We should learn more from different development models

03 August 2011

Gordon Peters, WDM Edinburgh group

Sustainability has become a rather slippery term. In fact looking at donor aid agency agendas it seems as if sustainability is the nice, ecologically well-meaning dressing up of policies which continue to accelerate market penetration of southern livelihoods.

They spend more underscoring the capacities of big corporate entities, from Cargill to Cadbury Schweppes and Monsanto, to dictate basic necessities of life from land use and seed provision to indebtedness and consumption. WDM has indeed had some success in trying to get at least one donor - DFID - to think again on water privatisation, but the determination to commodify the very sources of life across the globe, to take away common rights to land, water and even air keeps rolling on.

In the past two to three years I have been in two very different countries, about both of which one hears very little in the discourses of development. One is Paraguay, now governed by a reformist, 'liberation theologist' president, Lugo, whose adminstration is seeking to establish land reform and the means of self-sustainability for the peasant and landless population while the oligarchy which has always [since the Spanish conquest] owned the land and run the system remains.

Yet minor gains in restoring land and creating locally responsive markets are in great danger of being overwhelmed by overseas sovereign funds as well as corporations buying up huge tracts of land for mono-cropping and export to feed populations elsewhere. And land where local rights cannot be formulated to legal satisfaction is just grabbed and put into a new legal format by powerful vested interests. The same interests which often receive donor aid for work they are carrying out, particularly infrastructure.

The other country is Eritrea where the philosophy and practice of self-sustainability is being put in place country-wide, in semi-arid terrain in the Horn of Africa, following a brutal civil war with Ethiopia [and an unresolved border truce policed by the UN], and, significantly, without donor aid. Eritrea's current one party state [but with some evident participatory democracy] clearly does not fit with the geopolitical aims of the developed world governments, and at least as much the Eritrean government has said 'no thanks' to donor aid and dependency.

But the point is that in a region of Africa where millions are again starving and donor aid is large and 'complicated' in its distribution, and its onward value and re-direction, there is a country managing to restore its terraced agricultural land, to re-forest, to help returnees set up land holdings, to educate children and give women an equal say in economy and society - and to extract something like 6% of profits from mining companies for social development.

I think the aid models we are wedded to are themselves part of the problem. The two very different countries I mention may be 'peripheral' and seem isolated, but we could learn more, and there is indeed a Living Well, or 'Buen Vivir', movement which helps express some of that - partly inspired by the Cochabamba conference in Bolivia - and which offers more learning on common goods and self-sustainability than the World Bank's Voice of the Poor or DFID's and others promotion of the Paris Principles ever will.


Gordon Peters is a member of the WDM Edinburgh group and has worked as an international consultant in health and social development for DFID, the World Bank, the EU and Unicef over the last twenty years. He was recently in Eritrea advising the Ministry of Labour and Human Welfare.




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