What Would It Take To Help People and the Planet?

Feb 01, 2012
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The original version of this article first appeared in the “Scientist’s Soapbox” column of Momentum magazine’s special issue on “what would it take” to craft solutions to some of the Earth’s toughest challenges.

People living in the most biodiverse areas of the world tend to be poor, isolated, and dependent on natural resources. They often lack reliable access to alternative livelihoods and health services and thus can place stress on these ecologically unique regions.

Conservation efforts will merely slow habitat loss if they don’t fundamentally address the living conditions of the human residents as well as the flora and fauna. But programs to assist these communities have commonly focused on one problem at a time, reflecting the interests of the funders: Environmental groups focus on conservation, while health organizations concentrate on disease. We must ask whether investments to protect biologically rich areas are effective and sustainable if they don’t respond to the many needs of the people who live there.

But the problems faced by people in these remote areas don’t fit our traditional sectors. The way we disburse our funds, divide our bureaucracies, demarcate our disciplines, and measure success ignores the reality of intersecting needs. Such stovepiping can disrespect the communities’ scarce resources, especially their time. It can waste development aid on duplicate supplies and staff. And it can lead us to miss how the solution to one problem (e.g., providing antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV/AIDS) can be undercut by another (e.g., lacking access to safe water with which to take the pills).

So, what would it take to help particularly vulnerable populations while protecting particularly important ecological systems?

We need to strategically target our help by addressing HELP – health, environment, livelihoods, and population – through a truly integrated approach to sustainable development in these areas. Evidence suggests tackling problems concurrently can be more efficient and effective. Key donors such as the U.S. Agency for International Development are increasingly prioritizing integrated responses, providing some funding for sustainable development innovators and supporting evaluation of the results. But we need more evidence that these efforts can achieve results that match or exceed the outcomes of single-sector projects. To rigorously test this approach, more projects must be funded, implemented and analyzed, over longer periods of time and at bigger scales.

To date, some promising projects and research in diverse locations – Ethiopia, Nepal, Madagascar, Rwanda, the Philippines, and Uganda – suggest that the HELP approach offers greater benefits than traditional programs.

In the Philippines, for example, the PATH Foundation Philippines’ Integrated Population and Coastal Resource Management (IPOPCORM) program addresses pressing needs for both family planning services and sustainable environmental stewardship in densely populated coastal communities, where local fisheries have been depleted because of increased demand for food. IPOPCORM helps create marine protected areas and promotes alternative economic livelihoods such as seaweed harvesting, thus allowing critical local fish stocks to recover. Concurrently, the initiative mitigates human-induced pressures on the environment and lowers the vulnerability of this underserved population by providing voluntary family planning services. Since its launch in 2001, the IPOPCORM program’s approach has yielded measurable benefits, simultaneously reducing program costs and improving health and environmental outcomes – and outperforming compartmentalized, side-by-side sector interventions.

How can we bring HELP to biodiversity-rich communities? First, we can encourage scholars, practitioners, and policy-makers to step outside their stovepipes by producing and distributing manuals, for example, based on lessons learned from existing cross-disciplinary projects. Second, we must bridge the gap between analysis and field-based programs by developing new metrics that better assess the impact of integrated programs. Third, we must open up bureaucratic funding structures by demonstrating not only the short-term savings but also the synergies that bolster long-term sustainability.

The challenges are significant, but I see promising new opportunities for overcoming them. For example, the new Pathfinder International-led projects around Lake Victoria in Uganda and Kenya mark the entry of a respected health organization into the environmental arena and the return of a leading private funder – the MacArthur Foundation – to HELP programs. With some of Africa’s highest population densities, poverty, ethnic diversity, and biodiversity, the Great Lakes region is one of the most volatile intersections of human development and environmental change.

Through these and other community-based, integrated projects, we can truly help people and the planet at the same time.

Photo Credit: "Boy on road east of Addis," courtesy of Geoff Dabelko/Wilson Center.

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