New Paper: Applying a capitals approach to understand rural development traps

Jamila Haider:

New Paper: Applying a capitals approach to understand rural development traps. Check out reflections from the Ideas for Sustainability blog, or download our paper:

Originally posted on Ideas for Sustainability:

In an increasingly globalized world, rural areas are confronted with enormous development challenges. Agriculture, and in particular smallholder farming, often provides the backbone of rural livelihoods, but the future viability of this sector is threatened by a rising integration of rural areas into the global economy, and thus an increasing exposure of primary product markets to liberalized trade regimes. As a result, rural residents often need to diversify their incomes, specialize, or shift away from traditional farming activities – a set of changes that is closely linked with the notion of rural development. Several models of rural development have been proposed, but they do not always adequately explain why development stagnates in certain regions.

In our new paper we provide a possible explanation for such stagnation, illustrated by a case study from Central Romania. Based on qualitative interviews with over 350 inhabitants from 66 villages, our aim was to understand…

View original 486 more words

Agricultural Biodiversity Community video link now out!

Agricultural biodiversity is at stake worldwide. Monocultures are becoming ever more populair, with grave effects on biodiversity. We are losing plant and animal species every day. This loss has a big negative impact on food sovereignity of countries, it makes farmers dependant of seed corporations and it threathens a healthy food supply for the people living on Earth. The Agricultural Biodiversity Community is aimed at preserving and conserving the agricultural biodiversity worldwide. We build strategies and take action. Please join us and get involved. Click on the link!

Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 18.56.27

Resilience self-assessment by communities

At the Agricultural Biodiversity Community (ABC) meeting in Boxtel, Netherlands at the beginning of October, practitioners, farmers, and researchers from Africa, Europe, Asia, North and South America came together and created a process for “Resilience Self Assessment by Communities.”

This was the fourth meeting of the ABC, and three working groups worked over four days on i) policy outreach, ii) open source seed systems, and iii) resilience assessment (the group I was involved with).

Why did we have a working group on resilience assessment for agricultural biodiversity? This was my understanding prior to helping facilitate the workshop:

  • There is an increasing demand from the international development community to ‘improve’ resilience of communities. Most communities, especially rural communities who are custodians of agricultural biodiversity, already have sources of resilience but assessment tools could help them identify and communicate this to external actors;
  • The Resilience Assessment Workbook for Practitioners is seen as an important and useful resource but with limitations for communities in a development context to use this themselves;
  • To share and synthesise knowledge and best practice amongst all the experts gathered here.

This matters because far too often external interventions, with altruistic motivations actually do the opposite of build resilience, and reduce diversity and erode local knowledge and culture that has maintained agricultural diversity for centuries (also the topic of my PhD).

Then there were two immediate contradictions to my initial understanding:

  1. Bioversity International, Satoyama Initiative, UNDP have been developing a toolbox for resilience assessment in agricultural biodiversity contexts based on the Social-Ecological Production Landscapes indicators (See also van Oudenhoven et al. 2010), and was launched at the CBD COP last week. So, what was the value added of our exercise?
  2. In the first session on the first day where we discussed setting the agenda as a group, many group participants said: “we don’t need a resilience assessment tool; we already do this in our communities and the last thing we need is some external perspective on what we already do.”

So, we threw our facilitation plans out the window.

In this first open session, many of the participants were asking what is Resilience anyways? The Thai and Ugandan farmer were saying that this is an English word and concept and might now be useful for them or their communities in their contexts.

We started by breaking down Why, How and What: resilience assessment?

WHY? We came to a shared understanding that what we wanted was a self-assessment by communities: for communities to a) identify and monitor sources and status of resilience in their communities for themselves, and b) in some contexts, to communicate to external actors and thereby possibly avoiding inappropriate development interventions.

HOW? Develop a process for communities to self assess resilience.

WHAT? The first part of this was to answer: what is resilience in agricultural biodiverse landscapes?

2014-10-02 17.42.44

Angoli cattle farmer Elizabeth telling a narrative about resilience in her community.

