenyan government rolled out KLIP (Kenya Livestock Insurance Programme) to protect pastoralists from the impacts of droughts. The idea is that pastoralists buy the insurance package and get financial support during the dry spells. Sounds good in theory.

In practice, however, pastoralists often don’t have the money to pay for the insurance to begin with. So, it needs to be subsidized. The insurance scheme is also built with the assumption that there is a developed market and infrastructure in the pastoralist drylands – people are supposed to buy vaccines or pay for the extension and veterinary services with the money they get through the insurance, which is not so easy to get in such areas as West Pokot, even if you have the money.

Finally, pastoralist communities have been living with droughts for centuries and learned to get through the dry spells by relying on well-developed social networks.

These networks are not merely a coping mechanism, but social fabric with immense cultural significance. “People trust each other with their livestock and help their friends out without paying for favors with money. It works like ‘if you scratch my back, I scratch yours.’ For instance, when they give their cow to a friend they say ‘Karam’. It is a word that combines the meanings of peace, reconciliation and wellbeing and is a great expression of the amount of social trust embedded in these social networks,” says Julia Wernersson (University of Copenhagen).

She believes KLIP ignores this social order and risks to tear this social fabric by introducing a market-based mechanism. Additionally, KLIP may undermine claims to pastoral lands because, if the risks are absorbed by insurance, the need for the traditional movement with the livestock during dry-spells decreases and may no longer be supported by the government.

While Julia Wernersson thinks that the insurance solution is superficial, she acknowledges that KLIP and the “Karam” tradition can complement each other. However, the insurance has to be re-built on the existing social structures.

Photo: Jessica Lea (DFID)/Flickr.

Another example of how well-intended development initiatives can miss the target if they don’t take local way of life as a starting point comes from Nigeria’s Cross River State. Here the ban on illegal logging, introduced for the conservation purposes and as part of REDD+, has, in fact, resulted in higher poverty, environmental degradation, corruption and loss of trust to the government.

Torsten Krause (Lund University) suggests approaching forest conservation and forest land management by focusing on the local fauna: “Animal biodiversity and the relationship between animals and humans who live in the area provide a great insight into forest management – a criterion often missed by sustainability policy frameworks.”

He reports that 79% of the households in the Cross River State of Nigeria hunt on a regular basis and use forest resources for livelihood needs. “Hunting is unregulated, forest resources are abundant and with little collective protection, the rule is to take as much as you can. So, noticeable decline in biodiversity was only a question of time,” says Krause.

Cross River State is a REDD+ pilot, and to receive the funding to implement the framework, the Nigerian government had to commit to conservation. Their response to biodiversity decline in the area was a strict ban on hunting and illegal logging, enforced by the military. As a result, communities lost access to forest and all their traditional forest-related practices were criminalized.

The government has not offered anything in return for conservation, people continue to log and hunt, but have to bribe the officials if caught – the reason why they do not respect public authority.

Both of the examples add to the collection of many well-intended, but hopelessly impractical development projects. These failures are in many ways conditioned by reluctance to discard expert opinions, by an inability to submerge into local universes and see the reality through the eyes of the people we are trying to tell how to better live their lives.

Research and development community needs to accept that there is no such thing as the most correct theory. We need to embrace that we will only solve the wicked problems, like poverty and inequality, if we learn to include every point of view, no matter the background or status.

People can experience the same problem but perceive the risks differently. Even in the scientific community, ecologists and sociologists would have a different take on the same issue.

Don’t you think it is rather brazen to assume that a pastoralist or a member of a forest community knows less about their land, environment and way of life than a scientist or a policy official?

Everybody matters for success of the “leave no one behind” agenda.

This article is inspired by the discussions at the “Restore More – it’s all about Multifunctional Landscapes” session at the Development Research Conference: Rethinking Development 2018.