Redefining ‘sustainability’

In our previous blog, we looked at what ‘sustainability’ means in international development and why it is so important. We argued that sustainability is what transforms merely charitable activity into genuine sustainable development, using the example of the stark contrast in long-term change that might be achieved by an institutional model of care for disabled children versus a community-based approach that addresses the causes of exclusion and empowers local people to make inclusion a reality. Hopefully we convinced you that it is really important to consider the sustainability of a development intervention.

But even amongst people who agree that sustainability in international development projects is absolutely vital, there are disagreements over how it should be defined. Too often, and possibly increasingly, sustainability of programmes is judged by the question: ‘can it pay for itself?’. For some, an activity, initiative or service is only sustainable if it can literally generate the income required to meet the expenditure that it needs.

This notion might originate from an increasing assumption that ‘development’, or lack there-of, is a purely economic phenomenon, to be resolved by the policies proscribed by the so-called Washington Consensus. Since the 1980s it has been assumed by many key decision makers in the international system that the solution for developing countries in crisis must be based around the enablement of a vibrant private sector and the achievement of economic growth. Great emphasis has been placed on widening participation in ‘the market’. Micro-finance and income-generation initiatives are tacked on to all manner of unrelated programmes in a bid to make them ‘sustainable’ by helping participants start income-generating activities and establish small businesses.

This is all fine and good, but we need to recognise that this approach to development may not be appropriate when it comes to improving outcomes for the most marginalised people, indeed it may actually be leaving them further behind. There is plenty of evidence that GDP growth does not necessarily reduce extreme poverty, and that micro-finance (whilst somewhat successful) might do little to uplift the very poorest people – not everybody is a natural born entrepreneur. The bottom line is that we know that disabled children and adults have left behind by economic growth and poverty eradication of recent years.

Defining sustainability in these very narrow terms, which essentially equates it with business viability is not really appropriate, since it stands to leave behind the most vulnerable and marginalised people i.e. disabled children. It also might represent something of a double standard on the part of people in high-income countries. The same tests of sustainability are not typically applied to projects or services that help marginalised or disadvantaged groups in the UK, for example. UK schools are not asked to supplement public funding by growing vegetables on their playing fields (not yet, anyway). Some might see this as a ludicrous comparison between two different worlds. It isn’t - human rights are universal.

When considering projects for marginalised groups, anywhere in the world, we should broaden the concept of 'sustainability'. We shouldn’t assess it in such narrow economic terms – services for disabled young people are rarely sustainable in this sense, and this is just as true in the UK as it is in Kenya or The Gambia. Necessary service provision will always require some allocation of resources – somebody, somewhere, will always have to pay.

But there are a multitude of things, in addition to local income-generation, that can be done and need to be done to enhance the sustainability of programmes that seek to improve the lives of disabled children in low-income countries.

Changing the exclusive and negative ways that people think about impairments and disability is vital in making the sustainable social change needed to improve outcomes for disabled children of this generation and future generations. This approach, too often ignored, stands to address the fundamental causes of exclusion, reducing the disadvantage of disabled children compared to their non-disabled peers and ensuring that they are less likely to be ‘left behind’ in the first place. Attitudinal change needs to happen at all levels, from local community all the way up to national government.

Investing in the development of the capacity of local partner organisations, who often deliver internationally funded projects also stands to deliver sustainable benefits. This will contribute to the creation of competent civil society organisations who can work in collaboration with government to deliver services for vulnerable people. This is eminently preferable to reliance upon international staff or foreign volunteers, and will ease transitions from dependence on international funding to eventual financial sustainability.

Making use of existing social structures, infrastructure and institutions also improve the sustainable potential of an intervention by an international NGO. Our projects, wherever possible, use local facilities and work with existing networks and institutions i.e. community groups and primary schools, rather than creating parallel structures. This reduces ongoing costs and encourages existing service providers, and communities in general, to better include disabled children and recognise their rights and needs.

Working with government is also important. It should ultimately be the responsibility of governments to live up to international commitments (e.g. The UN Convention on the Right of Persons with Disabilities) and allocate appropriate resources for the provision of services for disabled children. At Disability Africa, our aim is to catch the attention of government by designing programmes that are easy to implement, replicable and low-cost. By demonstrating their success, and replicability, positive policy change at higher levels, becomes much more likely. Encouraging local people to understand their rights can also make change more sustainable, as it might empower them to more effectively hold decision-makers to account. It’s a long process, but we would argue that it is the only sustainable way.

Finally, we need to challenge the widely held assumption that projects that aim to include disabled people are expensive and inherently bad value for money. This is untrue on an economic, social and moral level. Excluding disabled people from the development process is very bad value for money. Efforts to reduce extreme poverty will fail on their own terms in they are not inclusive.

This is the more nuanced and intelligent understanding of the concept of sustainability that we need. There are no single-track solutions. We can’t just add income-generation training to our programmes as an afterthought and magically achieve long term social change. We need to design programmes which address the root causes of the problem that we want to solve and tackle the multiple barriers to true sustainability. Only if we do all of these things, might we truly live up to our pledges to ‘leave no one behind’.