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close this bookGrassroots Indicators for Desertification - Eastern and Southern Africa (IDRC, 1 p.)
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View the documentAn Historical Perspective on Indicators in Development Studies and the Need for Critical Reassessment
View the documentToward Improved Indicators to Measure Desertification and Monitor the Implementation of the Desertification Convention
View the documentGrassroots Indicators and Scientific Indicators: Their Role in Decentralized Planning in the Arid Lands of Uganda

Grassroots Indicators and Scientific Indicators: Their Role in Decentralized Planning in the Arid Lands of Uganda

Patrick Orone


Desertification is defined as "land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities." As Evers (1994) points out, the current debate on desertification has tended to focus on alarming data and trends in climatology and ecological change, to the neglect of the influence of, and impact on, social conditions.

Two main global data sets have been used to provide indicators of desertification worldwide. The first is the Global Assessment of Soil Degradation (GLASOD) model. These data estimate the incidence and severity of soil degradation by continent, on the basis of their interpretation by scientists and technicians. The second data set for measuring desertification in dryland areas combines GLASOD data with information from the International Centre for Arid and Semi-Arid Land Studies (ICASALS). This framework covers soil and vegetation degradation as well as changes in the composition and level of vegetative cover.

The two data sets above obviously give very different pictures of the extent of world desertification. Moreover, the accuracy, meaning, and practical usefulness of these estimates of global desertification trends are increasingly questioned, particularly given the difficulty of determining the causal relationships of such complex processes (Toulmin 1993).

In response to the unsatisfactory measures involved in macro-level surveys, there is a strong move towards studies of desertification as environmental change, focused on experience at the local level (Toulmin 1993). Such studies have tended to demonstrate the resilience of physical conditions and associated pastoral and farming systems in the face of substantial climatic variability. As well, from this point of view, desertification and environmental degradation are seen both as causes and consequences of unequal development and poverty arising out of the integration of smaller social systems into a worldwide economic system controlled by the developed nations.

Coping with Change: Grassroots Indicators

Local people, in response to the inequalities of development and continuing poverty, develop approaches to cope with negative situations. These coping mechanisms can include swamp reclamation, and cutting trees - either to make charcoal or produce firewood for sale. To the local people, these actions are not seen as degrading the environment or causing desertification. Instead, the sources of degradation are desertification and poverty.

Several reasons can be advanced to explain the local perception. The most important of these, however, have to do with differences in the way local people and outsiders (intellectuals) conceptualize issues like desertification. Clearly, the "cause and effect" reasoning which has been characteristic of antidesertification studies, policy and programs is at odds with the reality at the "grassroots." This understanding also differs because the intellectual (scientist) has an understanding and conceptualization of macro-level, global issues, while the local person has an understanding based on issues limited to the local surroundings, and over prolonged periods of time.

On the basis of research among the Teso community in semi-arid Northeastern Uganda it is possible to elaborate an example of the grassroots indicators (Table 4). The oral traditional calendar of nine "months" provides a framework for grassroots indicators among the Teso of Northeastern Uganda. The "months" or seasons are signaled by indicators of environmental change and determine a set of appropriate actions (in this case, agricultural activities). This calendar, as a set of "grassroots indicators," also demonstrates how local people are aware of changes over time and the need for changes in their activities.

According to the local knowledge of the Teso, unpredictable rains and long periods without rains may result in increased cultivation of swamp land. For example, the Teso are increasingly shifting the location of the fields where they plant crops like sweet potatoes, following swamp areas that remain relatively wet. A lack of, or inadequate, crops to sell for cash has resulted in the introduction and increased cultivation of paddy rice within swamps. These activities appear, to the scientist, to contribute to swamp land degradation. In addition, lower household cash incomes, earned mainly from some food items, have led to other means of obtaining cash income, including charcoal production and firewood for sale, and increased sale of other assets, like land. To the intellectual, this means increasing landlessness. Thus, desertification has caused shifts in the local economy and society which have led to "innovative" approaches or survival strategies by local people that, from the scientific point of view are having negative impacts on the state of the environment - that is, contributing to desertification.

The two different approaches to understanding environmental change suggest differences in indicators. Scientists' explanations are derived from conclusions based on macroglobal data sets, and perhaps even local-level studies of degradation and not innovation. Local perceptions and knowledge are derived from the experience of observable change over time. These serve as the basis for a "grassroots indicator." Other papers in this book will address the examples of indicators in detail, but there is a need to examine the relationship between scientific and grassroots indicators. Specifically, what is the relevance of these indicators to development planning which will directly impact desertification processes and land degradation at the local level?

Scientific Indicators

In the pursuit of monitoring the effect of the interactions between people and the ecosystem, and to bring about adequate nutrition, meaningful employment, and a more equitable distribution of income, science and development have relied heavily on development indicators. Gross national product (GNP) and GNP per capita have been the most established measures of "development." The GNP is incorporated into more sophisticated frameworks, such as the Chenery-Ahluwulia Index and Todaro's Index. With time, however, such economic indicators, including their methodology and analytical procedures, have come under criticism. Inclusion of social statistics in economic modeling was perceived as a more appropriate approach to identifying and utilizing development indicators.

