Sustainability — Making Change Stick



“Sustainability” is one of those words that has found a somewhat mystical place in the lexicon of the economic development set.  It is much more often invoked as the sine qua non of all economic development projects but solid definitions or indicators of its accomplishment are seldom found. Sometimes it seems that project designers are of the opinion that by invoking sustainability they can make it so.  In this post I will discuss some of my forays into that mystical world and a few of the conclusions I have arrived at as a result.  I am sure that most or you will also have had your own experiences with this concept.  Please share them in the concepts box at the end of this post and contribute to a constructive conversation on the subject.  

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Sustainability — Making Change Stick

“In the long run, we are all dead!”  There seems to be considerable conjecture about what John Maynard Keynes actually meant by this remark. At least in the temporal sense, nevertheless, it is quite correct. We, and all of our earthly constructions, will eventually pass from this mortal coil. This truism should underpin any discussion of the sustainability of economic development activities. Whatever we do is not going to last forever. Even the pyramids aren’t quite what they used to be.

The issue of sustainability is perhaps somewhat more complex than we might think. My well-worn dictionary provides several definitions of the root word “sustain.”  The most pertinent of these is “to supply with necessities or nourishment, provide for.”  Taking this definition to the form of the word we are looking for would then suggest that the phrase we are looking for would be “the ability to . . . “ This does not quite bring us where we want to be though as it remains unclear who is doing the “supplying” and “providing”. Thus, to meet our needs, we need to add the concept of “self” which brings us to the following definition that I find sufficient for our purpose:  The ability to supply ones own necessities and nourishment, provide for oneself.

Pretty much every project I have ever been involved with has proclaimed “sustainability” to be one of the benchmarks of its success. I have only rarely (giving the benefit of the doubt to my imperfect memory) seen that benchmark defined in terms that made any kind of operational sense. Usually the concept is left comfortably vague, allowing the evaluators sometimes brought in to conduct the project post-mortem to apply whatever definition suits them, and the bureaucratic/political powers that be, at the time. Needless to say, this is an arrangement with which I have never been very comfortable.

We have all certainly seen or heard about the white elephants that are monuments to non-sustainability – the highways, hospitals, schools, etc. that leave behind physical evidence of failure. Other failures to achieve sustainability are less obvious:  the attempts to change certain agricultural or business practices, for example, or the establishment of programs that rely on continuous and substantial resources being provided by external sources and simply fade away when those resources cease to flow leaving behind little or no trace of their existence.

These are the failures that lead to the cynical observations and negative conclusions of those who basically write off the entire development assistance effort as useless, a failure at best and a rip-off at worst. Fortunately, and perhaps naively I suppose, I have a somewhat higher opinion of the utility of the last 40 plus years of my life and the efforts of the many colleagues I have been privileged to work with through those years. I have certainly seen my share of failures, and have participated in some myself though we won’t dwell on those too much here (because it is, after all, my blog and I can choose the examples I want to mention).

I have seen certain unnamed international institutions (the initials include USAID, MCC and IBRD among others) fail to achieve sustainable results time after time and for the same reasons. And, I am very critical of the waste of resources involved in those failed efforts. I have also seen very sincere “wannabe” do-gooders fail due to their assumption that good intentions, hard work and a little money should, in fact, be enough to insure good results.

I would put myself among those who seek to learn from those experiences while mightily decrying their repetition. Surely, in a world with so much inequity and need, it is more useful to study the mistakes we have made, individually and collectively, and try to learn from those and apply the lessons to future efforts than to simply declare the whole effort a waste of time and treasure. That probably puts me in the “It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness” school of thought, but that seems like a pretty good school to be in so I think I will stay.

Before considering how sustainability might be achieved, let us consider just what it is we might be wanting to sustain. The first concern of sustainability is, or should be, people. We can prop them up with handouts, the benefits of which last as long as the goods continue to be provided. Or we can do things that will help the same people provide for their own needs more effectively by improving their agriculture practices, starting a micro-enterprise, learning a marketable technical skill or having access to a good (or at least better) job.

For many high-budget development efforts sustainability is concerned with the use and maintenance of infrastructure. What is the benefit of spending millions to develop new highways, irrigation systems, hospitals or schools if the responsible local authorities (or beneficiaries) have neither the ability nor the resources to operate those facilities appropriately or even maintain them in operational condition? If those of us who plan such projects had a better understanding of the positive and negative incentives that affect the people we are relying on to bring about the sustainability we are seeking, we might be more successful in achieving it.

