Capability for self-reliance

Development Policy13 Mar 2012Michiel Verweij

Being food insecure is a terrible thing. So is financial insecurity, energy insecurity and water insecurity. Sad but true, many families, communities and countries are faced with continued or emerging insecurity in the supply of water, energy, and food. Self-reliance as the capacity to rely on own capabilities to navigate one’s own affairs may not sound as exciting as double digit growth but the concept deserves a central place in the international development cooperation.

Self-reliant individuals, organizations and societies develop strategies and implement activities to realize their long-term vision. Self-reliant actors employ technical, social and organizational skills to keep themselves afloat, anticipate and adapt to changing environments and show resilience in the face of adversity. Absence of the capacity for self-reliance implies earlier or later insecurity with possible dire consequences.

In fact, truly self-sufficient and resource secure societies are hard to find. Apart from perhaps a small group of eskimos in Greenland or an indigenous community in the Amazone that could be qualified ‘self-sufficient’, people are highly interconnected and mutually dependent through trade and other forms of cooperation. Producers need consumers, creditors need debtors and exporters cannot fare without importers.

New knowledge and skills can propel self-reliance to a higher level. It worked like this since the ancient domestication of crops and animals and continues today with the development the latest technologies. Expanding capacities is as critical to technical innovation as to deep organizational and societal transformations.

Faces of self-reliance

In the early nineties, drought prone communities of Aiquile in Bolivia merely survived on rain-fed agriculture. The strength of the peasants laid in their syndicalist organization with an economic arm –a self-declared social enterprise- CORACA. The organization offered its members a range of trainings in political awareness and agriculture while commercializing agricultural products to become financially independent.

CORACA was well-known for its extraordinary drive for self-determination and self-reliance. Don German, its president, dreamt of self-sustained homesteads as a reliable livelihood source for the peasant communities. He was fascinated by the concept of ‘Perma Culture’. It is about a multi-storied orchard with a diverse mix of complementary crops and small animals producing in a sustainable manner. The production system optimally harnesses the natural resources: sun, water, nutrients throughout the seasons while protecting the soil against erosion.

Supported by international financial and technical cooperation CORACA was able to build individual and collective rainwater harvesting ponds for many families. The pond technology -basically an improved form of a locally existing practice- allowed the production of some cash-crops and store, even in dry years, water to secure a minimum food production.

It is December 2011. Cecilia, a member of the Twa minority, cell phone in the hand, proudly talks about her business of making briquettes at the launch of an entrepreneurship initiative in Rwanda. She makes 30.000 Rwandese francs (50 USD) per month, enough to lift her out a beggar past. She buys her own clothes and sends her children to school. She now feels part of the society and is confident to enter a bar for a soft drink. She thanks the country and the people for having created theopportunities for her to stand alone and live a decent and dignified life.

On another level countries and power-blocks are fighting multiple resource insecurities. The United States explores alternative options to provide energy security while the Middle East hugely invests in pursuit of water and food security. Many African governments hope the current growth spurt finally will allow an escape from financial dependence from the donor community.

Beyond the fish and the fishing rod

International development cooperation can play varying roles to support Cecilia, CORACA and countries in their quest for self-reliance. They have skills and knowledge that might turn out essential for others.

We have learned that the essence of development cooperation is closer to nurturing home-grown capacities than anything else. Capacity development is not about the fish or about the fishing rod-to paraphrase the popular fish metaphor. Capacity development is about the combination of social and technical capacities that allow people to fish, hunt or cultivate their own food in a durable way.

‘Helping people help themselves’ or in other words increasing people’s ability for self-help might sound a bit old fashioned but has recently made it to a leading motto of the Dutch development cooperation. It builds on the notion that capacities developed in a specific context sometimes bear relevance for people elsewhere. Well, centuries of “polder” life behind the Dutch dikes has rendered some useful lessons for Katrina stricken New Orleans. And success of the stamp-size low-lands inleading Europe towards food security following WWII and as a top agricultural exporter might hint to a story of inventiveness and built up expertise. In short, experiences from anywhere can inspire and serve as an example for local solutions everywhere if you take into account steps of adaptation andinternalization.

New capacities are acquired through a gradual learning process. External agents can only do so much through accompanying role or as a catalyst by being a coach, teacher, broker, facilitator, lender and/or partner. Unfortunately, capacity development processes are often slow and complex, while results and impact are difficult to measure. Randomized Control Trials (Banerjee & Duflo; 2011) combined with comprehensive life stories might help to clarify that picture.

Mainstreaming self-reliance

Over the last two decades Don German’s vision about durable self-reliance of a peasant community has become mainstream in the development discourse. Growing scarcity has finally put sustainability on top of agendas of businesses as well as governments. There is now consensus between civil society organizations, governments and businesses about the need for a new development equation with more social and environmental factors. It is now also understood that durable self-reliance isnot in the least about locking-in safety valves and floodgates to protect against contagion of systemic risks from water to energy or from finance to food and vice versa.

While overhauling international development cooperation we should keep in mind its function of being a public hub for sharing knowledge and skills for advancing self-reliance of individuals, organizations, and countries and ultimately the global society.

What can be a better gift in life than professional support to develop ones capacities for lasting access to vital resources as water, food, energy and finance?