Fight institutional Alzheimers


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They say the good thing about having Alzheimer’s disease is that you are always visiting new places and meeting new people. Many development agencies have apparently taken that to heart. Rapid staff turnover, weak efforts to save and share documents, and strong incentives to repackage old wine in new bottles keep many institutions from learning from the past.

That why it is good to see the US Agency for International Development (USAID) invest in reviewing everything they have funded related to natural forests and communities during the last twenty-five years. The result is a three-volume report called USAID’s Enduring Legacy in Natural Forests: Livelihoods, Landscapes, and Governance by a Chemonics International team led by Robert Clausen. It provides an overview and ten country studies.

Back in the 1970s, USAID’s forestry activities focused mostly on fuelwood and promoting tree planting as part of watershed management projects. Later, growing concern about deforestation made them shift towards biodiversity conservation and protected areas. After that came a move towards market-based instruments such as forest certification, ecotourism, and tapping consumer demands for non-timber forest products. Over time, they have funded more NGOs and local governments and fewer national bureaucracies. And if the report’s authors have their way, the links between natural resources, democratization, and conflict prevention will soon be high on the agenda.

Through all that time and changes, some things remained the same. For example, it is still important to invest in forests for the long-term and get the technical aspects right. You need to work with specific farms, forests, and parks, but keep your eyes on larger landscapes. If no one invests in studying and monitoring forests and their products and services, when it comes time to justify investments or make decisions the data simply won’t be there. Projects need to focus more on ethnic and cultural issues. You ignore conflicts at your own risk.

People with advanced Alzheimers can be nice and well-intentioned, but they should not be running the show. If we don’t build up our institutional memory we will keep making the same mistakes, although we may give them another name. Let’s hope other agencies follow USAID’s lead and invest in learning from their own experience.


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Further reading

To request a free electronic copy in pdf format of the three volumes in English or of the summary in English, French, or Spanish or to send comments or queries to the authors, you can write to: Dave Gibson at: or Rob Clausen at:

The full references for the three volumes are:

Clausen, R and A Hube. 2004. USAID’s Enduring Legacy in Natural Forests, Livelihoods, Landscapes, and Governance Volume 1, Study Summary, Washington D.C., Chemonics International.

Clausen, R, D Gibson, T Hammett, D Nduwumwami, L Rebugio, and J Seyler. 2004. USAID’s Enduring Legacy in Natural Forests, Livelihoods, Landscapes, and Governance Volume 2, Study Report, Washington D.C., Chemonics International.

Clausen, R., T Hammett, and J Seyler. 2004. USAID’s Enduring Legacy in Natural Forests, Livelihoods, Landscapes, and Governance Volume 3, Country Profiles, Washington D.C., Chemonics International.