We are proud of our work at CPAR. Our programs are designed with active beneficiary and local government involvement, with plans factoring in the fact that CPAR will not stay in the community. While we are there for inception activities and the implementation, long after CPAR completes our phase of the project, community members and district officials continue with the activities, making progress on their own, and often expanding on their own, using the resources and/or methodology we introduced.
But what does “sustainable” really mean? Yes, it means development work that doesn’t deplete resources, which would then negatively impact the lives of future generations. But there seems to be another commonly perceived definition of “sustainable” that implies something that lasts a very long time, if not forever.
So what kind of development work is sustainable by that definition?
Knowledge and practises introduced and taught, and then carried on through the generations, are sustainable. Such as with the new farming techniques that CPAR introduces to farmers, or our work with traditional birth attendants. What we refer to as “training the trainer”.
Building a school is a noble enterprise, and the bricks and mortar building may last for decades, but does that make it “sustainable”? Not if consideration isn’t taken for ensuring that the local government will cover the operating costs. Or that plans are in place to attract and keep teachers in rural areas (shelter, electricity). Otherwise they can sit empty. Just like health centres or orphanages built by well-meaning donors.
Wells and other water sources contain parts that can break down over time. Does that mean they are not sustainable? CPAR establishes local water committees that are responsible for the maintenance of the water sources we build, and these committees are trained to know what to do when pieces stop working. And we ensure that the components needed are all locally accessible before the water source is even built.
In Hose Kebele, as part of our program 8 years ago, 150 households received small solar panel lights. In a village without electricity, the light allowed students to be able to study after dark, it allowed the ill to be better tended to, it allowed more vibrant family activity after the sun went down shortly after 6 pm.
When CPAR provided the lights to these households we knew, and the community knew, that the lifespan of the lights was only 5-6 years. But the benefit in that time would be significant so, in spite of that, they were introduced into the project.
And, consistent with the manner in which CPAR works, we worked with the community to create a savings plan to replace the lights when they eventually stopped functioning. Each FFS member started contributing 5 birr each and every month to replace the 150 lights provided.
During our visit, we heard that the lights had stopped working. They had lasted 7-8 years, so longer than originally thought but now the community members were in darkness again. The FFS members continued to put in the 5 birr each month, so what was the issue? Without access to information (like easy access we have here with the internet) they were unable to find a source for new lights although they were still trying.
Does that mean that the project failed because it wasn’t sustainable? Not at all. Families had benefitted for many years from the light that had been provided. And our CPAR Ethiopia staff will help the community access replacement lights, all that they asked us for. Now that the challenge has been brought to our attention, we can also anticipate this as a possible issue within future similar projects and factor that into the plans accordingly.
Development work is not without many bumps and challenges … and opportunities for NGOs to learn and improve. Through that learning process, we modify the plans that we create within each project, always advancing closer and closer to the ever moving target of “sustainability”.
Executive Director, CPAR