‘Sustainability’ is a fraught term in our field of work. In the development sector we say we’re working towards it, it is scattered throughout project proposals, funding agreements and logframes. But it’s a brave soul who will truly promise that his or her work will result in sustainable outcomes. We say we want it, but if we’ve worked in the sector long enough to know not to promise it. We have already seen too many projects fail once the project funding has ended.

In that sense, it seems a bit of a pipe dream, or a prayer perhaps. Something we have very little control over.

But what if we could think about it a bit differently?

The way I see it, a major problem with the idea of sustainability (as we commonly use it) is that it simply floats around on its own – possibly linked with other, equally floaty terms like ‘local ownership’ or ‘resilience’. There is nothing to ground it.

But when we’re talking about our work, what do we actually mean by sustainability? Take a drinking water project as an example. We want for the project benefits to continue, once the project funding is complete. For a fresh water project, this might mean that we want the water pump and pipes to be maintained regularly, the fresh water to be distributed fairly between households to avoid social jealousy, hygiene to be understood and taken seriously so that the water source is not contaminated, and so on. And crucially, we want someone else to take on those roles, because our project staff are no longer there, guiding the implementation.

Breaking it down into its component parts, we can see the logical flaw. Often when we’re talking about sustainability, there’s no specific reference to who or what will sustain it. Without actually putting it into words, we’re conflating ‘sustainability’ with ‘self-sustaining.’ But who – or what – is that self? We’ve removed the practicality from the question. But as with the fresh water project above, there are actual things that need to be done. Involving actual people, with actual money and expertise, and an actual willingness and ability to use that money and expertise in certain ways.

We’re asking the wrong question. Instead of asking ‘what would it take to achieve sustainability?’, we should be asking ‘who, or what, will continue to sustain this project, once funding is finished?’ This then naturally leads to the question of ‘how can project resources be best spent now, to properly support who- or whatever will sustain the project in the future?’ Those questions are also too high-level, but they’re a good start. We can grapple with these questions because they’re grounded in something practical. And as we do this, we can get more and more specific in what we think is needed, insert different approaches into our activity plan and test whether they will indeed support who- or whatever will sustain the project in the future.

Now I invite you to think about a project that you’re responsible for, and ask: who or what will sustain the work after the project funding is finished? And what might you do right now to support this process?