Opinion: Sustainable development is key

Mountains tower over a small community in Mexico


Mountains tower over a small community in Mexico

Mountains tower over a small community in Mexico

The first pictures that comes to mind when discussing sustainable development are actions being taken to reverse the deterioration of the environment. But development is broad word, and it can be split into three types: direct aid, emergency relief aid and long-term aid.

Emergency relief aid is usually introduced to communities that have been hit by natural disasters. Direct aid is implemented as immediate an answer to the solution – If a person is hungry, the direct response would be to offer that person food. But long-term aid takes more time to complete and aims for a concrete solution.

Over the years of working within the humanitarian sector, it had become apparent to many different organizations that aid needs to be approached by reaching a middle ground which includes longer-term initiatives. However, this aid can only be successful if there is a balance that meets the needs of the communities along with the guidance of the organizations’ past experience and resources.

There are countless examples of development that were approached with good intentions but were not thoroughly researched and ended up being disastrous. Within San Cristobal de las Casas, one example that was offers a good insight was a program implemented  in a community just outside of San Cristobal called “Santiago el Pinar”.

With the Millennium Developing Goals looming, many countries have felt pressure to oblige to the agreement, leaving Mexico’s government to choose ‘Santiago el Pinar’ as their poster child.

The government stepped in thinking they had the solution to the problem of poverty. They built homes that are mounted on stilts, made out of wood.

While it sounded like a great initiative, the wooden homes left people unable cook inside their house due to fire hazard. There was also a lack of access to water, and other problems.

The government presented this city as “a sustainable rural city”, a way of finding different solutions to poverty and community dispersion.

But the community was not properly consulted on what was needed. Did these people need new homes? How was this truly solving their problems? Did these people even ask for aid?

While yes, these were great homes – brand new and perceived to have all kinds of new amenities – they seem to be poorly built and the people did not want them.

Today, the lots in Santiago el Pinar are vacant, with the exception of approximately 8 families (out of approximately 300 homes). The indigenous people prefer their land, their homes and their way of life. Since they were not included or consulted in the process at all, they were less likely to be interested in this foreign way of living.

An equivalent for us Canadians would be having Stephen Harper build a bunch of Igloos on the outskirts of Ottawa saying that is what we need in order to break away from our student debts. A simple waste of materials and time.

I have found while working in this field that there are many cases that are similar to this, where people do not put in the proper time and effort into seeing what is actually needed for the community and what is actually the most beneficial solution.

If the community is requesting new homes, it only seems sensible to do an in-depth needs assessment that is inclusive to the community and uses as many materials from the local community as possible.

As a westerner it is easy to fall into the mindset of thinking we know what it is best for the community,but in reality it may is the first time we have even seen the area. As westerners we sometimes think that when people do not have the same things as us, they are missing out on life. We think they need it, so we act on emotion to provide that short term solution.

But short-term solutions only create short-term answers. These problems that people face are long-lasting and cannot be answered with short-term solutions – that only prolongs the issue, allowing it to grow as time goes on. It’s essential to put the time and effort into creating a long-term plan of action for issues that communities see fit.

If there is need for urgent aid, it must go in-hand with a long-term plan. Only when we are able to find a solution that makes the vulnerable sector no longer reliant on those providing assistance has sustainable development been achieved.

In the end, it comes down to a simple question.would you rather become donor fatigued by constantly giving to people and communities? Or would you prefer to support the communities towards sustainable options within their own means by the inclusion of them through the entire process of program development?

Laura Rocoski is a Loyalist college student with a passion for humanitarianism. She writes during her semester abroad in Mexico. 

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