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Planting Change

As the khaki-clad Tony Rinaudo kneels down and begins to aggressively rip and tear at the tender tree shoots sprouting out of the sun-baked soil in Humbo, Ethiopia, he looks more like an unruly grade-schooler bent on destruction than a natural resources advisor and forestry expert with a major international non-governmental organization (NGO).

But Rinaudo is no destroyer. He is a restorer—and a very authoritative pruner. “It’s too easy.” That’s what he likes to say as the Ethiopian farmers gather around whatever stump it is he happens to be passionately pruning with nothing but his hands and some unbridled enthusiasm for his work. Indeed, it seems to be “too easy,” and his frantic work begs the question of what could possibly come from teaching African farmers to fuss over some tree stumps and sad-looking seedlings.

It’s called farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR), and in terms of supporting community development, the World Vision program is accomplishing some remarkable results by teaching farmers to prune and protect stumps and seedlings so they can grow back into healthy, productive trees. Trees improve soil productivity, prevent erosion and are a source of shade and food for livestock and people.

“When my family and I moved to Niger in 1980, the people’s living conditions were unimaginable,” Rinaudo says. “There were practically no trees as far as one could travel, air temperatures were regularly above 40 C [104 F] and wind speeds could pass 60 kph [37 mph], bringing with them dust and illness. Millet, the staple crop, regularly failed due to drought, insects or disease, and livestock struggled to survive and often didn’t. Women walked for long distances—10 to 15 km [six to nine miles] in order to find wood. Millet stalks and manure, which should have been left on the field to protect the soil and fertilize it, were used as fuel substitutes. Not surprisingly, even in ‘good’ years, people went hungry and in bad years they simply starved.”

This situation might seem to scream for food aid, and aid is definitely a need in an emergency situation. But aid isn’t sustainable, and in many cases, it isn’t even a solution at all—food aid doesn’t reach the most vulnerable due to civil unrest, the remote locations of those in need or, frankly, the human tendency of the strong to steal from the weak. Sometimes problems, especially problems with many sources, have to be traced back to their origins. In this case, deforestation was negatively impacting the food supply in many African countries. So Rinaudo looked to the stump. And he taught others how to do the same. Soon farmers were teaching neighbors, neighbors were teaching visiting uncles and uncles were taking the techniques back to their communities.

Over just 20 years in Niger, 5 million hectares (12 million acres) have been reforested through FMNR, and Niger is the only African country experiencing net afforestation. “The significant positive impact of this one simple activity was totally unimaginable in Niger,” Rinaudo says. “There is now shade and protection from strong wind—in fact, the incidence of severe dust storms is greatly reduced. Crops growing in, trees no longer get buried or sand-blasted by strong winds. Millet yields have generally doubled, and livestock have fodder—tree leaves and pods—even in the height of the eight-month-long dry season. Incomes have doubled. In the Maradi district alone, one assessment put the total figure at $17 to $23 million. My estimate is far higher. Resilience has increased, thus when drought or locust plague come, farmers do not starve because their animals are healthy, they have wood and non-timber forest products to sell and their chances of getting at least something from their millet crops is far greater than for crops growing in the open.”

Rinaudo says “good stories” are now coming from other countries as well, such as Ethiopia and Ghana where wildlife is returning, children have access to wild fruits, erosion has been greatly reduced, water tables recharged and fodder now grows where before animals had to walk long distances to find grass.

FMNR and programs like it are built on a model of community development and are meant to offer sustainable, long-term solutions that continuous food aid just can’t. The United Nations defines community development as a process of social action where people get organized, clarify needs, execute a plan and develop economically and socially viable communities that improve the quality of life for residents. The FMNR is a grassroots community development initiative based on an approach Steve Corbett, co-author of When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself, identifies as “asset-based community development.” Corbett describes this approach as one that focuses on what the poor have available to them and how it can be developed for their advantage. In this case, what the poor had were trees—well, tree stumps at least. And they had people—eager, able-bodied people who wanted to transform their land.