We listened to the narrative of our Ugandan farmer colleague, who rears Angoli cattle and the group drew this story on large sheets of paper. She told us how if she loses one cow due to some misfortune, her community will give her five in return. And she will of course do the same if something happens to her friends’ cattle. Our Thai friend, an agro-forestry farmer, then told us how she does agro-forestry because ‘she is lazy’ and it’s so easy to let the fruit and vegetables grow without her input. Her livelihood depends entirely on her forest. In a community context, she depends a lot on the connections she has with her extended family and neighbours, who all specialise in different products and share their wealth with each other. Finally, our Indian colleague led a narrative of why we need to assess resilience.

The first day ended with a shared understanding of what resilience meant to us, and why we, in our own communities, wanted to assess it.

2014-10-03 10.55.51

Identifying resilience attributes in agricultural biodiversity landscapes.

Our next steps as a group were to use the drawings to draw out attributes that were important to the custodians of the landscape. We used sticky notes on the big flipchart sheets for this. At the end, we had more than a list of attributes, but an understanding of what we valued in this community, and “what made it healthy and strong.”

 Taking a step back, we created a mindmap of the Process we were in the middle of, and what this might look as tool to share. Here is our mindmap:

1. Why is an assessment needed? 2. Who should be involved? How to achieve equitable representation.  3. Telling the Story 4. Identify attributes 5. Link to Action 6. Reflection

1. Why is an assessment needed?
2. Who should be involved? How to achieve equitable representation.
3. Telling the Story
4. Identify attributes
5. Link to Action
6. Reflection


The Agricultural Biodiversity Community is now in the process of pulling together resources to populate each of these steps with the expertise of the members of the group. For example, from MELCA in Ethiopia, experience with Eco-Mapping, and SeaRice, with community mapping. We are preparing a web-launch of this tool early 2015, which will link to other great resources, such as the RA workbook, a new E-learning course on Resilience Assessment by SwedBio to be launched soon, and the Satoyama tools.

Many of us left saying that we had achieved much more than we had ever expected. Farmers and practitioners left the workshop saying that this is definitely a tool that they can use in their communities. We will start field trials in Thailand, Uganda, South Africa, Peru, India and other countries early 2015.

As a researcher studying resilience in agricultural biodiversity landscapes, I left thinking that we achieved a milestone in co-creating a process that is accessible to communities and that we made a contribution in aggregating existing tools assessing resilience in agricultural biodiversity contexts, moving towards a specified assessment. We look forward to connecting this to the many other ongoing initiatives to assess resilience.

On a personal note, I found the workshop very challenging, but incredibly rewarding. Despite dedicating my work to smallholders, being a lover and advocate of wheats, millets, pulses and everything else, at the end of the day I am a young Northern female scientist. And my voice, especially at the beginning without any personal trust behind it, held very little legitimacy in this context. And I wouldn’t want it any other way. But, it makes it very difficult to contribute, let alone facilitate a co-creative process like this. Over time, as we got to know each other, these barriers broke down. But wow, it was humbling! I am so grateful for an incredible learning experience, where I also started a process of finding a space for my own voice in this critically important issue of conserving agricultural biodiversity that we all share a passion for.

Dutch farmer Jan at Eemlandhoeve.

Dutch farmer Jan at Eemlandhoeve.

Beyond Divides: Prospects for synergy between resilience and pathways approaches to sustainability

What does an (un)sustainable world look like? How might we ‘know’ and research (un)sustainability? How should sustainability researchers position themselves in relation to civil society, policy, business and academic communities?

These are some of the questions friends and I at the Stockholm Resilience Centre ask in a new paper “Beyond Divides: Prospects for synergy between resilience and pathways approaches to sustainability” (led by Simon West) which we think will be useful for young interdisciplinary scientists beyond the scope of resilience and pathways. We explore how resilience thinking and a pathways approach address such questions, untangling similarities and differences in their ontologies, epistemologies and areas of strategic action. Through examples such as the debate between Johan Rockstrom and Melissa Leach (documented here and here), as well as examples from our own research, we find that the most exciting areas of sustainability research lie in the boundaries between emerging trans-disciplinary research communities such as the SRC and STEPS centre.

