Cold Home-Front: Why development should look inwards

Much of the United States spent the past week shivering through the coldest few days of the last decade. With temperatures well into the negatives and piercing wind chills forcing the mercury to record lows, Americans headed for the hills (colloquially, of course, because a real hill would just be more exposed).

As with any minor inconvenience, the American media reported on the cold snap with its characteristic talent for repetition (ad nauseum) and sensationalism. The storm, named Hercules (of all names), received near constant coverage on all of the 24-hour news stations.

Things took a remarkable turn when Fox News correspondents, and some Republican politicians, began suggest the cold snap disproved the well-researched and documented trend of global warming. I had trouble finding clips of those particular moments on the Fox News website so I have resorted to this montage made by the Daily Show.

One commentator exclaims, “All this snow and still cries over global warming!” with a decidedly smug smile. Another predicts, that “global warming, a phrase we are all familiar with… is going to die this year… given the kind of incredible cold weather we’ve had this weekend.”

I, like many others, was disturbed to hear this sort of rhetoric from an organization with such a huge audience. Studying and understanding climate change has been an integral part my education and professional career. Currently, I am writing a thesis on pastoral herders in the Sahel, a region that has been drastically affected by global climatic change. Annual rains south of the Sahara have slowly declined over the last two or three decades, expanding Africa’s great desert into more heavily populated areas. Similarly, droughts of increasing frequency and severity have plagued the region. Whether part of a longer term trend, or a short term patch of poor weather, the idea that some sort of climatic change is occurring seems fairly certain. These changes have terrible implication for herders in the Sahel, as well as their agriculturalist neighbors.

Lake Chad is the Sahel’s grimmest tale of climate change. Since the 1960’s the lake, a crucial source of water for the four Sahelian nations that border it, has slowly diminished to about a 20th of its original size.

Such shocking changes are hard to ignore. Yet somehow the people at Fox News have managed to do just that.

I was glad to hear many of my development intern peers and classmates were equally distraught this trend of climate change denial in the US. My peers, with their different regional concentrations, were rich in global examples of climate change. I have linked a few below:

What we realized collectively is that as internationally focused development students, researchers, and interns we sometimes forget to give the home-front its due attention. While we have come to admire those in our given regions of interest abroad who lobby for better governance, responsible economic management, and empirically proven policies, we have shirked our own responsibility to participate in domestic affairs.

Further, the experiences we have abroad give us a unique capacity (not to mention responsibility) to inform social policies. By bringing in experiences from across the globe we expand the sample size in humankind’s constant fleshing out of ideas, policies, and projects. Our insights can be valuable because our perspectives are different.




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.

A group of Fulani Pastoralists round a well in the Ferlo region of Senegal

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.

Commentary, Platform

The Ecology vs #Globaldev Debate In Senegal