In the last decade ‘sustainability‘ has become a crucial consideration in crafting development policy. From the mega-conferences of the UN and the World Bank to the planning and evaluation documents of specific projects, ‘sustainable development’ is on the lips of development experts and amateur bloggers the world over.
It makes sense. Global climate change and natural resource shortages present perhaps the greatest obstacles to development in much of the world as well as challenge the continued feasibility of the ‘developed‘ life-style in the West. Wolfgang Sachs and his fellow development critics would argue the ecological consequences of development are of such a magnitude that they necessitate a re-evaluation of the Western model of growth oriented market capitalism as well as any efforts to export that model elsewhere with any development efforts. Sustainable development, he argues, is a term created to preserve development and the implicit model it bears, and not the globe’s dwindling natural resources.
He might point for instance to the World Bank’s 2008 Agriculture for Development report to support this claim. In describing the ecological challenges to agricultural development, it concludes,
“The solutions not to slow agricultural development – it is to seek more sustainable production systems”
Of course, aligning with Sachs leaves the empathetic practitioner in an awkward situation. Without global revolutionary social change, the Sachs argument leaves little room for any attempts at ameliorating the lives or livelihoods of the world’s poorest individuals.
A recent trip of mine to the Ferlo region of Senegal portrays this ecological challenge to development all too well.
The Ferlo portion of Northern Senegal is historically the stomping grounds of Senegal’s highly mobile pastoral herders (called generally the Fulbe or Fula). In the last few decades agriculturalists have slowly expanded into this semi-arid area, spurred on by both development organizations and the Senegalese government. Concurrent with that trend has been one of ecological degradation that is transforming this Sahelian strip between the Sahara and the lush grasslands of central Africa into an environment that looks much more like the latter than the former. Thus the Fulbe are struggling simultaneously with an increase in demand for, and a diminishing supply of, natural resources.
Further complicating the situation those new cultivators in the region are high privileged over the pastoralists, as agriculture is considered a main engine of economic growth. Agriculturalists are encouraged to claim new lands and expand cultivation. Pastoralists, under Senegalese land tenure laws, have been unable to make similar land claims, and have received only comparably minimal support from the development industry.
Clearly, something is wrong here. However, no easy alternative presents itself. One might argue not enough consideration has been given to sustainability and the current shortage of natural resources. By supporting agricultural as a means of development, we are further endangering a fragile environment as well as the people that have used it successfully for hundreds if not thousands of years. Alternatively, one could argue a halting of agricultural support would mean an abdication of one of development’s most powerful tools. Agricultural support might initiate wider economic growth in Senegal or help to reduce its need for food imports, thereby making the nation more food secure. While hurting the Fulbe and endangering the already ecologically weak region of the Ferlo are certainly not positive consequences of this development strategy, perhaps agricultural expansion is a necessary condition for development.
This brief portrait shows how crucial, and often unsettling, ideas of sustainability are in development tactics. Can development continue to march forward considering its ecological effects and challenges? Are these environmental effects a necessary and permissible condition for growth? How can we support poverty alleviation and still preserve our shared, and singular planet?
I would love to hear your thoughts.