Here are some highlights from our conclusions:

In this paper we discussed how the ontological commitments of resilience and pathways lead us to see the world differently. While both work within systems frameworks, the willingness in resilience research to draw firmer system boundaries enables researchers to establish functional relations and identities. In contrast, the emphasis in pathways research on the production of system boundaries enables researchers to uncover the discursive (and contingent) mechanisms that enable us to establish identities and relations in the first place. Given these ontological stances we then examined the epistemological strategies of resilience and pathways. We established that, generally speaking, the resilience emphasis on functionality leads to questions of ‘what works?’. In the pathways approach the emphasis on distribution leads to questions of ‘who’s losing, who’s benefiting?’. Therefore, while participatory governance structures are encouraged in resilience research primarily as a means of increasing the pool of knowledge available, in pathways oriented research they are promoted to facilitate deliberation and contestation between different knowledges. These epistemologies, supported by distinct methods, frame the role of the trans-disciplinary sustainability researcher in different ways. For resilience-oriented researchers, appropriate action for sustainability, conceived as maintenance of biophysical processes, may take the form of empowering ‘system-level’ resilience, engaging with a wide range of actors from the private sector, civil society and the state. Pathways researchers, conceiving of sustainability in terms of social inequity and inequality, are more likely to see their role as highlighting marginalised perspectives and subaltern narratives, in which case engaging with powerful private sector voices may not be so relevant. However, at the same time, we see pathways and resilience researchers acting in the same policy arenas, and, in some areas, supporting each other’s agendas. This suggests that these two visions for the role of the sustainability researcher may not be mutually exclusive but actually beneficial. The problem remains, however, how to work across these perspectives and produce trans-disciplinary, rather than simply multi-disciplinary, spaces.

We found the STEPS summer school to be an incredibly enriching experience, and are really happy to see a newly formed Alumni Association in which we hope to continue these dialogues.

Download the pdf by clicking on it

Download the pdf by clicking on it



Excerpt from: You are what you EAT @ #SES_Link

“Are you happy? (asks Feike Sijbesma from DSM).

-       yes! (Audience)

Oh. Did you hear about the horrible crisis today? Where 9,000 people died?

-       no.

That’s because nobody is talking about it. 1, 2, 3, 4… 4 seconds go by and another person dies from hunger.

9,000 will die today, and another 9,000 will die tomorrow.

So, Are you still happy?”

Yet, obesity and overweight kills more people than underweight. The richest billion people in the world consume 40% of the resources.

This is the global food crisis.

We were presented this dilemma during the EAT forum plenary. The first annual EAT Forum was hosted by the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Stordalen Foundation to bring together environmental and health impacts of the food we eat.This type of narrative may get people to act. It is certainly one approach, and undoubtedly a successful one if business leaders are using it. I’ve written a more comprehensive blog about it on our #SES_Link homepage.

But I found myself thinking: why should we be unhappy? I know the world is unjust and try to work everyday in small ways to reduce that inequity. But does it mean that I should be so miserable that I can’t act? To be honest, some days I am. Those days when the world feels too heavy, the problems too big, and my own contribution completely insignificant, or even worse, counterproductive. Speaking for myself, what I need  to hear are more positive stories, not horror stories.

A more important critique though, is that by always framing things in the negative, we may find solutions to those problems , but we won’t change the system in which the problems arose. Improving seed varieties may solve aspects of world hunger, but it won’t change the system which makes hunger pathological.

So back to my mantra, why should use food as a lens to talk about global food problems: 1) Food frames problems in the positive;  2)  Food is evocative; food is more than just calories that feed us, and more than just ingredient that create a recipe. Everyone has a story, an emotion, associated with food. This is what is behind the sovereign space in which ideas are created;  3) Food is simple and levels the playing field; everyone can talk about food.  You can read more about our approach on the SIANI blog, or on my own.

As Bill Clinton said in his keynote at the EAT Forum: “What kills people is believing that their tomorrows will be like today.” Maybe talking about food can open up new tomorrows.

Food Futures: Correction to my blog on SIANI

A few weeks ago I wrote this blog for SIANI about food. It’s a story of how our book “With our hands: A celebration of food, and life, in the Afghan and Tajik Pamirs” came to be, and why we think it’s important both for the preservation of beautiful cultural traditions in the Pamir Mountains, and also globally important for social-ecological response diversity.

Link to SIANI blog

Link to SIANI blog

The point if this current blog is to make a correction: A Pamiri friend who read the SIANI blog quickly pointed out that Pamiri people are not ashamed of their food, but that it is a much more complex story than that. Of course she is absolutely right and the last thing I would ever want is to misrepresent that. The blog has now been corrected, and here is a more detailed explanation of my own interpretation of ‘ashamed’ as an outsider to the Pamirs.

