The Declaration, Volume 1, Number 2: May – August 1996 [Partnerships]
What is the lifetime of an idea? What makes an organization sustainable? A community partnership program called CADISPA has been asking that question in rural settlements around Europe where it introduces ideas of sustainable development. Now, as its funding and administrative structures change, CADISPA must ask how to sustain itself.
Engaging local people
The original idea was a simple one: help people living in sparsely populated areas make decisions about their future without losing control to outside “experts” in conservation and development. With this mandate, ULSF associate member World Wide Fund for Nature – United Kingdom (WWF UK) teamed up with Jordanhill College in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1987 to form CADISPA – Conservation and Development in Sparsely Populated Areas.
CADISPA investigates ways to revive and preserve rural areas threatened by unplanned industrialization, population drains, and a loss of traditional cultural and economic structures.
“We started in response to an identified need in Scotland: if we don’t involve people, if we don’t look at the needs of sustainable development, which goes hand in hand with conservation, we will have a problem,” explains WWF-UK Senior Education Officer Ken Webster.
Over the next three years, Jordanhill College – now a part of ULSF member institution University of Strathclyde – developed educational materials for communities and for elementary and secondary school students. Using a “storyline” approach focusing on real local issues, CADISPA publications incorporate the actual circumstances of students’ and community members’ lives. The elementary school program, for example, has introduced three themes that influence rural development in Scotland: tourism, the deterioration of the boglands, and potential fish farming.
“Through those three themes, we’ve managed to write up an educational process that the kids engage in with their teachers, their parents, and their grandparents,” says Project Manager Geoff Fagan.
Broadening scope and outreach
The idea caught on. The programs were well received in communities, adopted by Scottish schools, and projects were initiated on the European continent as well.
Then, in 1994, one of CADISPA’s funders brought about a major change in its agenda. After the Earth Summit in Rio, the European Union started to focus on sustainable development. It asked CADISPA to move from the formal educational sector to look at the challenges to sustainable living experience by people in the community.
The result is a series of projects throughout Europe in which CADISPA helps communities identify and meet cultural, economic, and environmental needs. All received funding from the EU and WWF, and each is unique. Some focus in-depth on economic development issues, while others are more concerned with simple nature appreciation, and still others put cultural preservation at the top of their agendas.
In Mértola, Portugal, for example, a local conservation organization fills local needs with classes ranging from environmental education to car mechanic training. In Greece’s Prespa region, villagers learn to restore traditional stone homes at the lowest possible cost. In Sweden, communities of Saami – also known as Laplanders – who herd reindeer are developing strategies to cope with increased hunting, fishing and sports recreation on their traditional lands which has disrupted their livelihoods and lifestyles and encroaches on critical wildlife habitat.
Each project has its own structure and focus. In Spain organizers plan CADISPA events around local festivals. In Scotland, women tend to be most involved in CADISPA-linked groups; in Italy, men are more prominently involved.
“One of the great differences here [Scotland] is that the educational structure is so radically different than in Italy or Portugal,” Fagan point out. “Primary school is very friendly; if you go down to Portugal or Italy, it’s much more stark, almost surgical. In Scotland, you have plays, art, dance and drama. In Portugal, it is absolutely straightforward, book-based environmental education.”
There is also a significant difference in organizational approach, particularly between the Scottish and Southern European CADISPA organizations. In Portugal and Spain, where CADISPA is part of a larger, nongovernmental framework, organizers have taken a proactive role, raising issues and then gathering local community support behind them. In Scotland, Strathclyde University has emphasized the initiative of local people first and has been careful to keep a facilitating role. They do this by linking up with existing groups, from Gaelic language organizations to mother-and-toddler clubs.
“We believe it is completely wrong for the university to go into a community and say ‘is anyone interested in being self employed or in sustainable development,'” Fagan explains. “The whole thing would have been full of middle-class, professional sustainable developers. We believe the single parents are just as interested in their community as anybody else, and are often much more engaged in their future than others.”
One project on Scotland’s Arron Island emerged when Strathclyde researchers paid for two hours of child care each week for six weeks for the members of a mother-and-toddler group. In their small window of free time, the mothers found a way to confront tourists who were misusing the island’s septic system and creating a health hazard.
“This isn’t some authority doing this, these are the local mums getting together,” says Fagan. “You create the space and say, ‘Can I just talk to you about the issues you’re experiencing?'”
Roberto Furlani, who works with CADISPA’s Cilento, Italy project, says it is important to understand local communities and to have patience. “I recommend starting with locally identified needs, to have a scientific approach to problems, and to have a good ‘animator’ who is able to interact with local people,” he advises.
“Development times are long if you really want to involved the community. It takes almost two or three years to see initial results,” he adds.
The role of higher education
Although not all CADISPA projects are linked to universities, educational institutions play an important role. According to Webster, universities can form part of the triad on which a successful CADISPA project is based.
“It’s a combination of three groups: a local community that feels they want to get involved; an agency or NGO that will act as some sort of structure or intermediary between the community, and the third which is an institution – a university,” he says. “Strathclyde was chosen because they are a leader in sustainable development. That effects the shape of the eventual project – it becomes much more of an educational initiative.”
At Strathclyde, the university and the communities with which it becomes involved have a symbiotic relationship. University personnel bring new ideas to the communities and help them identify their priorities, and in return, the projects form a data set for university research on the process of sustainable development. Fagan calls the arrangement a “soft contract.”
“Anybody can walk way at any time, but what we guarantee is that communities will not be disempowered by our involvement,” he says. “If a group decides to allow us access for a minimum of six months and a maximum of between two and three years, we will help them pursue their own agenda.”
Universities also provide an intellectual underpinning for the projects. Strathclyde, for example, is interested in the idea of the environment as a social construct. “It has to do with the way people name it, use it or abuse it,” Fagan explains. “We help deconstruct the way people engage with the environment. It provides the opportunity to influence attitudes and values.”
Challenges to sustainability
CADISPA Scotland is now facing much more concrete issues. Last December, the European Union’s funding ended, and its financial and administrative link with WWF was cut as well. When CADISPA lost funding, Strathclyde stepped in with £7,500 and administrative support. Yet, like most other nonprofits, CADISPA Scotland must now go out and raise operating funds. While the other CADISPA organizations will continue to receive grants from WWF International, Webster explains that money is still the most pressing problem.
“This is not income-generating,” he says. “It’s an expensive process. We’re continually piloting and establishing demonstration models so people have confidence in the process. The CADISPA family needs to be underwritten so it can keep developing and growing.”
CADISPA’s ideas have taken root, but its organization is still fragile. In that respect, it shares a lot with university partnership enterprises all over the world. In the long run, building sustainable institutions and programs goes hand-in-hand with creating sustainable communities.