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17
Oct

Sustainable Development And Poverty Reduction

Sustainability can mean many things, but it’s really about one thing.

For those of us working in the overseas development sector, sustainability has two meanings. They’re substantively different and yet increasingly interconnected.

Sustainable Development

Over many years, organizations like ours have been striving to design poverty reduction programs that will be sustained in our eventual absence — by those for whom they are designed. In effect, we’re in the business of putting ourselves out of business.

And we’ve been getting better at it, primarily by focusing on local partnerships. The days of top-down aid and outside-in charity are rapidly and thankfully disappearing.

It makes perfect sense that the people who understand the challenges faced by low-income and underserved communities in fragile contexts like South Sudan, Somalia, and Bangladesh are the people who live within and around those communities. So, the logical process has been to build the capacity of local organizations and groups, empowering them to take an active role in deciding on the kind of projects that would work best for them, and how they should be implemented.

This involves those communities making a substantial investment of time, energy, and resources — which in turn is fair assurance that they will remain engaged and committed. These partnerships are always formed with the express understanding that at some point Concern will walk away, and ownership will transfer to the community.

Let me give you an example.

People living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo face many challenges, one of which is restricted access to that most basic of human rights — clean water. The continent of Africa is littered with abandoned and broken water infrastructure, often installed by long departed and well-meaning aid organizations. Installing the hardware is simply not enough.

Over a 3-year period, ending just last year, Concern led a multi-agency consortium which had sustainability (this version of the word) at its core. Yes, there were boreholes, and tube wells, and pumps, and protected springs — all the paraphernalia of water supply — but the “software” component was the key.

Before even a shovel of earth was turned, there were multiple meetings, consultations, and discussions with people at all levels of community life. It was they who decided what was needed, where, and for whom. Water management committees were elected, and tasked with organizing public information and training sessions, creating maintenance schedules, designating key personnel, and setting prices per liter of water.

That’s right: people in the community are expected to pay for their water. It’s on a sliding scale, depending on ability to pay, with the poorest families getting free access. The fees are managed by the committee and used to pay for spare parts and ongoing maintenance of the infrastructure. Schoolchildren become “champions” of hygiene, encouraging others to adopt regular handwashing and good sanitation practices. Incentives are available for families to construct good quality latrines and keep household compounds and the village environs free of pollution and detritus.

It’s an all-in process, involving everyone from the chief to the doctor to the schoolteacher to the elders to the kids. It’s us partnering with them — and them partnering with each other. Once it’s all up and running, our community liaison team continues to visit and encourage and advise – until they are no longer needed. Then they move on.

That’s one example out of thousands, showing the work being done to create more sustainable development — in the traditional sense of the word.

"This is why the actions of communities like Ridgewood are so important to the future of not just your own survival, but that of millions of others around the planet. As you mobilize to reduce the impact of your daily living on our planet and influence others to do the same, we and others like us have taken on the task of helping less advantaged communities, as they work to protect themselves from climate shocks."

Sustainable Survival

For many, the word sustainability has become synonymous with the movement to safeguard natural resources and protect the planet from human degradation.

Nowhere is that degradation more keenly felt than in the places where Concern has its operations. Our mission demands that we serve communities that are most burdened by extreme poverty — a very limited definition of which would be a per-capita income of less than about two dollars a day.

These communities are in the foothills of the Hindu Kush, on the shores of the Bengal Delta, across the drylands of the Sahel, and along the floodplains of the Shire River. They’re also in the urban slums of Nairobi, the informal refugee settlements of Lebanon, and streets of Dhaka. Almost everyone we work with has, to some extent, been impacted by the shift in climate and increased pressure on resources. They are the people least responsible and most affected.

These neighborhoods may seem a world away from our own here in the U.S., but the connection is very real. Every pound of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere from a factory in Illinois or a traffic jam on I-95 has a meaningful influence on another part of our planet. What we do here directly affects what they do there. In fact, there really is no “we” and “they”.

There’s just us.

As the debate over climate change rages back and forth, our job at Concern is to help people cope with its effects. In extreme cases, that means emergency measures like water-trucking, food distributions, and cash payments. These are short-term ways to help communities deal with drought or flooding or storm damage. In 2019, Concern Worldwide responded to 82 different emergencies in 21 countries, at a cost of $107 million. Major weather events like Cyclone Idai (the deadliest on record in Southern Africa) generate international headlines — but most other “local” disasters are rarely reported.

Responding to climate shocks is expensive, messy, and something of a distraction from the important work of poverty reduction. Partnering with vulnerable communities to adopt sustainable new practices — and adapt old ones — is a much more efficient way of helping them insulate themselves from the thrashings of a natural environment in flux.

There are a few ways in which we do this.

Because most of the people we serve are involved in farming, that’s an obvious place to focus much of our effort.