Burning of grass

However, social statistics still play only a minor role in development monitoring and measurement, particularly at the level of national planning. Although there had been considerable improvements in the collection and analysis of macro- microeconomic and demographic statistics, integration with social statistics remains unsatisfactory. According to Scott (1978, p. 20), "...there is yet no equivalent data source that takes into account more recent approaches to planning, directed towards an integrated social and economic process rather than a micro-economic modeling with social by-products."

The above criticism had led to new thinking that argued for a more detailed description of the development process than is provided by GNP. According to this view, if development is concerned with raising the living standards of the population, pertinent information should be furnished showing whether their key social conditions and related services are improving or deteriorating over time. Over the past two decades, social scientists, statisticians, and policymakers have continued to address the need for a new set of statistics which satisfies these requirements. As noted by Drewnowski (1976, p. 12),

As long as we express the results of development in terms of monetary values of goods and services, we take an economic viewpoint. We consider the resources provided but not how they affect peoples' lives. As the aim of all economic activity is to improve the conditions in which people live, this means we have stopped half-way in assessing the consequences of development. To obtain a complete picture of development it is not sufficient to realize the amount of resources brought about by economic growth. It is necessary to examine the impact of these resources on the life of the people.

Few African nations have reliable statistics for meeting the requirements of a system of social indicators. Assuming that agreement on the definition of a selection of key social indicators is reached, there is still some difficulty in obtaining temporally and spatially comprehensive statistical series. Although data collection and information management have improved remarkably in many African countries recently, other types of data, and more importantly, their relationship to environmental change and issues such as desertification, are largely inadequate.

There is a second problem area related to the development of improved scientific indicators in African countries: they lack coordinated data systems with common concepts, classification systems, and methodologies. Both macroeconomic and social indicators are derived from data extracted by means of questionnaire tools, for use in essentially top-down development planning processes. Macro indicators have resulted in considerable dissatisfaction as tools to assess progress towards sustainable development. These top-down planning tools fail to effectively capture sustainability in development, which is increasingly being associated with "bottom-up" planning.

Decentralized Planning in Uganda

The late 1980s saw development planning begin to change direction towards a policy of decentralizing "development." This shift obviously requires some re-formulation of development indicators and is very much evident in Africa. For example, there have been strong moves towards decentralizing development in Uganda. Democratization and decentralization in the country started in 1986, with the establishment of the now familiar resistance councils and committees (RCs). Since then, the Ugandan government has been evolving towards a system which aims at improving local democracy, accountability, efficiency, equity and sustainability in the provision of social services and environment.

The RC institutions have been conceptualized by the government as instruments of participatory democracy in which people are directly involved in the governing of their own communities and making decisions that affect their daily lives and environment. Relevant to this paper, the functions of the RCs as policymaking organs within their areas of jurisdiction are:

· identifying local problems and solving them;

· formulating and receiving development plans.

Development planning will therefore integrate the diverse district plans into the national development plans by means of a "bottom-up" approach. In each district in Uganda, therefore, there will be a smaller district development committee (DDC), comprising members of the district resistance committee (DRC) and one councilor from each county. (The DDC also will have a Technical Planning Committee consisting of the district executive secretary as chair, the district population officer, the district statistician, the district economist as secretary, the district physical planner, the district agricultural coordinating officer, and the district education officer.) A Planning Committee will consolidate and elaborate the social development plans and draw up plans for consideration and approval by the DDC.

This decentralization process represents a major change in the structure of the development planning system in Uganda. More responsibility and initiative in planning will be conferred on the local authorities, in line with the general policy of strengthening local responsibility and transferring central government control. In the long run, this shift should make for better, and more effective, planning at the local level and more public participation. But will this be all the right way forward? Several researchers have noted that the importance of popular participation is widely acknowledged and advocated, but there is a gap between rhetoric and reality.

We note that in Uganda, there will still be a remarkable gap between the local people as participants in the "bottom-up" planning process on one hand, and the professionals at the district or national level, on the other. In particular, planning by the former is based on local knowledge acquired through long experience and observation and orally passed from one generation to the next. For established development planners, it is based on scientific and statistical knowledge acquired through formal education and procedures based on the western planning paradigm. This is the same western paradigm which in many instances has failed to solve the problems of inequitable, unsustainable distribution and use of national and local resources.

The focus of the current rhetoric in decentralized "bottom-up" planning and participation by the local people, is really to "decentralize top-down planning" to the local (districts) level, and probably bring the planning process nearer to the people, rather than involving them. If this approach is followed without further examination, how will communities be brought into the development process? Furthermore, the problems of the lack of coordinated indicators and a comprehensive system of common concepts, classifications, and methodologies for monitoring development and the environment will not be solved.

Conclusion: A Call for an Indicator Merger Despite the current move towards a decentralized approach to development planning based on "bottom-up" planning at the district levels, development plans based on conventional scientific indicators alone will fail to reflect the social, cultural, economic, and political realities at the local level. This dilemma is particularly evident for issues like desertification: for the local people hold a view of their environment and its desertification that is radically different from the one held by the scientists and development planners.

Popular participation in decentralized, "bottom-up" planning will only come closer to reality when the tools of planning are controlled at the grassroots level. This requires combining "grassroots indicators" with scientific indicators and applying them within a decentralized participatory planning process.