If intent ensured success, our work would be long done.
Development efforts are aimed at designing programs that provide long-lasting impact. However, despite much goodwill and sincerity, sustainability remains an elusive goal. In this essay, I will define sustainability, discuss the root causes of why some programming falls short of making a sustained impact and outline the lessons we can learn.
What Makes a Sustainable Program?
Programs are sustainable when they meet certain criteria and achieve certain benchmarks. These include:
- Becoming embedded in systems that make provisions for supporting them with policy and strategic framework
- Allowing the provision of institutional capacity building
- Are affordable enough for their continuation
Sustainable programs also should:
- Engage in effective community consultations
- Build trust
- Manage expectations by clearly defining roles and responsibilities
- Mobilize core competencies
- Set measurable goals
- Forge strategic partnerships
- Planning for sustainability.
It should also provide space for collaborating, learning and adapting. To be afforded the chance to achieve these goals requires strong local leadership imbued with the required skill set, passion and political commitment.
How Not to Create a Sustainable Program
Designing sustainable programs is not an end in itself. The journey to sustainable programming starts with a thorough understanding of the socioeconomic and political terrain of the host country and its home-grown development objectives. The program should be seamlessly anchored to and aligned with these.
Sovereign countries and their people have every right to frame their own development objectives and create roadmaps toward their realization. No matter how noble the intention is, no rich donor country should impose its agenda on their partners.
Sustainable Programming as a Function of Respect
Extensive consultations and mutual understanding make for the best partnerships. The first questions development partners should ask are:
- What are host countries’ development objectives?
- How can we help support their realization?
Host countries that question development partners’ assumptions or challenge their theories should be rewarded. They should be encouraged to express their ideas and thoughts. After all, they know their own situations best, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution to social or economic problems.
Sustainable programming should be inclusive and capable of addressing the needs of the poor, disadvantaged, marginalized, etc., and not the will of a narrow elite group with special interests.
Programming should address the entire nation’s priorities. What is the point of putting money into higher education when the priority is universalizing basic education? Is it justifiable to insist on investing in a cure when the priority is preventive medicine? Is it wise to invest in planting trees alien to the terrain rather than maintaining the indigenous ones that are resistant to diseases? Does it make sense to make investments on mega-structures whose maintenance costs are beyond the financial reach of a host country? Why build big financial institutions when the poor cannot access them?
Moreover, development should be genuine, forward looking and centered on community interest. Development partners should take care to avoid election-driven and other politically motivated programming, and programming that favors one group (ethnic, religious, gender) or stratum to the detriment of others. They should also work to prevent instituting stigma on a group or population.
Sustainable programming should be able generate demand by galvanizing the widest possible political support from the communities in need. It should focus on citizens who are always finding ways to survive through their own hard work and ingenuity.
Keeping this in mind, sustainable programming should put environmental considerations at the forefront. Development partners should exercise caution to not destroy or create imbalance in the ecosystem.
No culture is old enough to be thrown in the dust bin of history. There is always something to learn from culture. Culture is like a solid foundation that you build your house on. Sustainable programming should thus be respectful of local culture, traditions and societal values. People who are proud of their identity or culture are more likely to succeed in building a stronger nation.
It should be scalable. But scale requires not only the political will to do it, but should also consider affordability, because support could or should stop at one point.
Time + Patience + Effort = Success
Sustainable programming interventions should not be perceived as stand-alone efforts. They should be thought of as a continuum with short, medium and long-term objectives and a conscious effort to ensure synergy.
We can make the world a better place if we work together for our common destiny. After all, we are all citizens of the same planet.
Semere Solomon is the Senior Director of the Africa Regional Center at Creative Associates International.