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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