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[SANET-MG] ecology key to effective aid
Published online: 7 September 2005; | doi:10.1038/437180a
Ecology is key to effective aid, UN told
Report recommends local management of natural resources.
Support is growing for the idea of linking aid with environmental
protection. A new report proposes that enabling local communities to
manage natural resources is the key to tackling poverty. In response,
development experts are calling for a more scientific approach to
deciding how aid money should be spent.
The Wealth of the Poor, backed by the United Nations (UN) and the World
Bank, says that governments have ignored the 750 million rural people
who make up three-quarters of the poor, and that development in areas
such as China and India has largely bypassed rural areas. Marine and
agricultural resources around the world are being depleted as
small-scale farmers struggle to feed their families.
"Development strategies represent the priorities of capital cities and
finance ministers," says Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources
Institute in Washington DC, the environmental think-tank that wrote the
It follows a global environmental survey that concluded, in March, that
ecosystems around the world are in decline and will continue to be so
unless their value is factored into financial thinking (see Nature 434,
One solution, suggests the report, is for development agencies to focus
on wealth created when people work together to manage local ecosystems.
During the past decade, for example, communities in Fiji have reversed a
decline in marine catches by confining fishing to restricted areas. In
northern Tanzania, land reforms helped villagers band together to
succeed where overseas agencies had failed, reforesting around 3,500
square kilometres of badly degraded land that now provides fuel and food.
But the report includes few such successes. "If you tried to find 50
more you couldn't," says Lash. Organizations such as the World Bank do
not consider the 'ecosystem services' that underpin the successful case
studies, he says.
"That's a correct and important point," says Jeffrey Sachs, director of
the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York. If ecosystem
services are not taken into account, he says, aid agencies go on
supporting such schemes as fisheries that raise incomes in the short
term but reduce community resources as fish stocks shrink.
Sachs adds that development agencies fail to involve researchers in
schemes that focus on ecosystem services. "There is lots of good science
available, but very little is tapped for public policy," he says. "We
have two cultures. Most people who have trained in economics are not
trained in science."
Scientific input, say the few researchers who have taken part, can help
people see if changes are working and test out future options.
In KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, for example, scientists helped local
women design experiments to assess the ecological impact of different
"The point is for scientists to help communities gather the information
they need to manage their marine resources better, rather than telling
them what to do," says Bill Aalbersberg, an applied ecologist at the
University of the South Pacific in Fiji, who helped communities monitor
the impact of no-catch zones.
Some development agencies say they are taking the message on board. The
UK Department for International Development, for example, last year
appointed a chief science adviser and announced plans to increase its
research budget by more than £50 million (US$90 million) to £135 million
in 2007. It says it is working with environmental organizations such as
the WWF to ensure that the work it supports involves local stewardship
of natural resources.
Lash hopes that the report will influence the UN's Millennium
Development Goals, a set of targets agreed in 2000. The goals, which
have been criticized for treating poverty and the environment as
separate issues, are to be discussed in New York next week. But Lash
fears his plans may have been derailed by US ambassador John Bolton, who
has requested revisions that could water the goals down.
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