What to consider for sustainability….

Recently I read an article on “how to make a computer lab sustainable”. I read it with interest because I find the question about sustainability in international development fascinating. What do we mean by sustainability? Every project has a requirement to be sustainable, but the definition seems to vary based on the project or the donor. Does it mean “continue to exist beyond the period of performance?” “Positive impacts continue beyond the period of performance?”, “Not just continue to exist but grow and scale?”

Do we mean sustainability of operations? Of financial independence? Impact? Involvement of local populations? All of the above?

In the article I mentioned, sustainability really meant the hardware and software would continue beyond the funding cycle and that they were looking at fee for service opportunities/integration into an existing organization. But they didn’t mention any details about the business model –would the fee for service cover the increased costs for internet, hardware/software support and purchases, salaries of staff, electricity? Would they need to find additional sponsorship from donors or partner organizations? Do they have a management team which is capable of managing the budget, of ensuring high quality of services to customers, of finding new sponsors? What about growth and changes in technology infrastructure?

Now, the project may well have included these aspects in their design, but the article didn’t mention any of these things. And for me, sustainability starts with thinking about treating the seed funding you get as an initial investment, which should lead to a self-sustaining model that won’t require more investment (at least not for the same types of activities). If the model involves transitioning to local staff or partner organization, that needs to be both explicit and planned from the start, with explicit assumptions and expectations on what sustainability means.

Because otherwise sustainability is kind of a meaningless term.

Who should decide what sustainability is unless we Value all Voices to discuss and decide? What are your thoughts?



International Development Consultant, 20 years