May 20, 2013

Commentary - Community Development Key to Sustainability Efforts

This post is part of a series produced by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, marking the occasion of its annual Global Food Security Symposium in Washington, D.C., which will be held on May 21st. For more information on the symposium, click here. Follow @globalagdev and #globalag on twitter to join the conversation on May 21st.

By Pierre Ferrari
Pierre Ferrari is Heifer International’s President and CEO.

Now, more than ever, solutions to serious issues facing the world—hunger, poverty and environmental degradation—must be sustainable.  We will always need short-term, rapid response solutions to disasters, but now everything we do—in business, government, science and at my own organization, Heifer International—has to be for the long term, with those caught in the vortex helping provide their own solutions.

For too long, we looked development through a single lens: economic. Then through the Green Revolution, we added an ecologic component with the vow to do no harm. Today, though, we must add a third leg to the development stool to ensure viability and stability—social capital.

We need to be clear on one thing, something we learned at Heifer International a long time ago: Economic growth for its own sake is not a solution. For economic growth to make sense and to make lasting change there has to be community development—it must contribute to a better life for the least of us just as much as it improves life for those of us with the most.

For Heifer, our expertise is agricultural development, but we also apply a community development tool, our Cornerstones for Just and Sustainable Development, in every project we do. These values, such as gender equity, full participation, sharing and caring, accountability and training and education, are the backbone of our work.

Embedded into a family’s life and culture, these values create significant social change—women gain their voice and become leaders in their communities. Husbands learn respect and help their wives. Co-ops form, savings accounts are created and, in time, entire communities, entire countries change for the better.

Today, community development is the foundation for market development, and building social capital is the highest form of helping underserved people and families help themselves.

In too many cases, market development works against the poor, so in Heifer’s case, we balance the odds, providing the structure and tools families need to compete fairly, resources such as animals and training to help them achieve resilience. We also help connect them to value chains—critical needs, not nice to haves for these smallholder farm families.

So as the families use the livestock to increase food production and diversity, the knowledge gained from the Cornerstones fosters change that spans generations and sparks improvements in infrastructure to help build local commerce—roads, electricity, commodity storage and transportation, as well as market associations and structures.

These are the hallmarks of sustainable development. It starts with putting more and better food on the table, but it leads to empowerment, opportunity and, eventually, independence.

We understand that there is no silver bullet cure for the problems we dwellers of the planet face. But as we tackle and eliminate hunger and poverty and repair the planet, we must acknowledge that successful poverty elimination utilizes market-driven development and at the same time depends strongly on deeply embedded social engagement. 

Pierre Ferrari, who was born in Africa in 1950 in what was then the Belgian Congo (today the Democratic Republic of the Congo and from 1971 to 1997 Zaire), is Heifer International’s President AND CEO. Ferrari has more than 40 years of business experience, from large consumer goods organizations such as Coca-Cola USA to socially oriented organizations like CARE and the Small Enterprise Assistance Fund. Ferrari holds a master’s degree in Economics from The University of Cambridge and a MBA from Harvard Business School. 


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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