A Whole Lot of Smartness on the Ground and Online

By Leisa Perch – RIO+ Centre Policy Specialist

I experience a daily deluge of information on my laptop, and I know many of my colleagues are in the same situation.  What strikes me, however, is not only the volume of information that is coming our way, but also the quality of work emerging from the sustainable development space. There is no doubt that we have a whole lot of really smart people working within that area.

So why are we still not making the progress we want and need to see?

Our economies are larger and our spending power is more than it has ever been in history. We have access to more technology and knowledge than ever before, and we understand our world better than ever.  We have never had more people engaged and mobilized around development issues — ever. Our efforts towards a better, more equitable world and “the future we want” have also never been more concerted and ambitious, as evidenced by the Millennium Development Goals, the Sustainable Development Goals and the Post-2015 Development Agenda processes.

Yet, although we have made great progress on many fronts, we are unable to translate all the good things we strategize, meet and plan about into making a significant, tangible and meaningful difference for a large percentage of the people around the world who are suffering extreme hardship and deprivation.  At the risk of oversimplifying: we are not seeing enough of an impact from our work.

In 2015, governments, UN and international organizations, civil society and communities around the world will focus heavily on sustainable development: negotiating a policy framework that, if we get it right, has the potential to transform the lives of many lives around the world.

Heads of state will endorse the Post-2015 Development Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals at a high-level summit scheduled in New York next September, essentially shaping the global agenda on social, economic and environmental development for at least the next decade and a half. Later, in December, governments and world leaders will gather in Paris, where they have set for themselves the goal of agreeing to a new global climate deal to put into place by 2020. Climate change is often cited as the largest threat to sustainable development. In 15 years, our current outlook on sustainability and climate change could look very different.

There is no denying it: these are important milestones and potential game-changers. Policy frameworks allow for development money and other resources to flow to projects that drive implementation and action. These can effect positive change not only on the ground for communities, but also for the world at large.

Despite more than 20 years of focusing on sustainability issues, however, we still grapple with how to scale up implementation in order to make a real difference. This is especially true at the local level, where much more work needs to be done, but where interventions could also bring about the biggest and most significant change.

One of our collaborating partners on the ground said it very well. “Researchers need this bridge that will take the information to the farmers,” said Winnie Ncongwane from Lesotho. “The farmers need to know what is happening, but the information is never conveyed back to them.”

Our challenge is therefore clear.  We need to link international policy with the reality and lives of people on the ground.  And that flow of information should not and cannot be one-directional. Too often, researchers gather data from communities, use the information they gathered, and deliver the outcomes to high-level audiences or wherever it will attract the highest profile, often forgetting that the communities that have helped to gather this information are eagerly waiting to hear back on how the information they volunteered has been used to find solutions to their problems.

At the RIO+ World Centre for Sustainable Development, we and our partners have taken these concrete steps to address this one-directional situation. While there is neither a one size fits all solution, nor a panacea that will magically empower communities, we have identified a mechanism that is already proving to be highly effective: the community of practice, or CoP for short.

The CoP is part of a partnership between the RIO+ World Centre on Sustainable Development and the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN), and focuses on Gender and Climate Smart Agriculture and with other issues. Using an online platform, the CoP allows a like-minded group of colleagues, technical specialists, researchers, farmers and others to talk to each other freely,  debate issues, discuss challenges collaboratively, identify solutions to these challenges and decide on action that can create change.

It’s an exciting platform. These discussions and experiences can inform our thinking from the bottom up, engaging policymakers to be more responsive to the needs of those whose livelihoods are most affected by climate change.  However, the real value is how the CoP builds a bridge that takes information back to the local communities. Many of the participants in the Community of Practice are working in strategic positions as interlocutors between farmers and local communities on the one hand, and governments and development organizations on the other, thus linking policy with practice and vice versa.

With the first discussions having taken place in October 2014, it is clear that the demand is high for the CoP and that the participation is encouraging. Further discussions have also already ensued.

This initial success is hardly surprising. Not only does the CoP provide a space for the coming together of hearts and minds on development issues, but after such meetings the e-community also provides a way for people to reconnect, make new connections with other stakeholders and discuss further collaboration.

That’s why in the last few weeks we have also focused on communication tools and messages we can share with the CoP, which they in turn can use for their daily activities.  This approach can make a difference on the ground by providing solutions that are people-smart, climate-smart and gender-smart.

That’s a whole lot of smartness where we need it most: in the field and online.

See our other blog posted on Connecting the UnConnected by Nienke Raap (RIO+ Consultant) and Hlami Ngwenya (FANRPAN).


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One Comment on “A Whole Lot of Smartness on the Ground and Online

  1. Pingback: Countdown day 3 – SDG 15: Life on Land | Rio+ Centre

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