Some projects are concerned with the sustainability of new jobs and incomes. We can create a lot of jobs by spending money on the development of big infrastructure projects (food for work or, better, cash for work). Those jobs have a way of disappearing when the projects are completed, however. Most of the participants are left at least as bad off as they were going in. The presence of those jobs often attracts new people to an area that is already unable to sustain a decent standard of living for the people who were born there. I suggest that even low paying but regular jobs in a viable industry are preferable to this kind of employment .It can be reasonably expected to continue and even provide opportunities for advancement as the businesses expand and create opportunities for the establishment of more businesses.

Often we promote our efforts on the basis of increased “opportunity” for the unfortunately labeled “target population”. We try to increase these opportunities by providing better formal education and technical training, by improving marketing mechanisms for small-farmer products, by improving the access of micro-entrepreneurs to the type of finance they can use most effectively and by other means. These increased opportunities are only sustainable if they somehow generate the resources required to continue and, hopefully, grow by the results of their own efforts. An activity is not truly “sustainable” if it depends on the local government (or, worse, another donor) to take over when our original budget has been exhausted.

The sustainability of a for-profit private enterprise is much easier to define and measure. If the enterprise is able to do business and grow without external assistance, I am comfortable in calling it sustainable. That does not mean that it is necessarily efficient, ecologically responsible or socially desirable. It is, however, being supported by its own actions within the environment in which it finds itself. Those other factors are appropriate topics for a different discussion. It is my experience that those enterprises are as reluctant as any NGO to pass up any “free” money that might be lying around on a donor table. Weaning them off of external support can be just as difficult. If the business has been built on sound principles and any assistance has been appropriately targeted, though, they will make the transition and thrive.

We can all be sure that the one factor that is not sustainable is the continuity of donor contributions in perpetuity. In some cases, this may appear to be the case. Eventually, however, we must assume that all donors will pack up their money bags and go home. The question is what will be left behind. I have seen a few cases in which a donor program, staffed by expatriate and local professionals, has been “privatized” in the sense that it is able to continue in at least some semblance of its original form based on the revenue generated by its own activities. These examples are far and few between, however. Even in the cases where this appears to have happened, we will generally find that the program has merely shifted from one donor to another, or to a series of smaller grants from a variety of sources. This is not sustainability.

It is not appropriate to consider that the sustainability of our efforts/programs be the goal. We must look at the changes we can help to bring about during our tenure as the objective and be sure that those changes are sustainable. The donors’ normal 2-3 year funding cycle-dictated approach to development problems is not a help in this regard. The achievement of real, sustainable development objectives often takes longer – especially when we are addressing goals requiring changes in attitude on the part of the beneficiaries.

Long Term in Armenia:

One project on which I was engaged not so long ago went on for seven years. We are generally acknowledged to have accomplished quite a lot in terms of helping SMEs develop, improve their operations and enter export markets. In the last two years of the project, its measurable impact increased exponentially as client company performance continued to improve based on earlier assistance. The nature of our support for those companies shifted to recognize changes in their needs and in their environment. We knew our way around the subject (and the country), we had developed credibility with clients and others who were important to our success and we knew not just the problems we were addressing, but also the setting in which those problems arose.

The program ended several years ago but I hear reports that the impact continues to snowball. The companies we assisted continue to grow, jobs continue to be created and exports are increasingly steadily – within an operating environment that continues to be challenging at best. I have been back to visit a few times and heard the first hand reports of friends, colleagues and former clients still on the ground. As far as I know, no one has really calculated the economic impact or sustainability of the project but I believe that, if they did, the development return on the long term investment in that project would be very positive indeed. If anyone is interested in doing this research, I would be happy to provide lots of contacts and background information to get them started.

My own efforts have always been directed primarily to the development of sustainable businesses – agricultural and otherwise. In this case, sustainability refers to the ability of those businesses to grow and prosper within the constraints of their local environment and with the resources that are available to them. Helping one local retail shop compete more effectively against the several other nearly identical shops on the same street is not really creating a sustainable enterprise in the development sense. It can be good for the owner who is now prospering due to improved management or credit availability but it is certainly not making the economic “pie” any bigger by creating new income in the community and thus increasing local demand.

