How to Build Relationships in Response to Environmental Opportunities

small, sustainable farming in Indonesia

By: Jim French

Leading a sustainability initiative requires both art and science to succeed.  It is largely about discovering shared goals and building relationships in response to opportunities in the environment.  Like community development, natural resource management depends on voluntary collective effort by diverse stakeholders.  Sustainability leaders are tasked with keeping an eye on the horizon- like a captain at sea- to capture warning signs of pending storms and, along with their crew, make adjustments in their course.  The signs in today’s world are complex and, in addition to tracking climate change, sustainability leaders need to engage larger “crews” to monitor depletion of natural resources, pay attention to market trends, monitor global supply chains, and even predict the impact of population on delivery of ecosystem services.

Some individuals have succeeded in facilitating collective action among groups, to conserve natural resources in spite of the challenges. So how do they do it?   How do they discover common direction among diverse and sometimes opposing forces?  How do they align people and organizations in such a way that strengths are leveraged and weaknesses are reframed as opportunities?  What is the magic that moves people to commit scarce resources to reach common goals?

Here are two short stories of collective impact from my experience in Indonesia and Thailand.   The strategies were very different but, in both cases, their success was grounded in creating shared value among rural people.  Also, after 30 years, these initiatives have morphed in unpredictable ways from community-based initiatives to a scale that has national  and international impact.

Small Farmer Development Project (SFDP) in Indonesia

In the late 1970s the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and Indonesia’s Bureau of Agricultural Extension had a vision for moving landless laborers and small farmers in Indonesia over the “poverty line” to a more sustainable livelihood.  Their strategy was to organize people into groups so they could “reach up and pull down” services from government agencies, banks, market outlets, and suppliers.[1]  This was in contrast to the top-down push approach employed by many extension services at the time; such as the World Bank funded Training and Visit (T&V) system.  Rather than training technical agriculture graduates to serve as group organizers, the Small Farmer Development Project (SFDP) recruited Islamic studies graduates who had more social credibility in rural areas.  These young people were trained to facilitate meetings without taking over, how to advise farmers on design of business plans without owning the plans, and how to serve as advisors without threatening the independence and dignity of farmers.  This approach built on Indonesian concepts of self-reliance (berdikari), group collateral (joint risk management), and decision by consensus (Musyawarah and mufakat)[2].  The project also engaged private industry, suppliers, marketing organizations, and banks.   SFDP was a pre-cursor to micro-lending strategies that have expanded globally- and transformed themselves into formal lending institutions such as the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh[3] and Kiva[4] that target low income groups around the world.  While few will remember the humble roots of the Small Farmer Development Project in Indonesia, the principles of engaging multiple stakeholders, respecting the dignity of small farmers, and leveraging their strengths illustrates the power of collective action in rural development. [5]

Population and Community Development Association (PDA) in Thailand

In the early 1970s rural Thai people had little information and limited access to contraceptive methods.  On average, there were 7 children per family.  Rural poverty and poor maternal and child health care were endemic.  Mechai Viravaidya started his career as a government officer and quit in 1974 to found a civil society organization known as the Population and Community Development Association (PDA).  His mission was to apply social marketing methods and mobilize private funding to improve the lives of rural poor.  He became famous for unorthodox methods to destigmatize contraceptive use in a conservative populace.  Mechai held condom blowing contests for school children, encouraged taxi cab drivers to hand out condoms to their customers, and founded a restaurant chain called Cabbages and Condoms where condoms are handed out to customers with the bill in place of candies.

Throughout his career Mechai provided a bridge between private sector, non-profits, and government agencies.  He also served as a senator and rose to the rank of Deputy Minister where he was tasked with leading Thailand’s war on HIV/AIDS.  His name is synonymous with the word condom in Thailand and PDA is now the largest civil society organization in Thailand; with over 600 employees and 12,000 volunteers.[6]

Today PDA has expanded its social marketing activities to community-based environment, water, education, and rural credit programs – all funded through private sources.  From the time that he began his work, in 1970, the average number of children per family in Thailand has decreased from 7 to only 1.5 today.[7]  Also between 1991 and 2003 when Mechai and his team launched a national AIDS awareness campaign, new cases of HIV dropped by 90% and, according to the World Bank, 7.7 million lives were saved because of preventive measures.

As local and global conditions have changed, so to have Mechai’s programs evolved using the same collaborative and entrepreneurial approach that are his trademark.  A recent initiative is the Thailand Business Initiative in Rural Development (TBIRD) that is a partnership with the Thai business community to create “barefoot entrepreneurs” who engage in tree planting, horticulture, livestock production, and are now positioned to participate in the global economy.[8]  This is the sort of innovation and partnering that it takes to go viral with social initiatives that directly engage rural communities.[9]

So, what lessons can we take away from SFDP and PDA?  Here is a start:

  • Believe in the power of people to address complex challenges.
  • Develop the interpersonal skills that it takes to facilitate discovery of common direction among diverse stakeholders.
  • Leverage the strengths of all key stakeholders though alignment of their varied skill sets and pursuit of their common direction.
  • Secure commitment of stakeholders by creating win-win scenarios and measuring results in a transparent fashion.


[1] Small Farmer Group Associations: Bringing the Poor Together http://www.fao.org/sd/PPdirect/ppfo0002.htm

[2] These lessons were learned while serving with the UNDP Asia-Pacific Program for Development Training and Communication Planning (DTCP) and the FAO Small Farmer Development Project (1971-1984).

[5] Impact of Microcredit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impact_of_microcredit 13 September 2013.

[6] Wikipedia – Mechai Viravaidya http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mechai_Viravaidya (24 July 2013)

[7] Mechai Viravaidya: How Mr. Condom made Thailand a better place http://www.ted.com/talks/mechai_viravaidya_how_mr_condom_made_thailand_a_better_place.html  (Filmed Sep 2010 • Posted Sep 2010 • TEDxChange)

[8] The Population and Community Development Association (PDA) http://www.pda.or.th/e_index.asp#

[9] My first job with UNDP was doing family planning attitude research in support of Thailand’s family planning program.  We worked closely with Mechai and his team as well as the Ministry of Public Health.

The Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS), a center within Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE), provides interdisciplinary graduate education, cutting edge research, and strategic leadership needed to navigate a rapidly changing world. Our work spans five continents and engages key stakeholders from education, business, government, non-profits, and local communities. Our goal is to create real solutions to the world’s global sustainability challenges. To learn more about our programs, services, and global engagement, please visit: cligs.vt.edu