Climate Smart Agriculture has been around for quite some time — it first appeared in the American Midwest in the 1950s. This involves a relatively simple set of farming techniques designed to preserve the soil, foster growth, and reduce the need for artificial inputs like fertilizer. In essence, it means planting in holes instead of furrows, using the leftover stalks from last year’s crop as a mulch, and alternating staple crops with beans or other legumes, thus fixing nitrogen back into the soil. Combine that with the use of improved or hybrid seeds, and the results for small farmers in climate-affected contexts can start to look much more sustainable.

Disaster risk reduction (DRR) is an area of activity that’s pretty much encapsulated by its title — study the risks for disaster facing a community and work to reduce those risks. In the mountains of Northeastern Afghanistan, decades of deforestation have combined with increased runoff from melting snow and ice to strip hillsides of their valuable topsoil, making it harder for farming communities to survive. Terracing, check dams, trenches, and productive trees can slow the runoff and anchor the soil, while also providing shelter, natural mulch, and additional agricultural output in the form of fruit and nuts.

Of course, preventing damage to the land in the first place is the ideal answer. Another heavily deforested nation, Ethiopia, has made dramatic moves to reverse the damage done by unsustainable farming practices. In 2019, upwards of 4 billion new trees were planted in affected areas, and the government has ambitious plans to increase acreage under forest. We’ve been playing our part too, helping communities establish nurseries to produce the saplings needed to keep this amazing tree drive moving forward. Meanwhile, the introduction of potatoes into the highlands of Ethiopia has seen a good degree of success for farming families, who had previously relied upon a water-intensive and somewhat fragile barley crop as their staple. Concern has a lot of Irish in our DNA, so we do love our spuds!

In the pasturelands of East Africa and the Sahel, overgrazing has been a serious issue, especially as prolonged dry spells cause damage to the grass cover. It also means a scarcity of water for livestock, pushing herders to drive their thirsty animals further and further from home, as sources dry up. Working with pastoralist communities to help them understand the scale of the problem and then to come up with management solutions is important work, as is the provision of new water supplies in affected areas. Just recently, a new project sponsored by our friends at ADM in Illinois has been assisting pastoralists in the Tana River area of Kenya to diversify their activities into sustainable crop production — something they had never really done at scale before. The results so far are very encouraging.

Coastal communities are particularly vulnerable to climate change. Take those who live in the delicate Sunderbans area of Bangladesh, or further up the delta on the alluvial “char” islands. Increased flooding and salination of agricultural land has thrown up new challenges, with the potential to drive families from the land and into already overcrowded urban areas. Obviously, we as an organization can’t stop the rise in sea levels, so the best we can do is to help communities to manage the impacts and develop access to alternative sources of livelihood and income.

The neighborhood of Cité Soleil clings precariously to the Caribbean shoreline of Haiti’s hilly capital, Port au Prince. Every house here has a raised cinder-block doorstep, designed to hold back the flood waters that inevitably come with heavy rains and storm surges. The city’s waste management system is poor and much of the refuse and detritus of daily life is washed down through drains and rivers to Cité Soleil, blocking drainage canals and sending fetid water surging through the streets. These floods are becoming more regular and the household defenses less effective. Concern’s Haiti team provides emergency assistance to those affected, organizes regular canal clearing, and is actively promoting a more efficient waste management regime.

Sustainable Sustainability

All of this is about coping. Dealing with the current realities. Finding work-arounds. These are not solutions that can be sustained in the long term. Rather, they are a way to help make life more livable while the world gets its act together on the other version of sustainability — the one that involves survival.

This is why the actions of communities like Ridgewood are so important to the future of not just your own survival, but that of millions of others around the planet. As you mobilize to reduce the impact of your daily living on our planet and influence others to do the same, we and others like us have taken on the task of helping less advantaged communities, as they work to protect themselves from climate shocks.

Sustainability — in all senses of the word — is our best and possibly only option moving forward. And relying on politicians, bureaucrats, or institutions to protect our environment is no longer enough. This is a battle that will be won household by household, and community by community. History and generations to come will judge us on how we act now.

In the pasturelands of East Africa and the Sahel, overgrazing has been a serious issue, especially as prolonged dry spells cause damage to the grass cover. It also means a scarcity of water for livestock, pushing herders to drive their thirsty animals further and further from home, as sources dry up. Working with pastoralist communities to help them understand the scale of the problem and then to come up with management solutions is important work, as is the provision of new water supplies in affected areas. Just recently, a new project sponsored by our friends at ADM in Illinois has been assisting pastoralists in the Tana River area of Kenya to diversify their activities into sustainable crop production — something they had never really done at scale before. The results so far are very encouraging.

Colleen Kelly is the CEO at Concern Worldwide, U.S.

Since 1968, they have worked with some of the world’s most vulnerable communities to achieve lasting change.

They specialize in emergency response, health & nutrition, climate resilience, education, and livelihoods.

To learn more about Concern Worldwide, to donate or to read about their impactful contributions, visit: https://www.concernusa.org

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