 Kenyan “Dukas”:

This lesson was illustrated to me very clearly many years ago in Kenya where the organization I was visiting was teaching better business management practices to very small businesses, mostly retail “dukas” (small shops) in rural areas. We visited one village center where the client was one shop owner dealing with general household goods and basic farm supplies. The problem I had was that he was number three in a row of seven such shops all selling almost exactly the same products to the same set of customers. It was clear to me that helping this man become a better manager might very well make him a more effective businessman and his business more profitable. He could probably even use those improvements to expand his share of the market. All of his gain would be some else’s loss, however, as he was not adding value to his products. He was not making the market pie any bigger, just readjusting the shares.

I am aware of and acknowledge the arguments that such efforts are still worth the effort. This man’s gains will demonstrate the value of improved management practices to his neighbors. They too will want to improve their business practices and, eventually, the community will benefit as they use their increased profits to reduce prices, improve service or add new and desired articles to their product lines. But, when I think of a sustainable business in economic development terms I am thinking ideally of an enterprise that creates jobs by adding value to a locally produced raw material and marketing that product either locally or in national or international markets.

Sometimes (or always?) we might be concerned about sustaining development momentum. How many times have we seen a promising beginning of an economic development project (the old Integrated Rural Development projects come to mind) that is creating jobs, opening new markets, improving the quality of education and health care stymied by the donor’s declaration of success and subsequent withdrawal?

How can we increase the probability that momentum, once established by the application of external money and expertise can be maintained once the project is ended?  Perhaps key to this objective is in the goals and activities targeted for achievement and linking them closely to the generation of income or other resources (e.g. management talent) that will be required to sustain them in the future.

Micro-enterprises, Magic or Myth?

There is a very large and determined group of development professionals concerned with the development of micro-enterprises. They tout them as the future generators of economic growth in poor countries. Programs like the one developed by Grameen Bank in Bangladesh in the 1970’s are copied or adapted for use in many other countries with varying degrees of applicability. They are examples of often successful efforts to enable poor people to gain more control of their economic life and earn more income from one or another sort of very basic micro-enterprise activity (street corner retail, sewing, food processing, shoe repair, carpentry, etc.). Valuable as these efforts are, in terms of helping people to survive, very few of those enterprises are begun with the vision of future growth and prosperity. Very few graduate to the ranks of growth-oriented SMEs. Most are seen only as stop-gap measures that must be taken in order to survive until something better comes along. When there is a possibility of a job with a regular income, the vast majority of micro-entrepreneurs will drop their enterprise very quickly to take up the employment opportunity.

Economic sustainability can only be achieved when the activity supported is continued based on the benefits it creates in a community. The same rules apply to wells, schools and hospitals as to shops and factories. The sustaining benefits are not only money. Education and experience also count. When I think back over my own career, and I have admittedly lost track of many of the efforts I have been involved with, one activity I am very sure was sustained for many years (because I checked) was the first, the non-mechanical milk cooler I designed and helped to install in Central Kenya that was discussed in an earlier post.

That very simple project succeeded for several reasons. First, it was a direct and effective response to a need that had been identified by the people it was intended to benefit. Second, it was a very simple (even “appropriate” if you will) technology that could be easily maintained and operated by the people who would use it. Third, the operating costs of the system were near zero. Finally, and most important, the people saw an immediate and clear financial benefit from using it. Comparable successes were seen in other cases as well. For example the small-scale sugar production enterprise in Ghana discussed in other posts operated successfully for about 15 years before a change in government policy finally caused it to close. A low-cost housing scheme with which I was involved in Ghana was also still operational and operating much as was intended at the time it was developed more than 20 years later.

Sustainability Factors:

What are the factors that I believe were critical to the achievement of some significant level of sustainability by these activities. The set of factors that I listed above with respect to the milk cooler project account for most of them I think.

  • Respond to a need identified by those who are intended to benefit;
  • The availability of sufficient time and resources to demonstrate the benefits of change;
  • Technological relevance to the situation in which it will operate and to the people who will use and maintain it; and,
  • Clear benefits (not necessarily money, but it is always nice to see some) for the people who will use and maintain it that are greater that the cost of operating and maintaining it.

I believe that all of these factors must be present for activities such as these to become truly sustainable. A modern health center would certainly respond to needs identified by many people I met with in northern Guinea Bissau, and in fact, one had been built some time ago by a donor organization only to fall into disrepair when donor funding was withdrawn. This was not because the people did not value the health center or understand how much they benefited from its operation. It was simply beyond their capacity to operate it without substantial outside support – technical and financial.

