The Slow Development Movement
By Hugh Kelly

The Indian economist and Nobel Laureate, Amartya Sen, has defined development as: a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy. (Sen, 1999) The idea that people should be free from food insecurity, malnutrition, poverty and lack of opportunity are the true roots of most development projects.


How to achieve these goals is more controversial, as is the idea that development should not be seen as something that ‘we’ do to ‘them,’ but as things that we do for ourselves. Participatory methods that are prevalent in literature about development methods all too often fail to make it out into the field. Even these participatory development initiatives may depend on the role of outside experts to design and deliver interventions, rather than empowering people to design their own solutions with appropriate training and support.


Nicholas Syano, founder of the Drylands Natural Resource Center (DNRC)

I see rural development in terms of empowering people to bring about the enduring change they seek to improve food security and livelihoods. Permaculture has a role to play in meeting these goals, and in building the resilience to deal with an uncertain future in all eco-social complexities. In Issue #1 of Permaculture Magazine, North America,  Erik Ohlsen challenges us to find ways to scale up permaculture. A great way to meet this challenge would be to produce compelling evidence that permaculture can and should be a component part of rural development initiatives.


Solving the Local Problem

My personal response to this challenge grew out of my own experience: running a non-profit working with volunteers, studying international development, working in the environmental movement, and doing research on the social and environmental impacts of industrial farming. I was struggling to understand how to resolve what I saw as the fatal flaw in development: how to act globally when development is most effective when it is fully owned at the local community level.


This problem is helpfully illuminated by David Peter Stroh in his book Systems Thinking for Social Change (Stroh, 2015), where he describes the phenomenon of ‘shifting the burden’, or the ‘philanthropist’s dilemma.’ Faced with urgent problems and limited resources, the general tendency is to go with a  quick fix to meet people’s immediate needs without resolving the underlying problems. This may be because the immediate need is so urgent and the problems appear so intractable, or that long-term solutions would take too long to produce results and be too expensive to implement. Not only can quick fixes exacerbate the underlying causes, they can also create dependencies on external resources that ultimately cost more than it would have cost to create sustainable, long-term solutions in the first place.

DNRC lead farmer inspecting her Moringa in Makueni

Examples of this kind of failure to deal with the complexity of eco-social systems are all too evident in rural development. Inappropriate farming systems that depend on external inputs create negative feedback loops as soil and water quality deteriorate and chemical applications continually escalate to achieve the same results. As debts increase, the community’s self-resilience decreases, as does the quality of the local environment.


My biggest ‘aha’ moment with permaculture was when I realized that it provides a framework for designing development initiatives that are not driven from the top down. I wondered how we could support farmers to find alternative narratives about how best to improve their yields and livelihoods. I started researching existing resources that could become a support network for regenerative farming.  One obvious resource is the network of permaculture training centers, and I’ve been in touch with 50 such centers in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Cell phones are another, an almost ubiquitous resource that offers the opportunity for remote networking in communities that have little, if any, internet connectivity. Phones are increasingly used to provide support services, including for agricultural work.


The permEzone Pilot

The permEzone program was designed with the intention of using these resources to foster the growth of permaculture communities. I hope to demonstrate that farmers applying permaculture design principles can work collectively to develop locally-appropriate approaches to regenerative farming. I also hope to show that this leads directly to sustainable improvements in food security and livelihoods.


Tree seedling nursery at DNRC


In collaboration with the Permaculture Research Institute, Kenya, a three year pilot program is about to be launched to develop an adaptable training curriculum and program of ongoing support to facilitate the creation of model farms. The pilot will be ran through four different training centers in East Africa so that results can be documented and perspectives from multiple regions and communities be part of the learning process.


For each phase of the pilot, farming communities will be invited to send representatives to participate in the program. They will start with a workshop to co-design the curriculum, followed by an extended permaculture training program spread out over a full year. This will be backed up by a two-year support program to assist in applying the design principles to their own farms. These farms will become models for their communities. The training will include the use of cell-phones to share knowledge and information locally, and as a part of the support package provided by PRI-Kenya and their local training center. They will be trained to be farmer representatives (sometimes known as lead farmers), promoting citizen science projects with their neighbors and building communities of practice in the application of permaculture.


Nicholas demonstrating biochar production


We have raised sufficient funds to run the initial Phase 1 program of training and support in collaboration with the Drylands Natural Resources Centre in Makueni district, Kenya (DNRC). Nicholas Syano, as co-founder of PRI-Kenya and founder of the DNRC, is highly experienced in teaching permaculture to farming communities in Kenya and Tanzania. He is also currently engaged in PhD research at Nairobi University on drylands restoration. He will be an invaluable member of the team in developing the training curriculum and ensuring that our program of Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) is effective. This phase is co-funded by the UK non-profit Garden Africa.


Slow Development

The first time I referred to permEzone as being at the leading edge of the Slow Development Movement, I was making a joke about how long it has taken me to develop the ideas, create a team, and get to the point where we’re ready to try it out in the real world. On reflection, I realized that there is in fact a real sense of connection with both the Slow Food and the Slow Money movements, and that the next stage in the Slow movement really should be development.


One good example of the perspective of slow development is our program theme of Nutrition by Design: looking beyond yields as a measure of impact to thinking of nutrition as a function of design, at the farm and community levels. As the foundation for health and well-being, we need to look beyond the number of calories that the average person needs to survive to include measures of the essential nutrients that form part of a balanced diet.


Nicholas discussing propagation methods for native tree species


This idea started to take shape at a practical level when we invited Gerri French to join our MEL Team. Gerri is a nutritionist who engages members of my  community in Santa Barbara, Ca, in regular activities to reconnect them with the source of their local food through her Food and Farm Adventures Meetup Group.   


With Gerri’s help we will explore ways in which the permEzone curriculum can include the idea that nutrition is a design function for a food system, and that the principle of stacking functions can be applied to producing the components of a culturally appropriate, diverse and nutritionally complete diet. Our program of participatory monitoring and evaluation can dovetail with this idea in identifying appropriate indicators to measure dietary improvements for people engaging with the program.


Which brings us back to Erik Ohlsen’s theme of scaling up. By the end of the three-year pilot, we hope that our independent MEL team will have enough evidence about the program’s potential impact to support a gradual process of scaling up. One challenge we will no doubt face will be to protect the autonomy of program participants to decide for themselves how to expand the freedoms (technologys) available to them. Another will be to access funding that isn’t tied to requirements for quick results from funders who have to justify their investments over short timescales.  


Discussing DNRC’s regreening/reforestation efforts in the Makueni community


Please Show your Support

Phase 1 is planned for early 2017. I hope that you will show your support by subscribing to our newsletter so that we can keep you informed about the progress of the pilot project. I am hugely grateful to the many people who have contributed their time and expertise to get us to this stage, and the many more who have entrusted us with the funds to start the pilot. If you have any resources or expertise that you can share with us, please do get in touch.  



Sen, A. (1999). Development as Freedom. New York: Random House, Inc.

Stroh, D. P. (2015). Systems Thinking for Social Change. White River Junction: Chelsea Green.


*All Photos by Thomas Cole