Cecilie Dyngeland in the field: social protection and sustainabilty

Sustainability and social protection: interview with Cecilie Dyngeland

In 2014 Cecilie Dyngeland became one of the first Grantham Scholars with her project ‘Delivering food security through small-scale farmers – lessons from Brazil‘. And though this project ended in 2018, when Cecilie needed funding for a paper we were delighted to be able to help. This resulted in one of the largest studies on the sustainability implications of social protection.

Importantly, Cecilie’s study demonstrates that progress towards the SDGs can have unintended environmental consequences. Additional to the paper, Cecilie produced a policy briefing that outlines her work. Both paper and briefing call for a wider perspective on social protection programmes.

Interview with Dr Cecilie Dyngeland

Cecilie Dyngeland
Cecilie Dyngeland, who we interviewed at her home in Norway during lockdown.

To find out more about Cecile’s study, we spoke to her at her home in Norway, during lockdown. Our chat also provided a chance to catch up with one of our alumni and see what the impact is of all the extras we provide. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Cecilie has done plenty!

Did you always want to work in sustainability and social protection?

Cecilie: When I was younger, my focus was on social issues, such as poverty alleviation and I volunteered in this area. But during my Masters, I discovered how important the environment is to alleviate poverty in rural areas. Now I can’t think about poverty without thinking about the environment too. Poverty and the environment are not two worlds, they are one.

And now my research continues this ‘one world’ outlook. I focus on poor people who live close to or in natural habitats, especially smallholder farmers. A high percentage of the global poor live in these rural areas. For those people, poverty and the environment go hand in hand, because fertile soils depend on healthy soil and rain. In other words, to produce food you need a good environment.

Congratulations on the publication of your paper! What was your aim in writing it?

Cecilie: Unfortunately, there’s been little focus on the effect of social protection programmes on the environment. So you may have a set of policies that help farmers produce more to increase their income. And to do so the farmers might clear more land. In this case, within the aims of the program the farmers have a beneficial effect (increased production and income).

However, the negative environmental effects from clearing natural vegetation may not be noted at the same time – but they will have impacts in the long-term. The environmental world will notice, but not those in social policy. We wanted to draw out lessons from social protection programmes, to provide evidence about the unintended consequences they may have.

So some social protection programmes are damaging the environment?

Cecilie: Social protection programmes are usually analysed around their primary aim, such as reducing poverty. What hasn’t been focused on are unintended impacts, especially the effect on the environment, such as conversion of natural vegetation.

That’s why in our paper we evaluated the impact of Brazil’s Zero Hunger programme. Zero Hunger is Brazil’s flagship social protection programme and is seen as a great success. However, we wanted to measure its impacts on different sustainability outcomes. We wanted to see if policies that were effective in reducing poverty, affecting child health and improving food production did this without negatively impacting the environment.

And did Zero Hunger have negative effects on the environment?

Cecilie: Overall, we couldn’t give one conclusion that one set of policies were good or bad. Place and type of activity had different effects, depending on the different sustainability outcomes we looked at.

We found a lot of variance. While there were aspects of these policies that were beneficial, for instance they increased food production and reduced poverty in some areas, they had no beneficial effect on child health, and had different effects on natural vegetation (which is how we measured environmental impact).

What changes should be put into place to avoid these unintended impacts?

Cecilie: It is key to investigate further into what made these outcomes different across Brazil. Why were one set of policies successful in one area but not another?

In the meantime, people who work on similar policies can take information from our research and assess it in light of their local context.

Overall, sustainable development needs to come from a place of seeing the impact on the natural world, and in development these things are often overlooked. But in communities where most smallholder farmers reside, they live in close contact with the natural world, they can clear land or work with it. So it’s unwise to ignore environmental impact when working with them.

What are the take away points from your work for sustainability and social protection?

Cecilie: Firstly, in the same way that we have sustainable goals that go across different sectors, we need to do this with policy. For example, even if a policy is in education, possible impacts outside that sector need to be considered.

Secondly, researchers also need to work more broadly. Unfortunately, poverty alleviation and conservation are often two distinct camps with little overlap. This needs to change: to do sustainable development you have to think about the whole picture.

Finally, I think the paper is a good example of how you can do research, such as policy evaluation, with data that is freely available to everyone. None of the data I used was behind a paywall. The growth of fine-scale longitudinal data on a whole range of topics offers great opportunities. I’d like people to know that it is possible to do great research with existing data.

So do you think social protection programmes should always have sustainability outcomes?

Cecilie: If they do, they need to be well thought out. Some social protection programs are conditional, i.e. you get help if you meet certain conditions. For instance, you can get payment for environmental protection, such as reforestation or using environmental farming practices.

