Student - November 22, 2007

Sustainability requires thinking at different levels

A plant scientist by training, Dr Samantha Adey, did sociological research on interventions of development organisations in small-scale subsistence farming in South Africa. While these interventions are often participatory in nature, there are still lessons to be learned when it comes to the process of development, says Adey.

Historically, small-scale subsistence farming is not supported by government extension services in South Africa. These tend to focus more on commercial farmers. Small-scale farming receives more attention from non-governmental development organisations (NGOs). In one case Adey studied, an NGO advised small farmers on how to grow vegetables in their homestead gardens. The organisation stuck to its message that promoted an organic method of increasing soil fertility, even though previous soil erosion meant that the method was not successful in this particular case. ‘It’s not that the organisation did not listen to the farmers, but it did not recognise sufficiently the role that local knowledge could play in sustainable development,’ Adey says.

Judging whether a development process is sustainable depends on the level from which it is viewed, Adey concludes. At field level, it is important that the intervention of the development organisation is based on local knowledge and practices. But that’s not enough. The process itself needs to be sustainable as well, which means that learning should be a key issue in interactions and that development organisations should create room for organisational development. / Joris Tielens

Dr Samantha Adey defended her thesis on 15 November. Her promotor was Professor Han Wiskerke, chair of the Rural Sociology Group at Wageningen University.

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