The marriage between international development agencies and local and indigenous communities can be rocky. One example can be found in the mountainous region of the Western Pamirs of Afghanistan and Tajikistan where agencies for decades have tried to improve the livelihoods of a rural population. Something seems to be missing.
Success story really?
In a study recently published in the journal Revue d'ethnoécologie, centre PhD student Jamila Haider has together with Frederik J.W van Oudenhoven from Bioversity International critically assessed the claim that work in the area is "one of the most successful development programmes ever implemented." According to van Oudenhoven and Austria, this is a rather bold statement.
Based on four years of field work among the Pamiri people, the researchers find it appropriate to present a more nuanced view which better captures the Pamiri side of things.
The geographic area of study included villages along the Panj river which separates the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) of Tajikistan and the Afghan province of Badakhshan. After the British and Russians in 1895 agreed to separate the two areas, the Tajik side (GBAO) of the river became an important zone for the Soviet Union. The result was significant "preferential treatment" in the form of education, infrastructure, health care and food aid to support the deliberate influx of immigrants. The Afghan side was largely left to itself.
But the collapse of the Soviet Union left Tajikistan hopelessly incapable to stand on its own feet which was the main reason why international agencies came to the Pamirs in the early nineties. With the best intentions they introduced more market-driven income opportunities and (presumably) more efficient food production strategies.
But as many other stories on development aid, these strategies clashed with local agricultural traditions that were based on millennia of adaption and learning.
"The consequences of the development agencies overlooking or disregarding local perspectives range from obvious damage to effects that are more insidious," Jamila Haider says.
Implementation of a high-yielding wheat proved to be disastrous. After two years it became clear that the new wheat moulded while left to dry and that its taste was poor. The Pamiri people chose to go back to their ancestral crops, asking their Afghan neighbours for seed.
"The irony of failed initiatives like these lies not just in the fact that crops are ill-adapted to the local conditions in the region, but also in that they are introduced in a region that is itself an important centre of diversity for various crops," Haider says.
The commodification of food, labour, property and other essential 'goods' has also deeply affected the Pamiri people. "A neighbour never trade with his neighbour because he is a shading hand protecting you from the heat of the sun", is a common Pamiri saying. That was challenged with the introduction of more impersonal trade.
Let the Pamiri people decide
Market-driven solutions insensitive to local conditions have not only alienated the Pamirs from their own history but also stifled creativity and adaptability. As a consequence there is an urgent need to reinsert local and traditional knowledge into visions of future development.
"The point is not to supplant current development schemes, nor to simply incorporate local knowledge, but rather to allow this knowledge to drive a fundamental restructuring of those schemes," Haider says.
"The Pamiris themselves are in the best position to formulate a vision for the region," she concludes.
Watch video with Jamila Haider explaining poverty traps and how that has affected the agricultural areas in Tajikistan and Afghanistan:
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