The types of activities where I have seen the greatest sustainable impact have been those that caused a change in the way people think and do business. When a businessperson learns a new skill that clearly benefits his or her business that person is not likely to discard the new skill to return to the old ways. When a business owner sees her sales increase after improving the label on her package, or is able in enter export markets as a result of improving the food safety standards of her factory, or increase the reliability of raw material supplies coming from small farmers as a result of implementing a sound and fair out-grower contract program, the lessons will not soon be forgotten. Those lessons become a part of that person and will be applied in whatever business activity the person engages in in the future. That is why I have always put a great deal of importance on the ongoing conversation I have with the companies I work with. I learn from this long-term conversation and am better able to make appropriate individual suggestions of ways they might consider changing their operations to improve their businesses.

I have clearly only scratched the surface of this important topic in the paragraphs above. If I have managed to either pique your interest or provoke your ire in this post, please go to the comments box that appears after the footnotes below to share you thinking. I would really like to share the experience the rest of you have had with respect to this important question. And don’t forget to scroll back to the top and sign up to receive future posts in your email box automatically. I promise there won’t be too many and I will try to make them both pertinent and interesting.

6 thoughts on “Sustainability — Making Change Stick

  1. It’s hard to come by experienced people on this subject, however, you sound like you
    know what you’re talking about! Thanks

  2. Very nice post. I simply stumbled upon your blog and wished to mention that I have really
    enjoyed browsing your weblog posts. After all I’ll be subscribing to your rss
    feed and I’m hoping you write again very soon!

    • Thank you very much for your kind comment. I always appreciate it when a new reader stumbles upon the blog and then shares what was found with friends and colleagues.


  3. Thanks for taking on the difficult topic of sustainability. The shifting sands of definition and evaluation of this concept are tricky to navigate.
    40-50 years ago, we started with private enterprise and public service, one measured by longevity of profitable business activity and the other by units of public goods and services delivered and maintained per tax dollar expended (whether national, donor, or both). [I exclude the complicating factor of state-owned enterprises that we were all busy dismantling at the time for better or for worse.] If 80% of small businesses fail within 3 years, are programs successful that show 20% of businesses still operating at a profit 4 years later? Do we think that donors would fund a program design: “The failure rate for new small businesses in Rio Bravo is 85% within 3 years of start up. This program aims to move the success rate from 15% to 20% of new-start ups in Rio Bravo measured at year 4 of the program.”?

    Today, the basic measures of enterprise success and public goods and service delivery don’t seem to make it onto the table at the design or evaluation portions of program or project implementation. It seems to be assumed that market, supply, and technology factors of success and failure in most sectors and industries have been mastered and can be pelletized and formed into Lego or Duplo blocks of best practices that can be fit together in any combination in any situation to build sustainable enterprises, public services, and civil societies that deliver triple bottom line success (economic-social-environmental).

    I don’t know how many hundred times I have had an aspiring agri-entrepreneur ask me what market or crop they should invest in. They usually don’t like the answer that I give them. In any market and with any almost any crop or livestock product (or service) there will be people and companies who make money, who break even, and who lose their shirt and their business. The ones who stick around end up engaged in a process that takes the title of one of your earlier posts “Start Where You Are” and builds from there.

    The time frame for judging sustainability is always tricky as sectors and industries grow, shrink, or disappear. If you don’t know where you are starting and what the trends are, then the ruler and the clock that get applied to the sustainability evaluation are usually the wrong ones. Sustainability at 5 years looks a lot different than sustainability at 10 years……….

  4. I participated in a sector (tannery) of the Armenian project where Gary was chief of party at a certain time. The way he lead was brilliant and at a certain moment when I thought it was going to fail as my technical aproach didn’t worked as it should, he managed to envise the problem from another point of view upgrading the utilization of formulas and chemical products to improve quality.
    Once product quality was improved, I could do my job and the project was sucessfull.

  5. thank you for the interesting post. Having worked in development (though fewer years than you, some of it in Armenia), I agree with all your points.

    I sometimes like to think of it as “habits rather than actions”. Actions can be good, but are short-term and may not last. Leaving good long-term habits can be a powerful legacy, and may be another way of describing the successes that you outline.

    Thanks again, enjoyed reading!


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