Jason S Calder

Niger was all but given a death sentence in the 1970s when drought-propelled desertification, rapid population growth, and unsustainable farming practices threatened ecological collapse and mass human suffering. Women on average each gave birth to more than seven children, and the population was expected to double in the next two decades. Families who had worked their land for generations could see the tell-tale signs: it was taking longer and longer to get to trees and fresh water, and the Sahara desert was getting closer and closer.1

Thirty years later there is startling evidence of a turnaround, thanks to changes undertaken beginning in the mid-1980s. (See Figure 12-1.) At that time, farmers in several villages were taught to carefully plow around tree saplings when sowing crops of millet, sorghum, peanuts, and beans. Careful nurturing, along with other simple soil and water conservation practices, saplings became trees, putting down roots and a buffer against top-soil erosion and crop loss.2

The quick-growing native trees became assets that families used to supplement incomes, provide insurance against crop failure, and meet their own needs. The trees provided wood for charcoal, foliage for animal fodder, and fruit for food. News spread through social networks and marketplaces in the more densely populated regions of the country until an area of 7 million hectares, about the size of the state of West Virginia, was re-greening with trees.3

Did farmers do this alone? Hardly. Better rains helped, and so did the government. But the standard anti-desertification strategy of massive tree planting projects was not what made the difference. The forest law previously stated that both land and trees were the property of the state. Recognizing that farmers had de facto ownership of the trees and were investing in their regeneration, the govern-

Jason Calder is Director of the Engaging Citizens and Communities in Peacebuilding Project at Future Generations.

Mobilizing Human Energy

ment wisely amended the forest code, giving farmers formal property rights. This additional security helped reinforce a trend and add momentum. The forest service began to change from policing tree cutting and levying fines to partnering with communities to assist regeneration. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the Peace Corps, and donors helped promote the new practices through training programs and farmer-to-farmer visits.4

Notwithstanding this support, it was the energy invested by the farmers of Niger that fueled this massive transformation of land and livelihoods. The result is a more complex agricultural system and a more diverse economy that is helping farmers invest in regenerating once-infertile lands. Today farmers credit their efforts with lowering poverty, improving nutrition, and reducing vulnerability to hunger. The average distance a

USGS and Institut Géographique National du Niger woman must walk for firewood in the Zinder region has declined from 2.5 hours in 1984 to half an hour today. When a regional drought and massive locust invasion hit in 2005, many of the villages in the "green belt" reported no child deaths from malnutrition because they were able to sell wood in local markets to purchase expensive cereals that normally would have been beyond reach.5 This success story from Niger demonstrates that the greatest untapped resource in solving the problem of global poverty and environmental decline is the poor themselves. They have the most unambiguous incentive to change their condition, yet this simple fact is all too rarely embraced by governments, aid workers, and the market. In the face of deprivation, discrimination, and oppression, the poor are all too often offered charity, manipulation, and condescension.

But there are signs that this is beginning to

Mobilizing Human Energy change. Over three decades of grassroots community development experiences that began as a search for an alternative to mainstream economic development have coalesced into new approaches to citizen and community empowerment that embrace partnerships with governments and markets while maintaining an emphasis on self-reliance and self-help.

As with traditional community-based development, this newer community-driven development recognizes that the poor must be the active authors of their own destiny and that development cannot be sustainable if it dislocates people from their communities and resources. Recognizing poverty as much more than a lack of income, the new approaches emphasize building assets, expanding freedoms, and mobilizing the poor to overcome the voicelessness and powerlessness that are defining characteristics of poverty.6

Informed by an emphasis on incentives and client knowledge, community-driven approaches are being implemented by NGOs, businesses, and large organizations like the World Bank. Perhaps most promising is that practitioners are tackling the question of how to scale up community-driven change over wide geographic areas involving significant numbers of people.

While the international community sets ambitious development targets like the Millennium Development Goals, it is not clear how to achieve them. So far, the debate is polarized between mobilizing massive financial resources for technical fixes and piecemeal responses sought by entrepreneurs. But financial resources and technology, although important, are not the binding constraints. Experimentation and local solutions are also important, yet the scale of the challenge demands a more ambitious response. As the hopeful case of Niger demonstrates, what is required are ways of tapping into the ultimate resource: human energy.7

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