Challenging the We-Know-Best Approach


The Science of Sustainable Development. Local Livelihoods and the Global Environment. Sayer, J. and B. Campbell. 2003. Cambridge University Press, New York. 287 pp. (268 + xix). $35 (paperback). ISBN 0-521-53456-9.

The Science of Sustainable Development is based to a significant degree on articles that have appeared in Conservation Ecology (now Ecologyand Society) in the last several years, highlighting how that journal has become a hub of discussion about new social technologies and participatory principles for integrating scientific research into the promotion of more sustainable rural livelihoods. It represents one strand of thought about applying adaptive management strategies to collaborations between farmers and scientific researchers in the challenging setting of rural less-developed countries.

The authors place their work within what they call integrated natural resource management, which incorporates adaptive management, scientific research as a participatory process with other stakeholders, policies as experiments, extensive stakeholder consultations, and new, inclusive organizational structures. All these elements are, of course, essential components and prescriptions for what in the United States is called “ecosystem management.” Why the different terminologies? For one thing, the integrated natural resource management discussed in this book is, with but a few notable exceptions, focused on helping small farmers change their practices to make them more productive and presumably more environmentally friendly, although the latter dimension is not always clearly stated in some of the cases studied. The resources of primary interest in this book are soil and water, those resources of most critical need for most farmers. Thus, again with a few exceptions, this book does not much discuss forest management or agroforestry as arenas for applying the methods or using these techniques in managing larger ecosystems, although they could certainly be applied in these areas. It would appear that ecosystem management in the United States presupposes a broader range of management values than the authors have in mind here, but there is no reason why small farmers and other regional stakeholders would not have the same broader interests. Thus, I suggest that—among other things—this book identifies the need to begin integrating some of these concepts at a global level.

The book has very useful and effective sketches and analyses of efforts to establish multi- and interdisciplinary scientific research in collaboration with local, regional, and national stakeholders to construct new and more socially and environmentally friendly production regimes. In one example, which fits perfectly with U.S. conceptions of ecosystem management, they offer a frank and penetrating discussion of the efforts of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR; one of the authors is the former director general of CIFOR and the other is currently a program director there) to establish a program of research and action on “more environmentally and socially sustainable management of forest lands” (p. 145). The Indonesian government allocated to CIFOR the 100,000 ha Bulungan Research Forest, an area used by local indigenous peoples that was supposed to be subjected to a logging concession.

CIFOR quickly found itself working in the entire region that encompassed the research forest for a variety of reasons. The effort provides an effective case study of the challenges and possible benefits of scientists collaborating with each other and with an array of local stakeholders. The authors note that “Even with good intentions and generally good interpersonal relations, it was simply not efficient for the different groups to work together and meet donor expectations. The situation was further complicated by the inevitable fact that different disciplines and different research programs often require different methods, locations and facilities” (p. 152). Researchers had a “weak shared knowledge base” and tensions emerged among them over their “understandings of the dynamics of land-use change and human well-being diverged” (p. 153). All was not lost, however, because “[t]he scientists did not pool their skills in a melting pot but rather worked in small teams on the elements of a mosaic. The result was a number of smaller groups of scientists moving forward in parallel on independent but interrelated research questions … with hindsight, we also now believe that this was a better strategy for learning and building-up a knowledge base than the purer approach of beginning with a single interdisciplinary model” (p. 159). All this provides a useful reality check on the real problems and potential of interdisciplinary research (Daily & Ehrlich 1999).

The authors also offer a useful evaluation of the role of formal models in integrated natural resource modeling. They have an informed skepticism about the use of formal models and suggest that they may be of some use in situations where they are affordable and where there is close collaboration with other stakeholders. But the authors also note that models can quickly become divorced from any empirical reality and cease to be problem-solving tools. Sayer and Campbell advocate the use of “demand-driven throw-away models” (p. 101), with a conceptual and a rough systems model that uses the proprietary software STELLA. This type of model provides a general guide to research and action without investing a great deal of time and running the risk of constructing a model with little applicability to the actual situations faced by managers.

Most of the book, however, focuses on concepts and analyses of research scenarios with small farmers that place donors, researchers, and other levels of stakeholders as equal collaborators in a program framework that depends less on log frames and more on open, dynamically adaptive strategies for a generally stated goal. It turns out that there are quite a few of these projects around, and they seemed to have made some gains in changing the practices of small farmers (although the degree of change is not discussed much). But these approaches are still far from the norm in most development projects, which still favor top-down, we-know-best approaches, despite some encouraging signs of evolution to more decentralized approaches. Sayer and Campbell present an eloquent argument for the need to move from bureaucracies to what they call “adhocracies,” where project goals emerge from a process of negotiation between stakeholders, although they sadly note that “bureaucracy still prevails over the adhocracy” (p. 246).

The Science of Sustainable Development has a rather narrow focus, but this also allows it to delve deeply into its subject matter. It would have been useful, however, to make more explicit links to larger debates. For example, there are many implications for the current debate about the impact and future of integrated conservation and development projects (ICDPs). Evidence from this book suggests that the tendency of conservation organizations to throw aside ICDP projects when they do not show results after a few years precisely misunderstands the requirements of working with local communities and the importance of long-term commitments, of “learning and innovating together,” and of the “democratization of science” (p. 244). In many respects this book makes a useful companion to Margoluis and Salafsky (1998), carrying the approach described in that book deeper into stakeholder and small-farmer participation methodologies and into a larger landscape beyond protected areas. Sayer and Campbell's final call is that “[s]cience managers must respect the principles of adhocracy, admit civil society to their ranks, reject the arrogance of technological perfection and actively seek to change and adapt” (p. 246).