Sustainable Livelihoods and Local Development

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Over the years, development theorists have tended to emphasize the accumulation of capital in financial, physical, or natural forms as the driving force of economic development and the state as the primary agency of the process. In this context, one might well define the ideas associated with these concepts, formulated in the heyday of development studies (from the 1950s to the 1970s) as paradigmatic. But in the mid-1980s “development” as it was conceived and put into practice reached a “theoretical impasse,” characterized by a major attack on “structuralism,” the dominant form of analysis and, in some academic circles, the rejection of development itself, both as a worthy object of analysis and as the goal of strategic action. At the same time the study of international development — and we might add, its practice — flowered and achieved new levels of institutionalization, mostly within the framework of what has emerged as a “new paradigm.” Over the past two decades calls for and voices in support of a new paradigm — a different way of thinking about and practicing development — have become increasingly vocal to the point of constituting a worldwide intellectual movement.

It is difficult to define precisely the nature of this new paradigm, given its diverse formulations. It is possible, nevertheless, to identify within these diverse formulations of the new paradigm common principles: “development” in this new intellectual context is expected to be more equitable and socially inclusive, human in scale and form, participatory and empowering, and sustainable in terms of both the environment and livelihoods. And, at the level of agency, development should be initiated from within (civil society) and below (the grassroots) rather than from the outside (overseas development assistance) and above (the government or state).

The articles in this thematic section raise questions and address issues loosely advanced within the framework of what is understood to be a new paradigm. Central to this paradigm are the concepts of “sustainable livelihoods” and “local development.”

The first article on this theme, by Getachew Mequanent and Fraser Taylor, explores the conflicting dynamics of the “big-push approach” to development, based on the accumulation of financial and physical capital (productive investment), an approach that characterizes what we might now term the “old paradigm,” and “local capacity building,” a process that relies more on building social capital. The authors in effect argue that development practitioners should not have to choose between national development based on the agency of the central government and local development based on the agency of community-based or grassroots organizations. Development requires action at both the national and local level, the one creating the necessary conditions for the other. That is, a big-push approach to development will not likely work without local capacity building. Nor will local capacity building in and off itself, without the supportive actions and policies of the central government, lead to development. Development is a matter of diverse productive resources that have to bemobilized by different actors that do not work at cross-purposes or in isolation but view each other as strategic partners in a joint venture.

Lee-Ann Small expands on her earlier CJDS-published work on the concept of social capital. This concept is central to a “sustainable livelihoods approach” to development. Exponents1 of this approach assume that the prospects for sustainable development are greater at the local level than the national level, and that the key to development is the capacity of the rural poor to network and to empower themselves on the basis of shared norms of reciprocity and culture of solidarity, which presume both locality and community. The author explores these concepts in the context of rural development and agrarian change processes in Eastern Europe.

Derek Armitage and Chui-Ling Tam pick up on two themes central to the new paradigm, namely the need to ensure the sustainability of both the environment and rural livelihoods. However, in their analysis they also move beyond the environmental and the social, two major dimensions of development within the new paradigm. The authors also bring into focus the politics of development, a matter of entitlement to and ownership of the productive resources, the mobilization and management of which constitutes “development.” The specific framework for their analysis and argument is “political ecology,” one of numerous alternative formulations of the new paradigm. Within this framework the authors argue for a careful consideration of the need to carefully consider the nature and extent of ecological change, clarify rights and entitlements to resources, articulate desirable and feasible futures, address ethnic and socio-cultural conflict, and foster empowerment through enhanced communication. This argument is advanced in the context of several coastal communities in Sulawesi, Indonesia.

See also “Rural Social Movements and the Prospects for Sustainable Rural Communities: Evidence from Bolivia,” published by CJDS in 2005 (26, no. 1), by Susan Healy, another graduate from the University of Guelph’s Rural Planning and Development Program.

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