What is sustainability and why is it important?

‘Sustainability’ is probably the greatest and most important challenge for international development actors of all sizes. ‘Sustainable development’ is commonly defined as development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The term is particularly associated with the environment and the conservation of natural resources and ecological balance, but in terms of development, its economic and social pillars are equally important. Making development sustainable is about aiming to achieve lasting change to the status quo by addressing the root causes of the problem at hand, with the expectation that the resources required to bring about this change can be reasonably predicted to be available for the foreseeable future.

At Disability Africa, we think that due concern for sustainability is what turns mere ‘charity’ into genuine ‘development’. To explain what this means in practice, let us give two very different examples of interventions that charities might pursue to help disabled children in low-income countries.

Intervention 1: Realising that disabled children are frequently rejected or neglected by their families due to social stigma, we could establish a privately-owned ‘orphanage’ to care for such children. The orphanage could be supported by donations of equipment from wealthier people in other countries and helped by foreign volunteers, who visit for short periods during their gap-years and summer holidays.

Intervention 2: Realising that disabled children are frequently rejected or neglected by their families due to social stigma, we could work with local community groups, parents, existing schools and local government to begin to change the way that people think about disabled children, help them to establish community-based services and include disabled children in society to improve their life chances.

Putting aside the reality that institutionalised children are at an increased risk of abuse, intervention 1 could certainly be described as well-intentioned and ‘charitable’ – indeed, it is a model that some charities continue to implement. But even the best orphanage is not ‘sustainable’ according to our definition. Intervention 1 does nothing to solve the problems that disabled children face and the typical causes of their suffering, i.e. a lack of understanding about impairments, negative social attitudes and exclusion from community life. Such an approach actually exacerbates and perpetuates all these problems. It doesn’t improve life chances for this generation, let alone the next. Orphanages are also expensive, and reliance on foreign resources – material and human – will create dependency and stifle the development of locally-owned sustainable solutions. Intervention 1 might seem nice and it is ‘charitable’ for sure, but it doesn’t have much going for it overall.

Disability Africa prefers intervention 2. This approach seeks to tackle the root cause of the problem. It recognises that the only way to improve outcomes for disabled children now and in the future is to tackle the stigma associated with disability, work with local people and existing structures to find ways to deliver low-cost accessible services for disabled children and their families. It supports the inclusion of disabled children in society rather than isolating and excluding them in an institution. This is the approach that our projects pursue.

Such an approach might be harder to explain to the donors that will make it happen and the local actors that will ultimately deliver it. It might take a little while to make a tangible difference, but it has the potential for a lasting impact. This focus of the root cause of a problem and commitment to bringing about change which endures is what turns potentially unsustainable, dependency inducing and fundamentally disempowering ‘charity’ into sustainable development.