How do we define Sustainability?

» Posted by on Feb 6, 2014 in Evaluation, Local Participants, Participation, Results, Sustainability, Uncategorized | 3 comments

How do we define Sustainability? 

Sustainability is a key success outcome for which a project is assessed, one of the five OECD DAC Criteria for Evaluating Development Assistance, which also includes relevance, effectiveness, efficiency, and impact. However, it is important to understand how this term, sustainability, is defined in a more specific way. Traditionally, the evaluation of project sustainability is linked primarily to the financial viability of the project into the future. Will there be an extension of donor funding to continue development activities or an operational budget for maintaining new technologies? Will there be sustainability of resources to pay for continued manpower and training programs? While the financial sustainability of a project is an important factor, Valuing Voices has a different approach to assessing sustainability that focuses primarily on the capacity of the community, rather than the donors, to achieving long-term program success. The Valuing Voices definition is:


Sustainability – assessed by looking at what communities can maintain themselves three, five, or ten years after a development program is completed. The focus is not on the financial sustainability of donor-funded activities, unless that is what communities request.


With this definition in mind, evaluations should be more heavily focused on attaining community feedback regarding what they believe were the aspects of the project that had the greatest significant outcomes. For a program to positively impact the community it was implemented in, it is crucial that the local community members themselves have the ability to sustain the activities that benefitted them the most, ideally with their heightened economic capacities. Implementing organizations and donor feedback is important as well, but without considering the opinions of the clients in developing societies, what do we really know? There are a few components to the evaluation process that are essential for the Valuing Voices model of sustainability to be accomplished:


1.     Full Participation of community participants and local partners, at all stages of project design and implementation;

2.     Planning for sustainability from the start, and ensuring that any knowledge resources generated by the project are designed to be accessible to communities;

3.     Measure outcomes and impact sustainability of projects from two-five years after the end;

4.     Build and fund local evaluation capacity;

5.     Create feedback loops where learning is shared among and between participants, implementing partners, governments and other stakeholders at the local, national, regional, and global level;

6.     Use technology to effectively capture data in a standardized format and facilitate feedback loops.


This is the central idea of the Valuing Voices mission, and now we’d like to hear feedback from YOU about what sustainability really means in the development context. Do you agree with this framework of analysis, or do you think there are other ways to define project sustainability? Does this definition changes in different contexts? Do you believe that the six components above capture the key elements for evaluating the sustainability of the project, or should other components be added?  Let us know in the comments below so we can engage in an open discussion about sustainability – because everyone’s perspective (and voice) should be valued! 

Kelsey Lopez

Intern and Research Assistant with Valuing Voices at Cekan Consulting, LLC. She is a graduating senior at the George Washington University concentrating in International Development studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs, with double minors in Geography and Sustainability.

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  1. A few initial comments on sustainability.  It assumes that communities were consulted during the planning process and remained involved in implementation.  During planning  – what success of that project meant to them and how to measure it should have been discussed.   This articulation should be considered when defining sustainability.   Hence, sustainability will be contextualized each time.

    Often we think of it as the continuation of services, activities or results/outcomes of activities.  This can be a great component of sustainability but also assumes that this too was planned for.  Was it? And what role did the communty play in that planning? How many times do we build in that communities themselves will pay for the continued services? For how long?

    Finally – there is a time element that must be considered. Yes, I fully believe we should spend more time going back to projects and programmes assessing what survived in part based on what we expected to survive.  However, we also need to consider that communities, needs and interests change.  This too should be examined.  Its not a positive thing if a service or result continued if it is no longer valued!

    More to come.

    • Thank you, Maggie, you brought up some really great points.

      I agree, defining sustainability should definitely address how to measure success from the earliest stages of planning/implementation. Without community members identifying how they feel success would be met in the future, then it would be difficult to assess this aspect acurately in hindsight. We can't complete a project and then ask, "Which project components that we implemented do you think are the most significant and sustainable?" without first asking during planning, "Which outcomes are most important to you?" What the community identifies as most important is likely what they will also want to continue, and the role of the project should focus on building the capcity to support those goals.

      I also love your point about not simply analyzing how sustainable the innitial project objectives were, but also fitting that into the context of how communities changed in the time during and post-project. Did certain components seem unsustainable because the community could no longer afford it without aid, or because they no longer needed it?

      Great food for thought! 

    • Hi folks! Greetings from Tigray province of Ethiopia!

      Kelsey, thanks for posting this…
      Maggie, excellent points! I’ve been really quite impressed at the degree to which Ethiopian Red Cross (ERCS) consulted project participants (mixed with some ‘social engineering’ of what the government think these participants want :)).

      I’m also designing a consultative process through which we’re asking participants to identify their indicators of change and help their own communities Women’s, Farmers’ and Youth Associations track them and report back to their stakeholders (local government, ERCS, donors like the Federation of RC/RC, the Swedish RC who’s funding it).

      With such semi-annual data gathering and feedback to the local branch and all stakeholders, we hope to address the first of your points.  

      You are stellar in noting that the sustainability HAS to be planned for and in our participatory questions to communities, they’ve been ranking what they believe they can sustain themselves. This is wonderful – I just realized that we can test that in 1:3 communities we’re supporting who isn’t getting Phase 2 funding – we can return next year or two and ask how these 3 activities they thought they could sustain (e.g. poultry, cattle and shoat fattening).  We’re interviewing all 3 and the 2 that are continuing we’re especially asking about sustainabilty and what other activiites They want that we can support which answers your 2nd comment.


      Absolutely our whole industry needs to do the 3rd (post-project) and see what, if anything weathers change and Plan For It, to the degree possible, or at least ask communities what they think is most likely they can sustain and design that in…

      Wonderful conversation!! 

      Warm regards and hug to you both.

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