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Toward Defining "Sustainable Development" in the SIL Context

by Bud Larsen

© 1999 Summer Institute of Linguistics


As we move away from that 'popular' mindset and recognize the integrity of local knowledge and initiative, we can begin to assume healthier roles that will encourage sustainable development. We begin to see ourselves as trainers and facilitators rather than benefactors. This paper begins to develop a model for sustainable village-based development


As Regional Area Directors of the SIL field work in two Papua New Guinea provinces, one of our roles was to assist in finding solutions to problems in as many as 30 different language development programs. One day we received a hand-written letter from a village leader whom we had not yet met. We recognized the village name as one from a language group that had had a translation and literacy program, but the expatriate team had left the project some years earlier. In the letter the community leader expressed concern that SIL’s literacy house had been broken into and the literacy materials had been vandalized. They were hoping we might come to assess the damage.

Since a trip had been planned to a neighboring language project a few months later, we included a short stop at the inactive project village to meet with the village elders. As we walked to the literacy building, the elderly, former literacy teacher reminisced about former days when the literacy classes were active, and the SIL Cessna served the village. Now that the SIL team was gone, not only was the program inactive, but the village was isolated once more. Without access to the city by air, people had to carry their coffee bags out on their backs, two days walk to the airstrip in the valley.

The literacy teacher unlocked the padlock on the door. When we entered, we saw that a louvered window in the back had been broken, and some papers had been scattered on the floor. Books were still sitting in piles on the shelves, with covers eaten off by cockroaches.

My short visit left me wondering about factors that contribute to the sustainability of language development projects. What aspects of the total program had actually outlasted the physical presence of the expatriate team?

When we compare the many language development programs in which SIL has had a part, we notice a wide range of responses. Some communities experience a renewed sense of worth and purpose, and develop the capacity to work together for positive change. In other communities there is very little positive evidence that there has even been a language development program. In any community, of course, the range of influences and responses to them are numerous and varied. In order to draw generalizations we need a sizeable corpus of data. A few isolated cases tell us very little.

Towards a model for sustainable village-based development

In recent years many organizations and studies have emerged to help define factors that contribute to sustainable village-based development. In September 1993 the International Conference on Sustainable Village-Based Development convened at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado, to work towards a model for sustainable development and to collect case studies that define good principles and practices. The corpus of case studies published after the conference is included in 5 volumes totaling over 2500 pages -- a significant body of data from which to observe what factors support sustainability. Sustainable development was defined as having two aspects:

  1. Environmentally sustainable development, which means development that does not cause degradation of the environment and uses renewable resources to the maximum extent possible.
  2. Development that is internally sustainable by village residents after the external stimulus is removed. Movement out of poverty generally requires an external force, person or system that causes action toward development to take place. Internally sustainable development is development that will continue undiminished after this external influence has been removed.

The conference focussed specifically on village-based development, which "…refers to development activities arising from discussions among the village residents and the plans, designs and projects which evolve from these discussions. Village-based development is planned, and accomplished and owned by the village residents. This is in sharp contrast to technical and social innovations delivered to rural areas without local participation in planning, design and implementation." (From the Foreword, Proceedings of the INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON SUSTAINABLE VILLAGE-BASED DEVELOPMENT, by Maurice L. Albertson, Edwin F. Shinn and Miriam M. Shinn)

Criteria for sustainability

A model for rural development that is truly sustainable and is village-based, as per the above definition, is emerging. We can measure our own development efforts in SIL against the following criteria:

Sustainable development in the SIL context

There is a growing number of case studies coming out of SIL field work that exemplify many of the above factors that contribute to sustainable development. A few of them have been subjects of reports in the International Digging Stick, the newsletter of the Intercultural Development Services of SIL.

Yein Chia Lawrence and. George Shultz reported on the activities of a group of Kom farmers from Njinikijem Village in Cameroon (RABBITS, GUINEA PIGS AND LITERACY, Volume 3, No. 4, Sept. 1996. p. 2). The group had formed in 1984 to learn improved farming techniques. In 1994, Heifer Project International introduced the raising of rabbits and guinea pigs to the group, but with difficulty, since the training material was in English. A second seminar was held in the Kom language, which proved to be more successful. Since then the literacy component has expanded to include learning to write dates, weights, and measures, which are necessary skills for successful rabbit and guinea pig farmers. The group then planned to begin keeping daily farm journal, recording weights and production records, profit and loss statements, and making periodic progress reports. They also planted 5000 seedlings of Calendra, with the help of a seed distribution program, promoted contour farming methods to reduce soil erosion, and made extensive use of rabbit dung for gardens and farms. "The activities of this group of farmers in Njinikijem has brought about much positive change." (Mr. Yein Chia Lawrence)

These Kom development efforts supported local initiative, local organization and goals. The innovations that came from outside the group were culturally acceptable, and the environmental resources needed were improved. There is little doubt that the projects will continue after the outside influence has left, and new technical skills will be passed down to the next generation.

Esther Marmor (THINKING THROUGH, Vol. 4, No. 3, July, 1997, p. 1)described how members of the Kabiye women’s group of Togo had begun to solve problems by group discussions enhanced with special flannelgraph presentations. The discussions helped them focus on the problems in their community so they could develop action plans for solving them. They then invited organizations in to help facilitate training and deliver the technology. The process for problem solving through community discussion can be a powerful tool for sustainable development.

Betsy Edwards described how Tamajaq women of Niger worked within a culturally acceptable framework to start a women’s sewing cooperative WOMEN EMBRACE LITERACY ENROUTE TO SEWING, Vol. 5, No. 2, February,1999, p.1). Their efforts built on the dreams of an SIL trained literacy teacher and brought together the efforts of a number of organizations and local experts. The literacy classes supported the project with reading and numeracy skills, while the sewing component offered a focus for literacy skills.

Embracing sustainability

Whether we embrace principles that encourage sustainable development may hinge upon our assumptions about those we serve. Do we assume, as some ‘mainstream developers’ do,

With this mindset development workers will see very little of value to build on in communities and recognize very little worth learning.

As we move away from that 'popular' mindset and recognize the integrity of local knowledge and initiative, we can begin to assume healthier roles that will encourage sustainable development. We begin to see ourselves as trainers and facilitators rather than benefactors. Rather than just assessing the needs, then designing and providing solutions which create dependence, we need to encourage the process of community introspection and evaluation, then offer training in accessing tools such as literacy and numeracy skills, networking, systems for testing alternative solutions, and forming good partnerships.

The sustainable development process begins when we recognize the integrity of local leaders and choose to build on local initiative.