Post #36 – What Works? Person- and Planet-centered Development

The usual script for international development is the provision of aid—mostly in loans, occasionally in outright grants—by a “developed” country or international institution to an “underdeveloped” one. The money goes from the top to the top. With luck some of it will flow from the receiving government to the local people who need it. As often as not, however, a fair portion of the aid money will find its way into the pockets of developing country officials, their cronies in business, and their favorite banks in Geneva or Miami.

But there is another script: development from the ground up. I’m referring to grassroots assistance that encourages self-reliance and capacity building, and is directed to immediate human needs, such as clean water, unadulterated food, literacy, childhood diseases, gender balance, and increased income opportunity. Thanks to the insights of the Indian economist Amartya Sen, the United Nations Development Program adopted a concept of human development that it now applies annually to rank all countries that contribute information. You can see this ranking and its components at Nongovernmental organizations that focus on aid for human development, such as Oxfam (, the Renewable Energy Enterprises Foundation (, and the Institute for Food and Development Policy ( deserve our support, because they make a difference in people’s lives and understand that the purpose of aid is to promote sustainable, locally-determined growth, not to provide charity or aim at growth for growth’s sake.

Besides NGOs, many individuals—probably in the tens of thousands—are quietly but effectively doing their part to promote the capacity of poor people to improve the quality of their lives. I mentioned some of these folks in a previous post on health care; and in a future post I’ll discuss microfinance. Here I can only add a few more names of people who are promoting other kinds of human development through environmental protection, education, and food assistance. My purpose is to show that there is good news everywhere thanks to the usually unsung efforts of ordinary people doing extraordinary things—people who are reaching out across their community, country, or the world.

Paul Meiliara is chairman of Soralo, the South Rift Association of Land Owners (, which is home to the Maasai tribe that straddles the Kenya-Tanzania border. Soralo represents seventeen communities spread out over about 2.5 million acres. Under Paul’s leadership since 2004, the Maasai have responded to serious environmental problems—lower rainfall, prolonged drought, overgrazing by livestock, cutting down of trees for charcoal—by coming together around shared values and respect for the land and its animals. Their goal is to make good use of the community’s natural resources while preserving local values embedded in ceremonies, generational stages, and respect for the interdependence of wildlife and livestock. With cooperation from various NGOs, and in response to the Kenyan government’s insistence that the Maasai subdivide land, Soralo has developed land conservancy and ecotourism programs, a resource center, and a women-run dairy cooperative. (Thanks to Shiloh Sundstrom, who is doing doctoral research among the Maasai, for introducing Paul to my community.)

The Bluefields Bay Fishermen’s Friendly Society ( in Jamaica seeks to provide people with new employment opportunities while maintaining sustainable environmental practices. In this breathtakingly beautiful seaside area, best known for its luxury tourist villas, the BBFFS runs educational programs, food and housing for the poor, and a market place. Simultaneously, the organization is trying to preserve its fisheries and sea life through establishment of a marine sanctuary, which received help from Sandals Foundation, the philanthropic offshoot of Sandals Resorts. BBFFS is responding to rising tourism by emphasizing ecotourism, with the marine sanctuary as the centerpiece. (Thanks to Candice Goucher for alerting me to BBFFS.)

Right here in my own tiny community of Deadwood, Oregon, three people are involved in international programs that are making a difference. Michelle Holman and Churpa Rosa-Rogers are among the directors of another Jamaica project, the Jamaica Breakfast Program (, which finances breakfasts for 47 school kids in a very poor neighborhood. The program’s mission is simple but meaningful: “to promote health and nutrition to needy school children in Jamaica and to advance the education and social welfare of the poorest students by providing access to adequate food.” Michelle gave me this personal perspective: “By fundraising in the US, I have been fortunate to play a role in the lives of some very economically disadvantaged children in a very desperate Jamaican ghetto town. The reality is that help from the ‘first world’ is a tourniquet on Jamaica’s hemorrhaging economic system. While this type of help alone is not the ultimate answer, it does stem the flow of suffering for these very needy children for whom the food that is provided by our Jamaica Breakfast Program is often the only food they will receive that day. True economic health lies in a country’s ability to feed itself. Our own government has been guilty of taking resources from Jamaica and not giving back in ways that could help remedy the situation . . . In the present moment, children must eat, so we feed them.”

Johnny Sundstrom links our area with the Russian Far East via the Siuslaw Basin Partnership. The partnership evolved following decades of clearcutting in the Siuslaw National Forest. It has effectively engaged in forest and watershed restoration, including recovery of the salmon population, via collaborative planning among landowners, businesses, and government. In 2004 the Siuslaw Basin Partnership ( won an award, the Thiess International Riverprize, for effective river management, and was encouraged to reach across the Pacific to share expertise in restoring waterways. This brought Johnny into contact with Russia’s Sakhalin Island communities, which have similar geography and salmon issues. The result has been a longstanding friendship and sharing of knowledge about watershed protection.

Jere and Emilee Gettle created Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds in Mansfield, Missouri to preserve a heritage that is under assault from Monsanto and other giant agribusiness and biotech firms ( The Gettles have gained a lot of media attention for their accomplishments, which include promoting non-GMO, non-patented seed sales at three locations in the US, publishing seed catalogues and a magazine (Heirloom Gardener), holding an annual festival on gardening and food politics in Sonoma County, California, and supplying free seeds in the poorest countries. Their philosophy, defined in their latest Good Seeds catalogue, is to start “a revolution in the garden, on the farm, and most of all, at the dinner table: a revolution that reconnects us and our kids to the earth, to the seeds and to the value of good food.”  Jere adds the following personal note:

“I feel heirloom seeds are not just a means to provide food and security, but also a means for connecting us to future generations, places and times. It is an incredible feeling to bite into a melon or radish that Thomas Jefferson grew, or cook a squash my ancestors grew. Heirloom seeds are living bits of history and often times the only way we can connect to the past in such a vibrant way, as well as embrace the future as we hand these living treasures on to our children. Seeds represent the future, full of promise, blessings and life. “

Know of other good-news stories? Send them along, and support the people behind them.

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