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32. SCAA preview – A sustainability framework

Over the past few days I have highlighted some of the leading causes of food insecurity and preferred strategies for coping with hunger — issues I plan to present during Saturday’s Hunger in the Coffeelands panel at SCAA.  If you read those posts, you know that the issue of food insecurity is complicated.  Today I share some reflections on a framework for sustainable development that tries to make sense of it all.

At CRS, we use an “Integral Human Development” framework that helps us do just that.

The IHD framework.

Yikes!  I know it looks overwhelming, but don’t panic.  I will help you navigate it.

I like to start with the assets — what a farmer’s got to work with.  There isn’t any resource a person can draw on that doesn’t fit into one of these six asset categories.  To use the economic term, these assets are “fungible.”   To use some plain English examples, a farmer can buy land (increasing her stock of natural capital and reducing her store of financial capital), or cash in a favor from a friend (social capital) for some help building a new drying patio (physical capital).

The stocks of these assets depend in great measure on the way that a farmer accesses and influences (or doesn’t) the structures (formal) and systems (informal) that determine and enforce the rules of the game.  Taking all that into account, farm families develop livelihood strategies — a mix of activities designed to meet the basic needs of family members and, hopefully, permit reinvestment in the formation of new assets.  The outcomes of these strategies — what actually happens to the family — feed a process of learning and adjustment in their approach to structures and systems and their livelihood strategy into the future.

Finally, there is the sinister little circle in the upper left, inocuously titled “Shocks, Cycles & Trends,” by far my favorite element of the framework.  Hiding in those three six-letter words are natural disasters, market failures, violence, climate change, famine, etc.  These are the game-changers that can alter everything and lay waste overnight to the best-laid plans.  There is another term for this bubble used in other frameworks that I actually prefer because, despite its technocratic leanings, it is remarkably self-explanatory: “vulnerability context.”  I love the term in the context of specialty coffee chains because it is not just the farmer who is vulnerable — her risk is shared by other actors along the chain, including brokers, importers, roasters, etc., who depend on her to bring great coffee to market every year.

Like I said, it’s complicated.  And this framework doesn’t provide any easy answers.  What it does do, however, is to shed light on critical sustainability issues that are lurking in the shadows — like hunger in the coffeelands — that don’t necessarily get resolved by the prevailing approaches to sustainability in the industry.  Hopefully it can help convince importers and roasters and others that their businesses are ultimately affected by issues that arise from beyond the coffee chain, and persuade a few of them to invest in efforts to address them.

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