Let there be light. And water. And education

At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking it was another UN Millennium Village, part of the Geoffrey Sachs poverty alleviation experiment. It’s not, but it does sound strikingly similar (you know, take a village of poor, impoverished Africans and bring them ‘development’). Whether you agree with the approach or not – and there’s been plenty of debate – it does seem to be growing in popularity, perhaps as a result of frustration in large, top-heavy, top-down global efforts whose goals are totally unrealistic and where success is much harder to measure than failure is to see. William Easterly‘s book, “The White Man’s Burden”, covers this well. So, rather than trying to heal the world, the idea is you try to heal a village or two and take it from there.

This latest experiment (well, it’s a year old now) centres around a newspaper appeal for a village in northeast Uganda called Katine. Reading through, many of the project objectives seem worthy enough – access to clean water, healthcare, education and so on – but the headline the Guardian chose doesn’t do anybody justice, least of all the inhabitants of Katine. “Can we, together, help one African village out of the middle ages?” it reads. For many people this perception is an ongoing frustration. If I wasn’t so interested in the topic I’d probably have stopped reading just there, as might many people at Amref (a leading partner in the project), whose staff happens to be over 90% African. That level of local ownership though is encouraging, as are the projects aims to “take advantage of – and build on – existing social and economic networks as well as traditional and indigenous knowledge”. This is probably why the newspaper decided to throw its weight behind the idea last year, and why Barclays Bank followed with a couple of million dollars (in today’s economic environment it’s less likely they’d do that now).

It will be interesting to see if the Guardian can hold their readers attention long enough to see this three year project through, although one year on it’s still gobbling column inches. Whatever happens, though, the increasing shift towards smaller-scale – and therefore more likely sustainable – initiatives, such as Katine (and maybe even the UN Millennium Villages), does present us with a different model from the one tried and tested with so little success since the 1970’s.

All we now need do is work a little harder on those headlines.

Dispelling the myth?

I spent the best part of spring and summer ’99 working on my anthropology dissertation, passionately arguing that anthropologists had been wrongly excluded from much of the earlier global conservation process. The rationale behind my several-thousand word essay was that the view of indigenous peoples as ‘outside of nature’, or ‘a blot on the landscape’, with no place in the growing world view of pristine, natural environments was wrong. There seemed to be, after all, plenty of examples of indigenous peoples living in harmony with their environments, and that humans weren’t always a destructive force.

But maybe they were.

My three years at Sussex University studying a blend of development issues and social anthropology allowed me to carefully develop my thinking and combine two of my three passions in life (the third being technology). So, it is with great irony that a decade later I find myself reading a book which squarely blames indigenous peoples for many of the the mega-fauna extinctions in their environments. And the catalyst for this destruction? Technology.

In “Techno-Cultural Evolution“, author William McDonald Wallace highlights the rise of hunter-gatherer kill-offs with the rise in the use of technologies – hunting technologies such as spears, knives and bow-and-arrows, and later guns. He also argues that “one of the reasons many people resisted the idea of human causes for the disappearance of the mega-fauna was a romantic notion”. Perhaps there was a little of this clouding my judgment all those years ago, but is it wrong to think that it’s possible for people to live in harmony with their environments? Whatever the case, we certainly seem further away from it today than we ever have been.

William McDonald Wallace also argues that today we’re seeing a new environmental awakening underway. With mega-events such as the global Live Earth ‘gathering’, we could very well see this spearheaded by increased climate change awareness. Once again, the catalyst for our troubles has been a boom in technological innovation and all the energy consumption that goes with it. It is quite astonishing how far we have come in just over a hundred years.

But are we now not in a truly ironic situation where new technologies are being rapidly developed to counteract the negative impacts of others? If things go wrong later this year in Copenhagen – where World leaders meet to discuss the follow-up to the soon-to-expire Kyoto Protocol – then we could see a shift from a policy of applying technology to avoid climate change to one of applying it to help us simply adapt to it.

It’s a poor second choice, and one that just goes to show that, whether you’re a small community in the 21st century about to lose your island home to rising sea levels, or a buffalo in the 19th century roaming the plains of North America, technology can’t always be seen as a good thing.