Stop the Madness: Let’s Stop Talking About Sustainability and Actually Do Something to Ensure It!

Stop the Madness: Let’s Stop Talking About Sustainability and Actually Do Something to Ensure It!

Sustainability has long been one of those concepts that is discussed more than it is understood. Even though many donors require it, very few (if any) require that it be well planned, managed, or provide the resources necessary to measure it. As a result, “sustainability” is rarely appraised and quantified. Moving sustainability from a vague concept to a planned approach requires incorporating sustainability at every phase of the project lifecycle. Very little is known about what truly leads to sustainable impact, what strategies are most cost-effective and how best to maximize high impact strategies for optimal sustainability in Food and Nutrition Sector (FNS) programs. There is a critical need to understand the long-term impact of investments in FNS, health, and other related development efforts. However, typically because project funds, by definition, are not available to fund measures of sustainability once a project ends, post-project measures are few and far between and therefore our collective understanding of what does or doesn’t lead to sustainable impact is meager at best. Project Concern International (PCI) has been striving to facilitate a global ‘community of practice’ to rescue sustainability from its current status as a broad, imprecise concept and transforming it into an achievable and measurable outcome. Regional workshops designed to engage FNS practitioners in defining sustainability and learning how to use PCI’s new Resource Guide for Enhancing Potential for Sustainable Impact in FNS Programming, including one in Delhi, India, have attempted to create a mind-shift about how we think about sustainability, focusing on several interrelated key concepts:

  • Sustainable impact, not sustainable activities. It is important to note that the emphasis should not be on continuing all elements of a program.  Some should end, some should phase out over time, and some should continue, but in a different way.  The most important things to sustain are desired outcomes or impact and this may indicate a very different modality which will need to be developed or designed over time.
  • We have to stop thinking about graduation or exit at the end of a project.  The concept of transition is helpful in ensuring that the process of phase out/phase over is done thoughtfully and strategically, not precipitously.   The idea of sustainability being an evolving and dynamic process vs. a one-time cliff is essential to keep in mind.
  • Sustainability readiness and preparedness. Program designers and implementers must start thinking about and preparing for sustainability at the very beginning of the project and not wait until the last 6 months of a project to think about sustainability!
  • Sustainability potential. Since we won’t know whether an outcome is able to be sustained until long after the project or program comes to an end, it is important to think about increasing the likelihood or potential for sustainable impact during the life of the project.
  • Integration. There must be an emphasis on actions that can be taken during the entire project period which will help ensure highest possible sustainability readiness. This means applying a “sustainability lens” through which all decisions and activities of a program life cycle are designed to achieve highest potential for sustainable impact.

Designing food assistance projects that are sustainable and able to be transitioned to local management is of course a persistent challenge for practitioners and policymakers. There is evidence that resources, capacity, and motivation are three critical factors to ensuring that the benefits of interventions endure after a project ends.

Resources:  Resources can come from a variety of sources, including local government, local community, or market forces.  In Bihar, India, PCI’s Parivartan model, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is now being “hard wired” into the Bihar Rural Livelihood Program (Jeevika), via the Jeevika Technical Support Program.  This is an example, of transitioning to local government.  In several countries, PCI is working with local communities to transition a school feeding program funded by the US Department of Agriculture over to local farmers, parent/teacher associations and communities.  Schools are being monitored for “sustainability readiness” using criteria established together with local communities. A market forces example of how resources play into sustainable impact is the establishment of a process for collecting and utilizing user fees for paravet services or water access via a communal water point.  This can involve establishing committees and fee structures and ongoing mechanisms for maintenance and ongoing support.

Capacity:  Local capacity strengthening (LCS) is key to sustainable impact (and I use the term “strengthening” and not “building” intentionally because it better reflects the belief that capacity does already exist; it just needs strengthening).  LCS must be an intentional strategy with a variety of target stakeholders, including local government, civil society and communities.  LCS does not mean workshops or trainings only, but must include assessment, accompaniment and ongoing learning.  Finding ways to foster the desire for ongoing and evolving learning, particularly applied learning, and sustaining those processes over time by linking to locally available learning resources, are essential.

 Motivation: Motivation can take many forms and be generated in many ways.  For example, the social and economic empowerment of women can help generate individual and collective agency, efficacy and action that can keep efforts going.  Creating a sense of the possible, increasing self-esteem to counter a sense of fatalism, can really help ensure that positive behaviors continue to evolve, that efforts started in a project can last over time.  The participation of even most marginalized women in Self Help Groups, for example, can really help ensure that positive changes are real and have the highest possible potential to last over time at individual woman, household and community levels.

And finally, moving towards more sustainable FNS programming must include an increased and improved focus on measurement.  There is a lack of rigorous assessment and measurement of the sustainability of change. How can we know what contributes to sustainable impact and how can we pinpoint the most effective approaches for increasing sustainability potential if we don’t measure sustainability and identify successful models? How can we increase potential and readiness for sustainable impact if we don’t monitor or test for sustainability readiness? How can we learn what works and what doesn’t and why or why not if we don’t measure post project sustainability?  This is probably the most important thing that we as a national or global FNS community can advocate for and do:  Ensure rigorous and creative measurement related to sustainability in our programs and after they end.  Given the irony of the fact that once the project ends we don’t have resources with which to measure anything, we must find ways of identifying non-project measurement resources.  If we don’t do better at measurement related to sustainability we will just be continuing the madness.

Janine Schooley

Master in Public Health

Senior Vice President for Programs

Project Concern International

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