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Local Resources and Local Knowledge for Development

October 2017

Tobias Roberts

One of the most common “tools” of the community development experts is the baseline study of a community. An expert comes is usually brought in by a certain development organization to determine the level of “development” a certain community has achieved and what elements of development are lacking. This study thus forms the foundation for future interventions, programs, projections and investments in the community.

In the best of cases, the baseline study is done together with community leaders and members; in the worst of cases the development organization reserves the right to describe and demarcate what that community is lacking. In almost every case, however, the impressions regarding development and poverty are heavily influenced by the western, affluent worldview that shapes the way we see and understand the world around us.

The power and authority to define what development entails and what distinguishes a lifestyle of poverty is a privilege that many people usually consider to be an exclusive right of the development organization or development worker. Unfortunately, this privilege too often translates into a form of neocolonialism; of forcing certain types of lifestyles and livelihoods onto groups of people who have their own epistemologies, their own ways of understanding the world and their place in it.

While there are certainly essential things that are needed by all human communities to live a happy, fulfilled life, the ways in which those necessities for life are secured, how they are distributed within the community, and how they are protected for future generations are often culturally determined.

The Problem with Outsiders Identifying Projects

Our western eyes and frame of mind might see certain practices and lifestyle choices of communities as synonymous with deficiency, scarcity, and hardship; precisely what development work aims to overcome. The most common response to that perceived shortage, is to bring elements, resources, and knowledge into the community to help them overcome their paucity What the community may see, however, is a lifestyle of abundance and affluence from their own standards; a lifestyle that might be different, but not necessarily a life of indigence and neediness as our western eyes see the situation.

Hundreds of development projects fail because the community development organization or community development worker never develops the ability to understand the reality of a community from an insider perspective. This is not to say that every traditional lifestyle of communities around the world is perfect and without hardships and adversities that need to be overcome. However, without the ability to perceive the experience of everyday life from the perspective of a community, our opinions regarding the wellbeing of that community and the proposed solutions for how that community can improve their situation will almost always fail because they are imposed from an external world vision that may be irrelevant and unfamiliar to the local community.

When the majority of solutions to perceived impoverishment and lack of development are focused around bringing resources, supplies, assets, and knowledge into a community from the outside, this is a telling sign that the community development organization has not been able or willing to take the necessary time to observe and comprehend life from the eyes of the community where they are working.

Guatemalan Case Study

In 2010, after having lived in a small, Mayan community in the highlands of Guatemala for several years, we were informed of grant money that was available to help communities achieve food security; a popular concept in the community development jargon. Our organization, a local youth network, was eventually chosen along with two other larger community development organizations to develop proposals.

The other three organizations followed the commonly accepted line of thought regarding Mayan communities in the highlands; that the people in these largely agrarian communities were malnourished because they didn´t have the knowledge or tools to provide for themselves. One organization proposed introducing a new variety of potato for cultivation that would supposedly boost production levels and thus help people improve their access to food. Another organization wanted to train community leaders in raising dairy goats and then distribute those goats to community members as a strategy to lower child malnutrition.

When the youth network we were working with began to look at the issue of food security, however, they found that scarcity wasn´t exactly the proper adjective to describe the reality of their community. They lived in one of the most fertile valleys in Guatemala, with abundant rainfall, deep, fertile top soil, and an agrarian tradition that dated back thousands of years. Their community had developed an agriculture-based livelihood founded on the cultivation of hundreds of different crops.

To the untrained eye, many of those crops might appear to be nothing but weeds and wildflowers. However, the community had an extensive knowledge regarding the nutritious value of the herbs, plants, flowers, vines, and other crops that grew in their fields. While corn was certainly the base of their diet, the apparent disorder and chaos of “weeds” growing in the cornfield was actually a carefully managed ancestral system of abundance that added nutrition to the everyday diet.

The youth network decided to present a project proposal that focused not on bringing outside elements into the community, but rather focusing on how to help the community rescue and maintain traditional agrarian methods. Instead of accepting the party line that their community needed to learn new technologies and techniques to achieve a certain level of food security, the youth network found value in the knowledge, resources, and tools that had defined their own agrarian tradition for thousands of years.

After three years of project implementation, the “improved” variety of potato had fallen out of favor with local communities because of the need to spend large amounts of resources on expensive and dangerous agrochemicals for it to produce properly. The dairy goat project was also a fiasco as communities quickly found that the local, heritage breed of goats that had been a part of the community for hundreds of years were much more better adapted to the context that the “improved” variety brought in from the outside.

The youth network´s project focused on rescuing and reclaiming traditional, diverse systems of production based on wild, heirloom crops was a success. Most people in the community already had the knowledge and knowhow regarding how to grow these crops. The seeds and other materials needed for this system of production were already a part of the community. What the community needed, was nothing more than the incentive and motivation to reclaim a system of production which, somewhat ironically, had been undermined by community development experts whose baseline studies found the communities to be malnourished and incapable of providing for themselves.

Questions for Reflection

Why do you think it is important to prioritize local resources for project implementation?

 

What is an example you know of where local knowledge was more important than outside knowledge for a certain community need?

 

Do you think it is possible to combine outside resources and ideas with knowledge and resources that are endemic to community? How would you go about this?

 

About the Author

Tobias has worked with a variety of community development organizations throughout Central America during the past 11 years. He currently works as a freelance consultant and writer while also managing his family´s agroecology farm in El Salvador and participating in a community eco-tourism cooperative.

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