Decisions or Development?

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(photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

(photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

By Brendan Buzzard

Communities in transition throughout Africa are at a critical crossroads. Rapid technological change, rising population, and growing urbanization, along with the impact of climate change on the continent, present a number of challenges to communities. And unfortunately the development groups, aid agencies, and local governments do not make this easy.

Spend a week in a small settlement of pastoralists in Northern Kenya and the confusing realities of change become quite clear.

Day 1: Agricultural extension workers enter the community and hold workshops on how to make the shift from pastoralism to sedentary farming. They fence off a small plot of land that used to be grass, plow the soil and tear up the land, and plant tomatoes, corn, paw-paw trees, and cabbage. They leave the plot in the hands of the community as an example of what they might do and head home to the district capital. It has not rained here in over a year and the plants will surely die.

Day 2: An environmental committee has come to the settlement to talk about the importance of preserving trees on the mountains above the village to solve the water problem by allowing moisture to sink into the soil and recharge the rivers. At the meeting, under a large acacia tree, people nod their heads and talk about the importance of trees as they sip tea made with camel milk. A few young men from the committee are chosen as stewards to watch over the trees.

Day 3: A missionary from a nearby town comes to the settlement to solve the water problem in another way:  he drills a borehole directly down into the water table that the preservation of the trees was meant to recharge. He does not notice the other three idle pumps nearby, former attempts to pull water out of the ground before they pulled it all out.

Day 4: A committee comes to talk about grazing management in the community and talking with the elders of the village they work on a plan for livestock management to regenerate and rest the rangelands so there will be a reserve of grass when the next dry season comes. They make an outline in the sand of which areas of the mountain will be closed to livestock during which months, and choose leaders to pass the information on to the community.

Day 5: A group trying to improve the lives of pastoralists by distributing livestock arrives. They hand out animals to people living in the grazing areas that the meeting the previous day just closed.

Day 6: A new development groups arrives and uses new participatory methods to try and figure out what the community wants and needs and how best they can help. During the middle of their discussion a relief truck full of bags of maize, tins of cooking oil, and sacks of beans arrives.  Everyone gets up and leaves to collect the free food.

Day 7: No one comes to meetings today. As one old man explained, “It is too confusing. They want to know what we want, but they don’t know what they want. I am going to see my cows.”

Brendan Buzzard is a contributor to Nourishing the Planet. A writer and conservationist, he works and travels widely while focusing on the link between human prosperity and landscape integrity. He has a degree in Geography and Environment from Prescott College.

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