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USAID to Incorporate Permaculture in Aid Work

USAID Permaculture Technical Brief
(580kb PDF)

The growing food crisis has struggled to stay in the headlines since being highlighted broadscale in the mainstream media back in 2008, but it moves apace regardless, and I can assure you it will continue to do so, likely at a frightening rate. A 2012 Save the Children report shares that "Half a billion children could grow up physically and mentally stunted over the next 15 years because they do not have enough to eat" (BBC).

With this in mind, it’s excellent news that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID — "the United States federal government agency primarily responsible for administering civilian foreign aid" Wikipedia) is moving to incorporate permaculture design into its aid work for orphans and vulnerable children (OVC). They’ve just released a technical brief (right) to help expedite this.

From the document:

The purpose of this technical brief is to provide an overview of permaculture programming as a response to food and nutrition insecurity for OVC. It emphasizes the role of permaculture as a sustainable, non-donor dependent tool for improving the health, food and nutrition security, and livelihoods of OVC and their families.

Specifically, this brief aims to:

— Define permaculture as a development approach and design process, and describe some of its key concepts and principles
— Explain why permaculture is relevant to OVC programming, particularly in the context of HIV, and list some of its benefits
— Explain the theory and step-by-step practice of applying permaculture design in primary and secondary schools
— Delineate the costs of integrating permaculture into school curricula, and into communities more generally
— Identify the implementation challenges and make recommendations on how to overcome those challenges
— Provide brief summaries on the use of permaculture in schools in South Africa and Malawi
— Offer a list of resources and networking opportunities to OVC programmers interested in applying permaculture within their specific country contexts.

This technical brief is not intended to offer an exhaustive review of permaculture’s methodology. Instead, it serves as an introduction to its principles, and provides initial guidance and examples on how it can be used to benefit OVC and their families. The geographic focus of this brief are countries in Africa with high HIV-prevalence.


  1. On the face of it, this seems great news! I wonder what their final version of Permaculture will look like when they “Define permaculture as a development approach and design process, and describe some of its key concepts and principles”

    I wonder which concepts and principles they will consider as key concepts, and which principles and concepts they decide to leave out! (I can’t see local currencies making it somehow!)

    As an example of how necessary this integration will be, you only have to look at two different examples of compost toilets in Haiti, one by (based on PC design) and one built by USAID (clearly NOT PC designed)

  2. Yes, it will be interesting to see Pete. But, it’s a start, and it’s up to us to guide/nurture that start, not criticise it and alienate these people from day one.

    In regards to the video you linked to, USAID operate wordwide, and their foray into permaculture is very new. I’m sure the people who created the composting toilet you feature are probably oblivious to USAID’s new move towards permaculture design.

  3. Hi Craig, I’m not criticising, I’m just saying we should be wary when we jump into bed with a United States federal government agency. It would be a shame if LETS/local currency systems are left out, as this is one way to break the stranglehold of the banksters and empower local communities.

    If any USAID ground troupes happen to read this post I hope it serves as a seed to encourage them to look at LETS schemes and incorporate them into their courses/philosophy on the ground, rather than make a fuss higher up the corporate/federal ladder.

    The Haiti example is a good example of applied PC design Vs adhoc “throw money at it” design. I think the video serves a useful purpose. I presume someone at USAID has seen it since I sent a link to their office back in September last year, recommending that it is shown to all aid workers as an in-flight film on the trip out to disaster zones. That’s my style of nurturing, as is mentioning LETS in this post :)

    I have also used the video as an example to people I know working for encouraging them to look at PC, I have had (very very long) correspondences on compost toilets with my contact, but I have yet to get them to commit to PC design beyond investigating compost toilets, though I’m working on it :)

    Clearly someone/s worked very hard with USAID on this and there efforts should be applauded, I hope it translates as we all would like.

    As I said, on the face of it this is great news! I hope my posts don’t come across as overly critical, or unhelpful, we all have our own ways of nurturing/making people think. I’m not usually trying to be critical. When I am being critical I usually make it pretty clear ;)

  4. There are always knockers aren’t there. Sad really. Poor miserable creatures they must be.

    I say ‘Good on you USAID’ and also to whoever was responsible for planting the seeds of this policy in that organisation.

    From my reading of the document it all seems like a very good basis for action and they have cited as models a couple of successful existing projects.

  5. This sounds like a HUGE step forward, and I would think that any elements of Permaculture they incorporate would be incredibly helpful. I hope they back it up with lots of on site work and follow-ups, to make sure that the people give it a chance and don’t just fall back to what they know from before.

  6. It’s true that USAID (like most donors) have been involved in a lot of truly scary projects in their time, not just ineffective ones – but I for one take my hat off to them if they’ve created space for someone, somewhere to use permaculture so explicitly as a framework for designing an intervention. I spend my professional life evaluating development projects and have never yet come across one that wouldn’t have been infinitely more effective and sustainable if they had used permaculture approaches – so three cheers for this one! I’m looking forward to reading the technical brief to see what they’ve actually done and how far the permaculture thinking goes…

  7. Perhaps this will give American permaculture aid workers the opportunity to get paid for their work through USAID similar to AusAID… providing an income source to permaculture aid workers while also making USAID a more effective provider of real aid is a win win. Thanks for posting Craig!

  8. Congrats for whoever helped in achieving this. news like this gives great hope for followers of the permaculture way. This is a great step in the adoption of permaculture design methods in the “mainstream”. The use of the word ‘permaculture’ itself is a very great thing. They have clearly understood that this is a design methodology for designing things.

    It is not only possible but in fact almost always happens that the concept of permaculture is interpreted in different ways by different people. But what is important is that the main basic tenets of permaculture( earth care, people care and fair share or it can be also called supporting the community/society) are adhered to when someone is using the word permaculture. And it seems that it will happen that way with these people too.

    Regarding the different tools and methods which are used by different people, not all will be used by everybody and with time appropriate methods and tools for different situations will emerge.

    If someone misinterprets permaculture then we are all here to propagate the correct( or original) concepts. We should be very happy( I am) that the main concept is being embraced by so many people. Once again thanks for those who helped in achieving this and also thanks for posting this.

  9. Could I get a link to this document in USAID web page (if such exists)? I’d like to see that from the source. I couldn’t find this document with the search on the usaid web page.

    – Regards, Aapo

  10. As the daughter of a USAID Civil Engineer (water development) – I am heartened by this uptake of permaculture by USAID. That said, in working on my own projects here in Phoenix, my dad has often helped out – esp with water harvesting. I have heard over and over about how berms/swales were implemented on one project, gabions, damns, etc. Perhaps they weren’t incorporated into an overall inclusive plan, but “low tech” options that people with shovels could maintain were the norm.

    Very, very excited to see this document. Rock on, USAID!

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