But if you impose conditions, you should ensure that everyone can adhere to them. Because if you impose conditions of, say, no deforestation in order to receive cash then it will likely be particularly difficult for the most impoverished smallholder farmers to farm without clearing more land. You don’t want to leave out those most in need of help from receiving benefits.

What is the backdrop to sustainability in Brazil?

Cecilie: There has been focus on environmental protection – until this current president, who is more focused on economic development. He says it’s not right to leave areas with high economic possibilities, that you should extract what you can. There are huge economic interests, such as (illegal) forest product extraction, mining, and farming. People clear an area of natural vegetation and extract its resources, and then move on to another area. It is typical short term thinking. Though it might give economic benefits in the short-term, if all natural vegetation (and important ecosystem services) are removed, then the land won’t be able to sustain us anymore.

There’s a lot of economic interests in the Amazon and there is high forest clearing happening there. But there are also other biomes in Brazil that are experiencing high losses. These biomes house a great diversity of species, and provide important ecosystem services for the millions of people living there. Unfortunately they have been more overlooked.

Overall, often the poorest people live in the areas where the natural environment is, and they are the ones interacting with it. So they could be good stewards of the area if they are supported properly.

How are those who work in sustainability and social protection in Brazil faring?

Cecilie: At the national level there have been big changes, but when I was there last summer to disseminate my research there were people at the local level that still want to carry these programmes forward. They want to protect the environment and people. Of course, they are concerned about how the country is faring, and they want to resist.

So it’s about resistance rather than being able to employ these policies?

Cecilie: Yes. I know in terms of environmental protection, big banks came together to try and boycott what the president was doing, to not let him ease up on environmental protections. But how much power they have, I don’t know.

And in terms of public debate, from academics I spoke with, it isn’t about social protection programmes any more, it’s about other matters. The president has focused a lot on reducing violence, this was one of the reasons he was voted in.

What is the political/environmental situation in Norway?

Cecilie: Currently, we are in our second period of what we call a right-wing government, though the government might not be as right-wing as in many other countries. However, recently we have had growth of smaller parties in the local elections, including the green party and a very left-wing party.

But we’re a big oil exporting country. The more radical environmentalists from the green party say we must end oil exportation now. Of course this would be good for the environment, but without a proper transition to other income generating activities first this will have a huge impact on the economy. These are difficult conversations to have.

Do you think we’re any closer to dealing with the climate crisis?

Cecilie: It is difficult to say. Drastic changes don’t seem to be happening anytime soon, and maybe that is what we need in terms of protecting the environment. Worse, places like Brazil have gone backwards. Brazil was doing great in reducing both poverty and deforestation, but in recent years this has changed. And now they have a government so far to the right that appears to place less focus on these matters… A lot of damage can be done in a short amount of time.

And because poor people are sensitive to changes and destruction of habitat, they are the ones who will be most affected. Overall, I think a lot of the aid done in impoverished areas – although it is good – works like a band aid. It can help in the short-term, but it often does not challenge the systemic issues that drive environmental destruction or continued poverty.

For instance, social protection might give support each month, but if the same people are being systematically discriminated against in terms of getting quality health care, education, jobs etc, then in the long term social protection might not lift them out of poverty.

It must be frustrating to work in sustainability and social protection. Will you keep working in this area?

Cecilie: Yes, because I have seen programmes work too. For instance, within the policies I evaluated in Brazil, there was one programme that worked really well. In this case, the fact that small-scale farmers couldn’t access markets was a problem. In order to help these farmers, the programme synced them up with local institutions that needed food, like hospitals or schools. So the programme did not just give farmers money. Instead they set up systems that work for the farmers, i.e. giving them a stable market. The farmers I interviewed said it worked really well.

Importantly, this is something that could work for smallholders all over the world, who are outcompeted by huge farms who can sell cheaper.


Cecile now works at Inland Norway University and this is their logo
Cecilie now works at Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences.

In 2020 Cecilie joined the Grazing in Carnivore Forests project, at the faculty of Applied Ecology, Agricultural Sciences and Biotechnology at Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences.

This four year research project will look at sheep and cattle grazing in carnivore forests for sustainable production of food, timber and biodiversity.


Cecilie’s paper was produced in conjunction with supervisors Karl Evans at the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield, and Johan Oldekop at the Global Development Institute at the University of Manchester, the GDI produced this blog about it.


Interview by Claire Moran. You can find all our interviews collected together here.

Main image shows Cecilie Dyngeland doing fieldwork in Minas Gerais, Brazil.