|Grassroots Indicators for Desertification - Eastern and Southern Africa (IDRC, 1995)|
Development indicators, as instruments to measure and monitor economic and social change, are essential tools of the development trade. Traditionally the working stock of statisticians, economists, senior planners, and policymakers, development indicators, and sets of indicators or indices, are now subject for debate among a much wider group of development researchers, managers, and practitioners. This opportunity has been opened up by the emergence of social equity and environmental sustainability issues in the development agenda, but more importantly, by a fundamental re-examination of who defines "development" and evaluates environmental change.
Some international agencies have accepted the challenge to revisit and reformulate development indicators. The World Resources Institute (WRI 1991), for example, has broadened its definition of the term by incorporating natural resource management variables. The Human Development Index of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is one of the best-known efforts to devise a more comprehensive set of development indicators that include social as well as economic factors. Still, the validity of these measures and their applicability over time have been questioned by agencies which continue to urge the development of more accurate and relevant development indicators (Westendorff and Ghai 1993).
This book starts out from a different standpoint. It argues that the conventional measures and standards associated with the planning, monitoring, and evaluation of research and development projects have tended to be dominated by Euro-American scientific perceptions of environmental and development change using "top-down" approaches to data collection and analysis. The overall objective of this book, as well as the project supported by the International Development Research Centre which led to the drafting of these papers, is to draw attention to the subject of "grassroots indicators": measures or signals of environmental quality or change formulated by individuals, households and communities, and derived from their local systems of observation, practice and indigenous knowledge. The "environment" is defined here in its widest sense to cross economic, social, cultural, and ecological boundaries, and therefore seeks to open up the rigid sectoral approach typically used to delineate environment and development indicators.
Local knowledge and capacity to monitor and measure environmental change are an important and valid basis for development indicators, for three main reasons. First, local knowledge systems offer an alternative approach to interpreting environmental and development change. Entering this learning process will instruct and improve development policy and action at the local, and possibly at the national and regional planning levels. For example, even though there is ample evidence to suggest that traditional systems of land use in dryland Africa are more sustainable than previously recognized, development interventions through desertification control planning and implementation have ignored substantial local capability for assessing and reporting short- and long-term changes in these environments.
The second motive for a focus on grassroots indicators is to transform what has commonly been referred to as "proxy indicators": field-level indicators identified and applied by outsiders, and often regarded as a quaint but inferior surrogate to "scientific" indices. Yet grassroots indicators can be a far more powerful tool to identify, and possibly predict, environmental change. Most importantly, grassroots indicators are a method, and an outcome, of upholding and safeguarding local knowledge. In effect, local people make decisions using, at least in part, their own tools for monitoring and measuring problems such as land degradation, and therefore they interpret and act on their own understanding of "sustainable development."
A third reason for illuminating the importance of grassroots indicators is to work towards the disintegration of what has been referred to as the "three solitudes" of policy, research, and action. This process would involve conceptualizing research in terms of learning and action that combines secular and moral domains of thought; also taking into account policy as structures and procedures which may inadvertently or deliberately maintain barriers between the "three solitudes." Grassroots indicators are therefore part of a more responsible form of development research, generating and sharing information which will recognize and support local knowledge and innovation.
Desertification and Development
The June 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro ushered in a new era of awareness and global deliberations on environment and development issues. The discouragement with the progress towards addressing the debates and outcomes of this global forum is well known; three years later, the implementation of even preliminary agendas appears to be an overwhelming task.
One of the key areas for African delegates at the Earth Summit was the twin issue of drought and desertification. Desertification is estimated to involve most of the world's drylands: 3.6 billion hectares of land in total, or 25% of the world's surface area. This includes 73% of the world's rangelands, 47% of rain-fed agricultural land, and 30% of irrigated cropland. Desertification affects some 900 million people globally (Koala et al. 1994). Efforts to address desertification and drought have not been successful because of a variety of institutional, political, economic, and logistical problems. The widely publicized failure of the first plan of action to combat desertification (PACD) of the 1977 UN Conference on Desertification left little doubt among the representatives attending the Earth Summit that a new plan of action for desertification and drought must be negotiated, and that strategies must be made regionally specific. (Regional action plans for Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the northern Mediterranean are included in the Regional Implementation Annex of the 1994 Convention.)
The Desertification Convention began in 1993 and was concluded in 1994. The final text of the Convention adopted UNCED's basic definition of desertification as "land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry subhumid areas, resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities (UNCED 1992 and UN 1994)." Unfortunately, despite the growing seriousness of desertification, the Convention also inherits some of the same difficulties of mobilizing resources and action which have characterized the PACD and the post-UNCED period. Observers and participants in the Desertification Convention process continue to seek new ways of rethinking and approaching these issues.
Two of the most crucial requirements for desertification abatement, as outlined by the recent Convention, are the improvement of information systems to review and measure ecological, economic and social consequences of desertification, and the transformation of results and recommendations to policymakers into action-oriented programs. Non-governmental agencies have supported these aims but have warned against the tendency towards centralized information systems and a continuing lack of popular participation in decision-making about desertification control activities (ELCI 1994). (Réseau International d'ONG sur la Désertification has made similar points.)