“Empowering locals is the most sustainable approach to fighting poverty.” — Barry Slauenwhite

Rinaudo doesn’t travel the countryside of Ethiopia pruning all by his lonesome. He and staff conduct meetings for men, women, herders, farmers, youth, government agencies and NGOs, telling the Niger story and showing what might be possible in their region. In some cases, cooperatives are formed or chiefs are enlisted to disseminate information. In other cases, each person works on their own land, and when the benefits become evident, word spreads quicker than a savannah grass fire. This, Corbett says, is the role foreign workers and those who want to support international community development need to be taking instead of simply winging in for a week or two to drop off aid, build houses or schools and run summer camps.

Corbett, who is an assistant professor of community development at Covenant College in Georgia, says students often spend spring break in Peru feeding the hungry, fly off to Haiti to care for the orphans at Christmas and plant trees in Tanzania over the summer. And they spend thousands of dollars to do so. Corbett is careful not to talk disparagingly about the people who participate in the plethora of short-term missions because he knows motives, for the most part, are pure. But he is quick to point out that short-term missions are supply-driven rather than demand-driven. “Let’s just tell the truth,” he says. “You’re not going to change the world, and not even a community, in a two-week mission.”

Corbett wants people to consider the impact on the local father who watches the youth group from Virginia parade out on to the local school ground in Guatemala and dump a dozen soccer balls, which he could not buy for his own son, on to the field. And he wants people to understand putting a laptop into the hands of every Nepalese fifth-grader is not going to create a wealthy and employable generation. He says supporting true community development may come at a cost. “We have to preach dying to self,” Corbett says. “And part of that might mean dying to the feeling you get when you go to these places. Instead, maybe we need to be investing in our brothers and sisters who are there and who know what the needs are and who are committed to being there for the long term.”

This is precisely the reason Compassion International uses expatriates very little in its field operations, says Barry Slauenwhite, president and CEO of Compassion Canada. “Compassion’s policy is to invest locally,” Slauenwhite says. “We are a completely nationalized NGO. All our staff—some 30,000—are nationals serving their own people in their own context. It would be very rare to encounter an expatriate Compassion worker anywhere we work. Investing in and empowering locals is the most sustainable approach to fighting poverty.”

Slauenwhite insists paternalism is the enemy of development. “We are wrong to assume we know best what the needs of a developing community are and the best solutions,” Slauenwhite says. “It is arrogant to think we Westerners have all the answers. Compassion has learned God has created intelligent people in and of all races.”

The West may have some answers and should be willing to share them—which the model of FMNR demonstrates—but community development led by, managed by and run by the community itself is simply more sustainable. Corbett says this is why he believes the most successful form of microfinance is the savings and credit association that does not require donor money. This is the type of model employed by what are called “people’s institutions” in Bangladesh in a program supported by the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC). Group members in Bangladesh contribute a set amount each week at their community meeting.

As the savings pool grows, group members are permitted to take out small loans they can then invest in their businesses. They repay the loans at a low interest rate back to the group. “The groups all have savings funds, which they use for income generation and their projects,” says Kohima Daring, country team leader for CRWRC in Bangladesh and India. “They also have health funds so they can give out interest-free loans for emergency health needs. Because the savings are generated by them and managed by them, they gain capacity to have bank accounts and manage their money. The money doesn’t come from outside. It is also not kept outside, and their money grows by their own savings.”

One young woman in Bangladesh, Parul Aktar, was married at the age of 15 and soon after, her new husband’s rickshaws were stolen and they had no way to earn a living. Thanks to the group’s savings fund, the couple was able to take out a loan, rebuild the business, and they now have four employees and sons who are attending school.

Community development doesn’t often provide instant gratification, although it just might produce infinite gratification. Those carefully tended tree stumps may take a few months or even years to stand up like real, bona fide trees. And a father who has lived his entire life immersed in extreme poverty who at long last earns rather than receives will often stand a little taller in a few short months or years as well.

A short two-week trip to Costa Rica will help you see the needs of a community and learn about a culture. But to really invest in the work of long-term community development, it takes years of partnership, prayer, empowerment and patience.

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