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Living Territories 2018

By Florence Egal
February 2018

CIRAD, in collaboration with a variety of national and international partner institutions organized an international conference from 22 to 24 January, in Montpellier, France to showcase the importance of territories for achieving the SDGs, both locally and globally, and to set the basis for a shared agenda for research and action.

Living Territories 2018 had three objectives:

  • To disseminate and promote new research methods and scientific knowledge on territorial approaches to rural development, particularly in southern countries;
  • To showcase successful place-based innovations and projects including organizational and institutional reforms.
  • To analyze and question the conditions of success for territorial development, especially within the context of the implementation of the SDGs.

The conference confirmed that a variety of research and programmatic approaches related to territorial development are being implemented all over the world but noted the lack of consensus on a definition. Participants eventually agreed that they did not need to agree on everything but should identify common guiding principles that would allow them to work together.

People do not live in sectors, they live in places. Place-based solutions are therefore necessary to deal with global challenges and there is a need for institutions that can manage complexity.  The rise of territories reflects the triumph of geographers over economists.

It became clear that intersectoral and multi-level governance is the major challenge for sustainable development.

National governance alone cannot be expected to provide the solution. The sovereignty of national governments—and their power within their territories—is increasingly eroded, particularly by multinationals. And borders should be reconsidered as they often cut across historic territories. But the way national governments are organized also blocks evolution. Policies are fragmented, ministries are designed to compete and there are no effective mechanisms to collaborate. National authorities are afraid of complexity, choose the easiest path and are wary of territorial approaches, which they see as a threat to national unity. They therefore impose standardization, which generates conflicts and distrust by local populations. People are being administered not governed.

There is a therefore a need to rebalance power so that people regain control over their lives. People, landscapes and culture co-develop at local levels and generate a sense of belonging. Support to local authorities should be a priority. Capacity-building is essential to ensure participation at middle and local scales. Diversity and complexity can only be addressed through bottom-up approaches and case studies are needed to inform policies.

Global governance is also urgently needed. This will require a revision of the statistics which underpin present policies, since what we decide to measure determines what we do. And when you do not have and use the same figures, there is no possible agreement. The present urban-rural dichotomy is misleading and macro economic data erase specificities.

But without political will, no governance system can function. We all know of bad policies which are well implemented, and of good policies that are never implemented. So it is essential to understand what drives implementation and to simplify complexity so that decision-makers can understand it. Issues like food security, employment/income or health are major motivations – and therefore entry points for territorial approaches – for local authorities.

The scientific community has potentially a major role to play but is not equipped to deal with political issues. Existing tensions within the academic world reflect unresolved political conflict. Researchers should take advantage of opportunities and move out of their comfort zone. They should engage on local experiences in order to inform action, thereby contributing to delivery, implementation and scaling up of territorial approaches. This will mean changing categories of analysis and providing more attention to story-telling, but also providing more attention to foresight. Researchers can also assist private sector in understanding complexity. We need to de-theorize in order to re-theorize and cross-pollinate.

As a conclusion, a downward shift in scale is essential for achieving the SDGs. Present development challenges often result from the divorce between people and institutions and territorial approaches can help address this problem. Territorial approaches are also essential for crisis management (prevention and rehabilitation).