What is the lifetime of an idea? What makes an organization sustainable?
A community partnership program called CADISPA has been asking
that question in rural settlements around Europe where it introduces
ideas of sustainable development. Now, as its funding and administrative
structures change, CADISPA must ask how to sustain itself.
Engaging local people
The original idea was a simple one: help people living in sparsely
populated areas make decisions about their future without losing
control to outside "experts" in conservation and development.
With this mandate, ULSF associate member World Wide Fund for Nature
- United Kingdom (WWF UK) teamed up with Jordanhill College in
Glasgow, Scotland, in 1987 to form CADISPA - Conservation and
Development in Sparsely Populated Areas.
CADISPA investigates ways to revive and preserve rural areas
threatened by unplanned industrialization, population drains,
and a loss of traditional cultural and economic structures.
"We started in response to an identified need in Scotland:
if we don't involve people, if we don't look at the needs of sustainable
development, which goes hand in hand with conservation, we will
have a problem," explains WWF-UK Senior Education Officer
Over the next three years, Jordanhill College - now a part of
ULSF member institution University of Strathclyde - developed
educational materials for communities and for elementary and secondary
school students. Using a "storyline" approach focusing
on real local issues, CADISPA publications incorporate the actual
circumstances of students' and community members' lives. The elementary
school program, for example, has introduced three themes that
influence rural development in Scotland: tourism, the deterioration
of the boglands, and potential fish farming.
"Through those three themes, we've managed to write up an
educational process that the kids engage in with their teachers,
their parents, and their grandparents," says Project Manager
Broadening scope and outreach
The idea caught on. The programs were well received in communities,
adopted by Scottish schools, and projects were initiated on the
European continent as well.
Then, in 1994, one of CADISPA's funders brought about a major
change in its agenda. After the Earth Summit in Rio, the European
Union started to focus on sustainable development. It asked CADISPA
to move from the formal educational sector to look at the challenges
to sustainable living experience by people in the community.
The result is a series of projects throughout Europe in which
CADISPA helps communities identify and meet cultural, economic,
and environmental needs. All received funding from the EU and
WWF, and each is unique. Some focus in-depth on economic development
issues, while others are more concerned with simple nature appreciation,
and still others put cultural preservation at the top of their
In Mértola, Portugal, for example, a local conservation
organization fills local needs with classes ranging from environmental
education to car mechanic training. In Greece's Prespa region,
villagers learn to restore traditional stone homes at the lowest
possible cost. In Sweden, communities of Saami - also known as
Laplanders - who herd reindeer are developing strategies to cope
with increased hunting, fishing and sports recreation on their
traditional lands which has disrupted their livelihoods and lifestyles
and encroaches on critical wildlife habitat.
Each project has its own structure and focus. In Spain organizers
plan CADISPA events around local festivals. In Scotland, women
tend to be most involved in CADISPA-linked groups; in Italy, men
are more prominently involved.
"One of the great differences here [Scotland] is that the
educational structure is so radically different than in Italy
or Portugal," Fagan point out. "Primary school is very
friendly; if you go down to Portugal or Italy, it's much more
stark, almost surgical. In Scotland, you have plays, art, dance
and drama. In Portugal, it is absolutely straightforward, book-based
There is also a significant difference in organizational approach,
particularly between the Scottish and Southern European CADISPA
organizations. In Portugal and Spain, where CADISPA is part of
a larger, nongovernmental framework, organizers have taken a proactive
role, raising issues and then gathering local community support
behind them. In Scotland, Strathclyde University has emphasized
the initiative of local people first and has been careful to keep
a facilitating role. They do this by linking up with existing
groups, from Gaelic language organizations to mother-and-toddler
"We believe it is completely wrong for the university to
go into a community and say 'is anyone interested in being self
employed or in sustainable development,'" Fagan explains.
"The whole thing would have been full of middle-class, professional
sustainable developers. We believe the single parents are just
as interested in their community as anybody else, and are often
much more engaged in their future than others."
One project on Scotland's Arron Island emerged when Strathclyde
researchers paid for two hours of child care each week for six
weeks for the members of a mother-and-toddler group. In their
small window of free time, the mothers found a way to confront
tourists who were misusing the island's septic system and creating
a health hazard.
"This isn't some authority doing this, these are the local
mums getting together," says Fagan. "You create the
space and say, 'Can I just talk to you about the issues you're
Roberto Furlani, who works with CADISPA's Cilento, Italy project,
says it is important to understand local communities and to have
patience. "I recommend starting with locally identified needs,
to have a scientific approach to problems, and to have a good
'animator' who is able to interact with local people," he
"Development times are long if you really want to involved
the community. It takes almost two or three years to see initial
results," he adds.
The role of higher education
Although not all CADISPA projects are linked to universities,
educational institutions play an important role. According to
Webster, universities can form part of the triad on which a successful
CADISPA project is based.
"It's a combination of three groups: a local community that
feels they want to get involved; an agency or NGO that will act
as some sort of structure or intermediary between the community,
and the third which is an institution - a university," he
says. "Strathclyde was chosen because they are a leader in
sustainable development. That effects the shape of the eventual
project - it becomes much more of an educational initiative."
At Strathclyde, the university and the communities with which
it becomes involved have a symbiotic relationship. University
personnel bring new ideas to the communities and help them identify
their priorities, and in return, the projects form a data set
for university research on the process of sustainable development.
Fagan calls the arrangement a "soft contract."
"Anybody can walk way at any time, but what we guarantee
is that communities will not be disempowered by our involvement,"
he says. "If a group decides to allow us access for a minimum
of six months and a maximum of between two and three years, we
will help them pursue their own agenda."
Universities also provide an intellectual underpinning for the
projects. Strathclyde, for example, is interested in the idea
of the environment as a social construct. "It has to do with
the way people name it, use it or abuse it," Fagan explains.
"We help deconstruct the way people engage with the environment.
It provides the opportunity to influence attitudes and values."
Challenges to sustainability
CADISPA Scotland is now facing much more concrete issues. Last
December, the European Union's funding ended, and its financial
and administrative link with WWF was cut as well. When CADISPA
lost funding, Strathclyde stepped in with £7,500 and administrative
support. Yet, like most other nonprofits, CADISPA Scotland must
now go out and raise operating funds. While the other CADISPA
organizations will continue to receive grants from WWF International,
Webster explains that money is still the most pressing problem.
"This is not income-generating," he says. "It's
an expensive process. We're continually piloting and establishing
demonstration models so people have confidence in the process.
The CADISPA family needs to be underwritten so it can keep developing
CADISPA's ideas have taken root, but its organization is still
fragile. In that respect, it shares a lot with university partnership
enterprises all over the world. In the long run, building sustainable
institutions and programs goes hand-in-hand with creating sustainable
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