This Pamiri friend explained that she loves Osh, it’s her favourite food. But that her mother made it only occasionally because it takes a long time to prepare. Many women in the Pamirs work full time jobs, are more than full time mothers, often supporting their parents, or the parents of their husbands, and very often other extended family. Pamiri women are truly superwomen. And it’s very to me to not misrepresent this.

So, using the word “ashamed”, was absolutely the wrong one! However, I think the original rationale behind it is important. Pamiri people, we found, did not like to prepare traditional food for foreigners. They rather prepared modern Russian dishes, with meat preferably, which is a sign of wealth. This is of course not at all unique to the Pamirs. My own grandmother in Austria would never dream of serving a guest a meal without meat, even if she prepares ‘simple’ local vegetarian food regularly for herself. A second anecdote which informed my use of the word ashamed includes Pamiri peoples “second flour.” Many Pamiri households have at least two kinds of flour. The first flour, is (now usually bought) white flour usually from Kazakhstan. The second flour, is a locally milled mixed flour which is much darker in colour and much more nutritious (as it’s often mixed with legumes). Again as a guest, we would only ever be served the bread of the first flour, unless explicitly asking for the second, when it was only brought out with confused and shy manners. No restaurant in the main Pamiri city of Khorog sells local food (with the exception of one seasonal summer dish, and one thermos full of Osh at the local market!), because it is presumed that people will not buy it.

As a final note, an outsider’s perspective will never be complete or wholly representative, no matter how thorough we have tried to be. After three years of work and constant conservation with Pamiris themselves, I am hoping we are not doing the Pamirs a disservice! Dialogue is the way to get through this, so I am extremely grateful for the correction!

Guattari revisited

At the Stockholm Resilience Centre in the past month, there has been an amazing initiative to revisit the classics: Durkheim, Weber, Marx. You can read about that on the resilience science blog

Frederik and I have often over the years gone back to the classics in thinking about our work on food sovereignty, development and cultural heritage in the Pamirs. Over two years ago we were inspired by French thinker, Felix Guattari, and I posted a few first reflections here. Those thoughts turned into a paper (free access here), published a year ago in a somewhat obscure French journal.

Why do I like using the classics in thinking about change social ecological systems? I have found beauty in the way that classics can provide framing my thinking in a narrower frame, much like a poetic style can channel creativity leading to the emergence of something entirely unexpected.

… we borrow from the concept of ‘the three ecologies’, developed by the French thinker Félix Guattari (1989). With this concept he distinguishes between three dimensions—environmental, social, and mental—of the current crisis of nature (both ecological and human) and illustrates how these are affected by the economic system that he considers to be the crisis’ main cause. These ‘three ecologies’ guide our analysis of development issues and the formulation of alternatives.

Implied in the following examples is the call, also emphatically stated in Guattari’s text, to abandon the professed neutrality of “pseudo-scientific paradigms” (ibid: 131) in favour of the subjectivity of aesthetic ones. In other words, to turn away, if only for the purpose of reflection, from the informational, ‘professional’, or ‘academic’ (i.e. external) narratives as a basis for conceiving development trajectories, towards the singularity and aesthetics of popular stories and memories rooted in local culture. Huyssen (2003: 2) relates the “fundamental crisis in our imagination of alternative futures” to the differential treatment of history vs. memory. Development activities predicated on memory will be different from those based on a linear account of history and, arguably, allow for greater flexibility and creativity in responding to environmental, economic or geopolitical changes.

We go on to describe each of these ecologies in turn, the environmental, social and finally, mental:

Perhaps the most important point made by Guattari is that the degradation of the environmental and the social sphere cannot be seen separate from the impoverishment of the mind, or the mental ecology:

“Indeed, if we continue, as the media would have us do—to refuse squarely to confront the simultaneous degradation of these three areas, we will in effect be acquiescing in a general infantilization of opinion, a destruction and neutralization of democracy. We need to ‘kick the habit’ of sedative consumption […] we need to apprehend the world through the interchangeable lenses of the three ecologies” (Guattari 1989: 34).

The “media” to which Guattari refers can be seen as analogous to the role that development organizations play in the region. People aspire to achieve a model of development which they do not only poorly understand, but which, often, causes marginalization and erodes (food) sovereignty.


Afghan women baking wheat bread in a traditional oven, called kitsor. © Theodore Kaye


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.