Technology  August 27, 2010

It takes a Village Earth to fight world poverty

FORT COLLINS – Maurice Albertson was a visionary who believed he could end world poverty. The late Colorado State University civil engineering professor was instrumental in creating the Peace Corps, and the nonprofit he co-founded – Village Earth – continues to promote sustainable, community-based development around the world while drawing like-minded visionaries to Fort Collins for training.

On Aug. 28, Village Earth will honor Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter with the Albertson Medal in Sustainable Development for his role in introducing and implementing the New Energy Economy in Colorado. The award will be presented at the third annual Maury Albertson Sustainability Gala at the Colorado State University Lory Student Center Ballroom.

David Bartecchi, executive director of Village Earth, says the medal helps his organization keep the bigger picture in focus. “We’re not going to deal with poverty in Peru until we deal with overconsumption of resources in the United States,” he said. “We have to deal with these issues on a global scale.”

But much of the work Village Earth promotes in sustainable development – like fighting poverty in Peru – is on a smaller scale at the grassroots level, following the vision Albertson realized decades ago.

Thirty years ago, international development was viewed as a technical dilemma. The theory went: “If we can transfer our technology, our irrigation methods to the developing world then that will solve the problem of poverty,” Bartecchi explained. “Toward the ’80s and ’90s that theory started to collapse. We started to realize you just can’t dump a lot of this Western technology on people because largely what people were seeing was that development was only benefiting the upper 10 to 15 percent of those countries. Wealth wasn’t reaching the poorest of the poor. Technology transfer fed into sharp power structures and reinforced them. Inequality increased as a result of these interventions a lot of times.”

Albertson realized that sociologists and political scientists needed to be involved in international development and he started doing just that at CSU. When he would get a contract for an irrigation project, for example, he would assemble a multidimensional team.

His work attracted Ed Shinn to CSU to earn his Ph.D. Ed and his wife Mimi Shinn worked on development at the community/grassroots level for an organization in Chicago called the Institute of Cultural Affairs. Albertson and Shinn hit it off and in 1993 hosted an international conference on sustainable village based development at CSU, hand-picking attendees who had worked on innovative projects around the world. Village Earth was formed as an outgrowth of the conference, a way to pull together best practices and train people on Albertson’s model of development.

Today, Village Earth provides training and consulting to people with non-governmental organziations both large and small, including the United Nations and Engineers without Borders.

“We’re transforming NGOs that implement projects into organizations that support the grassroots efforts,” Bartecchi said. “We like to think of NGOs as allies with the poor, but the majority are contractors responding to whatever contract is available at the time, carrying out objectives determined by the top down. It’s one thing to say you want communities to develop, but it can’t happen if funding is coming from the top down. It doesn’t leave much room for communities to find their own path.

“We’re working with communities on their priorities,” he added. “It’s a two-sided approach, how communities can work and plan together and how they can fund their own programs. It’s a whole different way of thinking about development, as driven by communities.”

Grassroots projects

In addition to providing training and consulting, Village Earth is involved in some grassroots projects. Bartecchi works on land use and land recovery issues for the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

“I don’t do projects on my own, I don’t come up with need and develop a project,” he said. “I work with local groups and try to support them.”

Village Earth is using the same approach in Peru, where it’s helping indigenous communities defend their resources. The group is also involved in projects in Cambodia, Guatemala and India, and has a library of appropriate technology CDs and DVDs available in 74 countries.

Kathleen Sherman, CSU professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology, recently returned from Trisakti University in Indonesia where she taught for a month in the PhD program in sustainable development that Albertson developed in 1999.

“The graduate students in Indonesia are ready to implement these notions of sustainability; it was very inspiring,” Sherman said. “It’s part of his broader impact, helping CSU to be more global and more internationally focused and to contribute back to the international community. All of the international development studies on campus, he had a hand in encouraging them if not creating them himself.”

Albertson remained actively involved in leading Village Earth until he passed away in 2009. The medal, awarded first on Albertson’s 90th birthday to Bernard Amadei, the founder of Engineers without Borders, was a way to continue honoring his legacy.

“Maury was always a visionary, that’s the role he always played,” Bartecchi said. “Ed and Mimi were really the intellectual and practical core. Maury was amazing at always keeping us focused on the bigger picture. The guy totally believed he could end world poverty.”

Last year, the medal was awarded to Bryan Willson, CSU professor and founder and director of the Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory for his work on energy and the environment.

“We don’t see development as something that just needs to happen overseas in poor countries,” Bartecchi said. “We believe it’s global. You can’t separate consumption of oil in North America with the crisis in the Amazon. The two are intricately intertwined. The medal is a way to honor people making changes in both avenues, who are addressing global sustainability issues like energy consumption. We’re burning the candle at both ends.”

FORT COLLINS – Maurice Albertson was a visionary who believed he could end world poverty. The late Colorado State University civil engineering professor was instrumental in creating the Peace Corps, and the nonprofit he co-founded – Village Earth – continues to promote sustainable, community-based development around the world while drawing like-minded visionaries to Fort Collins for training.

On Aug. 28, Village Earth will honor Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter with the Albertson Medal in Sustainable Development for his role in introducing and implementing the New Energy Economy in Colorado. The award will be presented at the third annual Maury…

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