I believe that an institute like IOB cannot adequately function without deep and long-term academic relationships with partners in the Global South. Since 1988, I have therefore been the coordinator of the academic partnership with the research and development institute Nitlapan of the Universidad Centroamericana in Managua, Nicaragua. Building upon my PhD ‘Peasants and Economic Development in Nicaragua’ in 1991, I have been involved in research and outreach for a more socially inclusive and sustainable rural development in alliance with this partner institution. From within the realm of the research and development initiatives in this specific context, I contribute to the broader theoretical and thematic development debate.
I have an historical research interest in microfinance for rural development, immediately related to my involvement in the creation and the development of the Fondo de Desarrollo Local (FDL). The FDL is the microfinance institution that was created from within Nitlapan. Today, FDL is the largest and most rural/agricultural microfinance institution in Nicaragua, with a historical trajectory of innovation to which my IOB research has attempted to contribute over the years.
Given the limitations of financial service delivery (‘microfinance narcissism’ as we call it) and even of a more integrated ‘Microfinance Plus’ approach, i.e. the combination of microfinance with complementary services such as technical or marketing assistance (typical of the collaboration between FDL and Nitlapan), we have been working with Nitlapan to change their intervention model from service delivery to a more integrated ‘territorial approach’. The VLIR Own Initiative project ‘Generating Knowledge and Strengthening Synergies for Rural Development. Pilot project for an innovative approach to social learning in Muy Muy, Matiguás’ (2010-2015), co-promoted by Marc Craps from KU Leuven, has supported these efforts.
Recently, topics like concerns for biodiversity conservation, carbon capture and climate change have gained prominence in the rural development agenda in Nicaragua and elsewhere. In this context, Nitlapan was the local executing agency of the Regional Integrated Silvopastoral Ecosystem Management Project, a World Bank/ Global Environmental Fund pilot project for Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES). Not entirely justified, it was widely acclaimed for demonstrating the success of the PES-approach and inspired new initiatives such as the Proyecto Cambio project (sponsored by the Central American Regional Development Bank, combining microfinance and PES) of which FDL was one of the main (and most successful) Nicaraguan partner institutions. Related to these efforts, we have been involved in critical research about PES and Green Microfinance from the broader perspective of local institutional processes required to generate both social inclusion and environmental adaptation and sustainability.
Today, this agenda is materialised in a new consortium project (with Nitlapan-UCA and the French 'grand école' AgroParisTech), financed by the NORFACE- BELMONT forum 'Transformations to Sustainability Program'. This action-research project focusses on developing (territorial) strategies for FDL and allied organizations (like the environmental NGO Centro Humboldt, the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank) through which microfinance and connected services (technical assistance, business services, Payments for Ecosystem Services,...) can contribute to reduce or even revert the negative social and ecological footprint of agriculture and cattle expansion in the agrarian frontier (reduce forestation, carbon capture carbon in soils and vegetation, decrease encroachment of indigenous territories, ..). .
Closely related to the microfinace/environmental agenda we also conduct research about approaches to promote access to land (and natural resources), among others in the VLIR-TEAM project "Inclusive rural development through social innovation in land access and governance initiatives in Nicaragua", co-promoted with Prof. Pieter Van den Broeck , KU Leuven.
All of this research contributes to the IOB research line 'Environment and Sustainable Development', and in particular to the joint research, inspired by a similar critical institutionalist perspective, with Gert Van Hecken, Frédéric Huybrechs, Catherine Windey, Pierre Merlet, Jennifer Casolo and René Rodriguez.