Systems practice: Managing sustainability
Systems practice: Managing sustainability

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Systems practice: Managing sustainability

1.3 The developing world

The sustained economic growth through the 1950s and 1960s in what has been referred to as the developed world had caused an embarrassingly large and ever increasing gap in the wealth of the developed and developing nations. Many able and sincere people devoted much time and money to projects aimed at assisting developing countries to improve health, agriculture, and economic growth. There was a tacit assumption on the part of westernised people that what had proved so beneficial for Europe, Japan and North America could bring similar prosperity to Africa, India, South America and other regions in the South. At this time there was also, undoubtedly, a political agenda amongst many nations to reduce the appeal of communism. Many activists in developing countries saw communism as the only viable means to throw off the ‘shackles of colonialism’. Whilst this political agenda may have lubricated the flow of money into aid projects from governments, the people and organisations engaged on the ground were motivated largely by a combination of humanitarian concern and wishing to make a worthwhile contribution to those less well off than themselves. Many of the projects were worked out in great detail, some using the emerging ecological and systems frameworks.

In 1968 researchers in Washington initiated a review of development projects in the less-developed countries. They wrote to all the other national and international agencies engaged in development work requesting case studies of successful and unsuccessful development projects. The aim was to share experience through these cases so that there could be a mutual learning of what did and did not work. To this end they asked each agency to provide two case studies, one a success story and one a failure. To their surprise all the agencies wrote back with just one case study, a failure – there were no success stories to be told. The cases were presented at a conference in 1968 and published in a book entitled The Careless Technology (Farvar and Milton, 1973). In the Foreword to the book the researchers say:

Those responsible for international development can no longer afford to ignore these ecological problems. The very validity of the values, goals and methods of development are challenged here. One emerging implication is that the post-World War II idea that traditional societies can and should be overhauled overnight has not only proved virtually unachievable, but perhaps undesirable.

(Farvar and Milton, 1973, Foreword)

It is all too easy with the wisdom of hindsight to attribute shortsightedness or inadequacy to those engaged with projects that go wrong. It is much harder to actually uncover the real lesson – and to generalise it so that it can be applied elsewhere. Box 2 gives a modern example of a development project also not working as expected.

Box 2 Vignette 3: Engaging with commons issues in Namibia

A colleague of mine who worked in southern Africa in the 1990s has had first hand experience of attempting to engage in purposeful activity to manage the commons (Powell, 1998). For him it was a particularly powerful set of experiences that have quite literally changed the way he understands the world. He worked in Namibia in southern Africa in several capacities – as a community-based Natural Resources Management Project Officer and as researcher. His original work, as a professional geographer, was to construct a database model of the resources in the area so that future project managers could develop plans for use and conservation. The overall project aim was to foster sustainable development in the region.

My colleague (Powell, 1998, p. 7) describes the area in which he originally worked as:

... at first glance ... conspicuous by its homogeneity, characterised by low flat, sparse, grassy expanses intermingled with bushes and low stands of thorny Acacia trees. But as one begins to interact with the landscape in space and through time its richness and diversity unfolds. Thousands of tracks previously disguised by my ignorance become visible, empowering the space by enabling people and animals to travel through stands of Tambutti woodlands, past groves of fruit bearing Mangetti trees and to rest at one of the numerous seasonal pans [an area where water collects following rain] in the shade of an ancient Baobab tree. … The local inhabitants depend on their embedded knowledge to varying degrees in order to subsist from hunting and gathering, craft making, gardening, herding and waged labour.

The story as it unfolds has for me all the elements of a systems practitioner trying to juggle the B, E, C and M balls described in T306_1 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . For example, only after a period of being with local inhabitants was Powell able to begin to make the distinctions about tracks and the role of particular groups of trees. This involved a process of becoming aware of the history of distinctions that the indigenous people made, of his own traditions of understanding (many of which he had to discard) and of reassessing the approach he needed to take to engage with the complexity he was perceiving. Only then could he begin to think of what he was doing as purposefully ‘managing’ the complexity he was experiencing and begin to contextualise particular approaches for managing.

Powell’s work shows how attempts to capture the local Bushmen’s classification of natural resources in maps, including sophisticated geographic information systems, can fail because of their static nature and inability to be constantly reinterpreted in relation to an unfolding context. The Bushmen’s interpretation of their landscape and what constitutes a resource for their survival changes dynamically in space and time. Powell’s story is also about a practitioner growing in his epistemological awareness. The tragedy of the story is that his learning was in the end swamped by the more powerful traditions of understanding held by a western-based international conservation organisation. He describes how a culturally sensitive form of practice by Community Rangers, which respected the consensus and dialogic processes of decision making by Bushmen, was replaced by a set of practices driven by a scientific worldview. In the new scientific view the vegetation had to be recorded with an acceptable level of accuracy and precision and repeatability. This resulted in upgraded data sheets – and instructions not to talk to local people as this might influence the objectivity of the data! The desire to obtain scientifically valid data for effective wildlife management replaced a form of practice in which it had been recognised and accepted that the indigenous community was the ears and eyes of the Community Rangers.

There are several themes that emerge from reading The Careless Technology and Vignette 3. From the former, one is that too many projects failed to consider the systemic impact of the changes that were being introduced. However even where these were considered the projects still failed to achieve their developmental goals. Another theme is arrogance and yet another is lack of participation. These complement each other. In almost all the cases documented in the book the aid teams engaged with the situation from a position of ‘knowing better’. There were clear and objective reasons for adopting such a stance; members of the team were better educated, they had better access to resources and expertise and they regarded their understanding of the world as clearly superior. For example the medical workers had an understanding of disease and bacteria and so on; engineers knew how to construct larger and more robust buildings or dams or roads. So in one sense there was ‘better’ knowledge. However there was another area where the team was woefully inadequate – namely comprehending the culture, aspirations and worldviews of the people they were trying to assist. In some cases described in The Careless Technology the multi-disciplinary team implementing the project included cultural anthropologists who had ‘expert’ knowledge of the culture of the beneficiaries of the project – and still the project failed. One overriding lesson drawn from the book is that it is crucial to include the full participation of the potential beneficiaries in the project. Without such full participation the project will simply not work as the originators intended.

The lessons from Powell’s experience in Namibia are similar but subtler. In that case the international conservation organisation had an explicit ethos, an espoused theory, of participation in the project. However it also insisted that the project be executed in a way that conformed to its own beliefs about how best to tackle the issues. It insisted on a scientific approach that required data to be ‘objective’ and ‘verifiable’. This caused it to define resources in a way that was inconsistent with the way the local people used the land, interacted with wildlife and generally perceived their environment as a resource. As a result the conservation organisation ended up imposing its worldview onto the project, the participants and ultimately the region. As with the examples from The Careless Technology this imposition, in the end, failed to benefit the local people. Thus it is not sufficient to espouse a participative approach, nor is it enough to include local people in the project – the participation has to be sufficiently deep that the different worldviews, perspectives, values and beliefs are genuinely reflected in the process and operation of projects.

The issue of participation will be a major theme through the remainder of this unit because it is central to the question: Who learns?

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