VICTORIA, British Columbia — In China, during the 1920s, Dr. Y.C. James Yen embarked on a grassroots development movement that aimed to include China’s rural peoples in the formal education system. In 1925, Dr. Yen initiated a wave of educational campaigns that improved the literacy of 60 million Chinese peasants. Dr. Yen’s holistic, people-centered approach to rural development became known as rural reconstruction and this approach became the principle upon which the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction (IIRR) was founded.
A Holistic Approach to Development
With 60 years of experience in the field, the IIRR has built upon Dr. Yen’s legacy by empowering and strengthening rural communities in East Africa and Southeast Asia. The IIRR has a unique approach to development, in that it prioritizes building trust and equal partnerships with communities to foster economic sustainability and resilience. The equal exchange of knowledge between the IIRR and the communities it works with is incredibly important in building trust and credibility. It is also important in ensuring that development initiatives are beneficial to communities and successful in the long term. In the words of Dr. Yen, IIRR strives to “go to the people, learn from them, build on what they have.”
The IIRR also focuses on a holistic approach to development. In an interview with The Borgen Project, Peter Williams, the President at the IIRR, noted that “poverty is not an isolated problem. It is impacted by a range of factors, including education, access to resources and basic services, livelihood and shelter.” This is why the IIRR’s programs cover a wide range of areas, such as nutrition, land tenure and resource management, to reduce rural poverty and build resilient communities.
Nutrition in the Philippines
The Philippines’ economy has grown substantially in recent years, and since 2010, the country’s GDP has maintained an average annual growth rate of 6.2%. However, impoverished rural communities have been excluded from the benefits of this growth, and as a result, many Filipinos suffer from food insecurity and malnutrition. In 2015, 33.4% of Filipino children ages 5 and younger suffered stunting due to chronic malnutrition. This can have devastating impacts on a child’s health, well-being and development.
The International Institute of Rural Reconstruction has been working with the Philippines’ Department of Education to reduce malnutrition levels in the Philippines through its Integrated School Nutrition Model (ISNM). The model uses supplementary feeding, bio-intensive gardening and nutritional education in elementary schools to reduce childhood malnutrition and stunting. In 2019, 40% of undernourished students in the ISNM program achieved normal weight status after 120 supplementary feeding days.
Over an eight-year period, the ISNM has reached more than 81,000 children with supplementary feeding and more than 659,000 pupils have received education on gardening and nutrition. The success of IIRR’s work in childhood nutrition prompted the Philippines’ Department of Education to mainstream the ISNM in 215 schools. Williams told The Borgen Project that “IIRR’s Philippine Program has significantly contributed to strengthening the country’s capacity to improve the health and nutrition of children and women in rural communities.”
Securing Land Tenure in Uganda
According to the World Bank, the agricultural sector is one of the main drivers of Uganda’s economy, which employs about 70% of the population as of 2019 and represents half of the country’s export earnings. Yet, smallholder farmers in Uganda continue to face challenges related to agricultural productivity and low-income levels. This is largely a result of land-tenure insecurity and the inability of most smallholder farmers to access financing.
Due to the country’s high population density, the average size of a smallholder farm in Uganda is less than 2.5 acres. Thus, investments in high-value inputs and soil management practices are one of the most effective ways for smallholder farmers to increase the productivity of their land and improve income levels. However, because of the informality of Uganda’s land tenure system, many smallholder farmers are unable to use their land as collateral to access financing. This prevents farmers from investing in inputs that increase the productivity of their land.
To address this issue, in 2019, the IIRR partnered with the Global Land Tool Network and U.N.-Habitat to help smallholder farmers secure land tenure. The IIRR provided more than 20,000 smallholder farmers with Certificates of Customary Land Ownership (CCOs). These CCOs gave vulnerable populations “documented evidence of land ownership,” which they could use to secure financing for high-value inputs, such as agricultural technologies and improved seeds. Through this program, the IIRR has helped improve the economic stability of smallholder farmers by assisting them to invest in the productivity of their land.
A BIG Step in Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe is largely a rural country where 60-70% of the population relies on agriculture for their livelihoods. Due to the frequency of droughts in the region, rural populations often face challenges related to land degradation, food insecurity and malnutrition. According to the World Food Programme, in 2020, half of Zimbabwe’s population endured food insecurity and 27% of children suffered stunting due to drought-related land degradation.
To regenerate degraded land in Zimbabwe and improve food security, the IIRR has partnered with Women in Communities to establish a Bio-Intensive Gardening (BIG) project. The BIG project teaches smallholder farmers the benefits of regenerative land management practices that work to improve soil health and crop yields.
The additional crops produced as a result of BIG techniques work to increase the food security of rural communities. It also allows farmers to sell their surplus crops for additional income. Williams tells a story of one woman whose “yields have increased more than [three]times what (she) used to get,” due to the implementation of BIG techniques.
In a world of vast urbanization, ensuring that rural peoples are included in economic growth and development is becoming increasingly important. Through its holistic, people-centered approach, the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction “is committed to the long-term economic sustainability of rural communities across the globe.”
– Kaitlyn DeWeerd
Photo: Courtesy of IIRR