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Observations on Permaculture Aid and the PRI’s Project Aid Worker Training Course

Interns at PRI’s Zaytuna Farm

There are few things in this life as disturbing as the suffering of another human being. Perhaps one might be the fact that we the privileged have become so desensitised to it, so selfishly removed into our own little worlds of such great importance. Is it not the responsibility of the privileged to ensure the basic elements of survival are provided for those less fortunate than ourselves? How can we continue to spoil ourselves with riches, when the knowledge of another’s pain is so obviously clear?

It will never be easy for us to confront this reality; it will always be more comfortable to turn a blind eye, to hide within the luxury of our own space. Though, as the world becomes smaller, we need to start thinking bigger — beyond ourselves and into a greater understanding of the whole — we have, instead, become obsessed with our own success and with fulfilling the expectations of a system that perpetuates the presence of a seemingly necessary and casually accepted greed. We have forgotten how to see ourselves as part of the natural environment that surrounds us. Accumulation of material wealth has become a natural disposition; greed has become commonplace. Individual over-consumption and under-production has created an imbalance resulting in our reliance upon a system that is not viable.

Geoff, Latifa and the little dog Jackie

If we close our eyes, this system works just fine. When we have the courage to stand out on a limb, we find ourselves not alone but unified with many eyes wide open, looking toward a future that is full of positive development and conscientious design of a global community that will once again be in harmony with the natural order.

International Aid is an important component of this process and can start with the slightest adjustment in the way we think about our own lives. Providing a thirsty person with clean water to drink is easy – changing the way people think in the over developed world is the real challenge at hand. If we are to heal the wounds of humanity, we must begin by reconsidering our own purpose and ambition in life. The accumulation of material wealth beyond our needs is growing old. We have to start thinking more intelligently about our use of time and resources and the distribution of wealth.

Sadly however, like most aspects of our society, aid is an industry just like any other, a business that runs on suffering and pity, which proliferates the plight of the people it preaches to save to sustain the circulation of profit and control.

If foreign aid was really aid, then it would have been obsolete by now. In 1970, the world’s richest countries agreed to give 0.7% of their gross national income as official international development aid, annually. Since that time almost all of these nations have consistently failed to reach their agreed obligation, falling to around 0.2 to 0.4% — over four trillion dollars short. Over this time the wealth of donor nations has increased and levels of aid tied to that growth have remained static.

Yet misallocation of funding is only a small part of the dilemma. Any large donations made without addressing the underlying causes of the problem (see also here and here) are made in vain. Real Aid is not about being the hero. It is about providing support and education so that impoverished people can begin to mend their own situation, to create their own framework for a healthy and sustainable future.

As Permaculturalists working in Aid, our main objective is to put ourselves out of the job – the sooner, the better. Education and empowerment of the people is central to the achievement of this goal. There is no point in implementing a system without ensuring that it will continue to function and develop after the designer has left the building. Promoting local involvement and productivity as opposed to the external provision of band-aid supplies, which leads to dependency, is part of a more thoughtful and protracted approach that will contribute to the development of a truly effective implementation of Aid. It is not the amount of money we can inject so much as the amount of effective systems we can implement.

Permaculture Project Aid Worker Training Course, at PRI’s Zaytuna Farm

Restructuring the way we approach project design and management was the core of the five-day course held at Zaytuna Farm by passionate humanitarian Lesley Byrne. Lesley has been working in International Aid for several years now and has most recently spent time in Afghanistan, establishing a self-funded regeneration project in a small village just outside Kabul. Lesley offers a unique wealth of experience and her genuine loving nature and tireless work ethic instills an inspiring sense of purpose and a belief in the underlying sense of compassion that still exists within all of us. As always in attendance, Geoff Lawton reinforced the message throughout the week, contributing from his vast accumulation of practical field knowledge.

Lesley Byrne

Four distinct aid project proposals were developed over the week – the establishment of a Permaculture demonstration site in the Peoples Republic of the Congo, the design of a sustainable settlement for 10,000 workers of a coal mine in southern Mongolia, the crisis facing the world’s oldest and most devastated refugee camp in Sudan and the environmental disaster facing the sinking South Pacific island of Kiribati.

The exercise was invaluable in seeing what it takes to develop a project for a real life aid situation. Culture, economics, agriculture, history, politics, education, existing infrastructure, communications and demographics, were key elements that were considered in the project planning. Setting clear objectives, a detailed course of action and a long-term revision and appraisal of measurable outcomes were other important features of the management structure.

So far the Internship I’m in the midst of has been a powerful process of deconditioning and development. The experience has been deeply introspective, whilst continuing to impart great amounts of detailed information, wisdom and knowledge. We have formed a supportive family community and the friendships forged allow us to keep rolling on through the learning journey. It is exciting to see the progress of everyone through the course and amazing to experience the great strength in a collective passion of focused and extremely diverse individuals.

The circumstances facing all of us at this time can be overwhelming and it is all of us who are affected, whether we are ready to accept it, or not. The more of us who stand up and make that subtle change within ourselves, the less overwhelming the situation becomes. We are not all radical revolutionaries and history has shown that this approach is ineffective anyway. By making the most seemingly trivial modification to the way we think about our relationship with each other and the natural world, we can make a revolution beyond what we might initially believe possible. There is great power in numbers and in our own time we will make the choice to reconnect to our instinct and break the spell of consumerism and thoughtless abuse of ourselves and our environment. It is invaluable to have the tools and understanding that Permaculture offers for all of us that want to go out and help the world to discover its balance once again.


The next Permaculture Project Aid Worker Training Courses will begin on July 1, 2011 and then November 28, 2011.

The next Internships are October 10, 2011 (sorry, full!), 23 January, 2012 (sorry, also full!), 23 April, 2012 and 23 July, 2012.


  1. Thanks Steve, appreciate the thoughtful article – and it’s great to see real aid issues being discussed. Most foreign aid is just not helpful, and most is designed to supportive interests other than those of the beneficiaries (such as corporate, political, military interests etc). Well done! (And tough proposals to be given!)

  2. Hey mate – thanks for a great summary and thoughts on the last week. I count myself very lucky to be on this course with such a well grounded bunch of enthusiastic professionals – a real inspiration. Keep it coming.

  3. Moving piece, but can we get a bit more info about what was presented in the course? I’m quite interested in the possibilities of humanitarian aid through permaculture; but really can’t find a lot of material on successful examples especially in crisis zones.

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