The paramount importance of local involvement in all desertification control programs has been recognized by many governments as well as the United Nations; but the inclusion of grassroots voices has been a challenge unmet in Eastern and Southern Africa. Even recent work by the UNDP on desertification indicators has not given enough attention to those based on local or indigenous knowledge (Ridgeway 1995). Methods to determine and calibrate indicators remain fundamentally unchanged. Part of this problem lies in the danger of fitting locally used indicators into an analytical framework designed to sever the indicator from both its context and its contributors. The other part of the problem, and perhaps the greater challenge, lies in enduring suspicions and prejudices against local knowledge and its value to "scientific" measurements of desertification. Given the dismal track record on desertification abatement and information flows, however, which many governments openly admitted at the Desertification Convention, grassroots indicators may well have a substantial role to play in the monitoring and evaluation of desertification, as well as in the efforts to reverse land degradation.
As the papers in this book attest, grassroots indicators research and development-related activities have a significant contribution to at least five implementation objectives of the Desertification Convention: 1) better information systems that draw on the people's accrued knowledge of the environment; 2) mobilization of local people, organizations, and resources; 3) better planning and implementation of antidesertification strategies; 4) clarification of causes and solutions to land degradation; and 5) reporting on progress towards sustainable local and national development.
Grassroots Indicators and Desertification in Eastern and Southern Africa
The nature and extent of desertification in Africa differs from area to area even within regions, although underlying problems may be similar. This book is based on a collection of papers on Eastern and Southern Africa, two subregions of the world which have experienced repetitive drought and have been increasingly prone to desertification because of precarious social, economic, political and ecological conditions.
Part 1 deals with the historical and contextual background of development and desertification indicators. Mascarenhas outlines the "crisis of development" as we know it today. He traces the roots of the current dissatisfaction with efforts to measure and monitor development (or maldevelopment) in semi-arid and arid regions of Africa. The failure of development makes the example of the Maasai's use of "grassroots indicators" in environmental management even more important. Introduced here by Mascarenhas, this example is further debated and developed by the contributions of Krugmann, as well as de Vreede (Part 2) and Kipuri (Part 3). Each case study of Maasai "grassroots indicators" demonstrates the richness and diversity of indicators used by pastoralists and agropastoralists, and the divergent views on the reliability and usefulness of these grassroots indicators.
Today's need for improved desertification indicators is the outcome of a long history of a) efforts to improve the scientific methodology and analysis of the underlying causes and symptoms of drought and desertification, and b) work to develop better interventions and technologies to address these problems. As Krugmann explains, these methodologies and technologies have been externally generated for the most part. The possibility that indicators and data could be generated locally has been overlooked. To involve local people in the collection of ground-level information to reduce costs of desertification monitoring and improve information flows between scientists and communities: these are important arguments for using the grassroots indicators approach.
Reconciling the different attitudes and worldviews held by scientists and local people may be difficult, but not impossible, according to several of the authors in this volume. Some have suggested that combined indicators, or at least associated indices, deserve greater attention. Often referred to as "hybrid" or "merged" indicators, they represent a kind of initial work-in-progress attempting to cross-fertilize scientific and grassroots indicators. Orone cautions that the merger between scientific and grassroots indicators can only be applied within a decentralized, participatory research and planning process. On this basis, the present context of development in Uganda is especially interesting. This argument is also taken up later, in Part 3, by Tobias Onweng Angura. These two Ugandan researchers suggest that the decentralization process currently underway in their country could provide the right political and administrative climate to establish these changes. Yet the authors also agree that these changes require work which, for the most part, still moves against the mainstream of conventional development practice.
How, then, can the built-in biases of mainstream development be overcome so that it can come to appreciate and incorporate local knowledge? This is certainly a legitimate question. To seek an answer, Part 2 deals with changes in the methodologies and thinking needed to identify grassroots indicators better and to help local people determine the "sustainability" of their natural resource management. Lubowa suggests that the local cosmology or belief systems, and the remnants of ancient beliefs are important to the formation and use of grassroots indicators. Mwesigye considers the gap between the scientific and traditional worldviews and its manifestation in language, including the translation of concepts such as "environment" and "indicators." Understanding the communication gap between indigenous and exogenous knowledge systems is the goal of development programs like those described by Kinyunyu and Swantz as well as de Vreede. These two papers provide enlightening approaches to the subject of bridging the "three solitudes" of research, action and policy. Indeed, the divide is not so much a question of finding the perfect grassroots indicators, as one of using indicators as a focus for community participation and empowerment. They conclude that the methodological basis of grassroots indicators may have the most significant impact on efforts to reverse land degradation.
This book has succeeded in illuminating a wide range of examples of grassroots indicators and the initial attempts to conceptualize indices across and within the countries of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. Thus in Part 3, on the overall impact of grassroots indicators, Mwadime compares examples of indicators from two communities in different districts in Kenya. His research challenges policymakers concerned with desertification to think beyond indicators of natural resource degradation to indicators of food insecurity, which simultaneously degrade human health and nutrition and force local people into unsustainable livelihoods. Kipuri also highlights this inseparable link between health and environmental indicators by demonstrating the interdependency of human and livestock health with ecological diversity and conservation in Maasailand.
Evidence from Mwadime's ongoing research and the work of Oduol and Kipuri suggest that grassroots indicators can be interpreted as a catalyst for local action and adaptive change at both the community and household levels in semi-arid and arid areas. Pastoralists such as the Maasai have had to be particularly adept at developing survival strategies through the use of a wide range of grassroots indicators to predict change and stimulate actions. Similar response mechanisms are also found among agropastoralists and agriculturalists. The best reason for maintaining grassroots indicators and survival strategies may in fact be the failure of alternatives, including mainstream development programs. Yet, as Mararike explains in the final paper of the book, the prevailing existence of local knowledge and "grassroots indicators" does not guarantee the reproduction of the necessary knowledge base, nor is there any guarantee that the environment in which grassroots indicators have evolved will not deteriorate more quickly than the local knowledge systems can be protected and shared.