Ann Conway has twenty years overseas experience in international development as Peace Corps Country Director, Program and Training Officer, and Training Director. She currently lives in San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas and is a Natik Development Advisor.
I first heard the term “sustainable development” as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines while sitting, rather sweating, in a meeting with our program manager. The term had just hit the scene and made an impact on those of us who were well aware of the abundance of slash and burn, tree cutting, and explosives dropped into the sea to harvest fish. Easy to understand that the destructiveness of these behaviors, and others, didn’t meet “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (United Nations’ 1987 Brundtland Report)
The “What is going on?” and the “What is the impact?” are usually relatively easy to identify. The challenge is to figure out “Now What do we do”? It’s not easy to work in sustainable development. For eons do-gooders have swept down like Mighty Mouse in an effort to save the day. But those efforts have sometimes brought change that made situations worse, change that cost millions but with no positive results, change that worsened the balance between gender roles, and change that didn’t honor cultural differences. How do we act as catalysts of change without seeming arrogant, sometimes without even not knowing what we’re talking about, and certainly knowing more about our own culture and experience than that of the people with whom we are interacting?
This analogy makes sense to me: we need to ease into the pond slowly and with grace, sensitive that we are foreign elements that need to understand the dynamics of the water, the depth of the bottom, the breadth of its sides, where the water comes from, and where it is going. We need to discover how best to interact with it so as to keep its integrity and to help change it in a way that will protect it, improve it for the benefit of the people and animals that depend on it, the earth that receives it and swirls it around the planet and into the air above it. All the while realizing that it is not we who wear the mighty mouse capes, but the people who have lived there for generations.
All these considerations require investigation and communication that is sensitive to different expectations and rhythms, which takes time and effort. For those of us that serve as bridges in the quest for development that is sensitive to the needs of both humans and the environment, one of the biggest challenges is to brace ourselves against the influences of the outside world that clamor for bigger, faster, and more technological solutions. No solution is sustainable if the people who are implementing it are not comfortable integrating it into their lives and culture.