In the previous post, we attempted to define sustainability and sustainable development. An important aspect of it was the multidimensionality of sustainability – ecological, economic, social, and human. In today’s post, we look at how development projects approach the concept of sustainability.
We discussed the Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs are a call for action by countries and entities to “promote prosperity while protecting the planet”. Not only has the view shifted to find the balance across various dimensions, within the context of development projects, but it is also necessary to place the well-being of the people and communities as the focal point, based on their diversity and links with the environment. Context is key.
With development projects, the proposed new ways of living, producing, consuming, and organizing politics and the economy should be of service to all people (of present and future generations). A key distinction here is that when speaking of sustainable development, we must bear in mind that we refer to a continuous process, without an end state. Hence we speak of progress or activities focused on sustainability.
Sustainability is an essential criterion for evaluating the quality of development projects. And in this case, it refers to project sustainability as much as how the project actions contribute to sustainability. Sustainable development distinctively refers to the context and resource management of the project. How sustainable are the outcomes of the project to the needs of the people, society, health, economy, culture, and environment? Is the project need-based? Only those projects that introduce equitable changes and lastingly focus on the causes of structural vulnerability will contribute to generating sustainable livelihoods and sustainable human development.
Project Sustainability, on the other hand, is the ability of the project itself to remain sustainable. It largely depends on the capacity of the institution implementing the project, the project design, local participation and buy-in, financial and economic viability, adaptability, scalability, and exit strategy of the project. Vital here is that both the project cycle as well the life cycle of the project have sustainable processes.
To estimate the level of sustainability of the project, it is necessary to ask why the action promoted by the aid organization has not been undertaken by the community itself. If the problem is one of technical knowledge or financial resource deficiency, resources can be directed to stimulate the start of such activity. But if the beneficiaries or local community think that such a project is not worthy or viable, then the sustainability of the project is highly unlikely.
Similarly, a key concept for project sustainability is the local ownership of the project. It is essential to involve communities in the identification, design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation phases of the project, paying particular attention to ensure that vulnerable or marginalized groups can express themselves effectively.
Local ownership is necessary so that the beneficiaries feel involved in the project, feel it as their own and sustain its positive impacts in the long term once the project cycle has concluded. To achieve this, it is essential to promote participation so that the project responds to the real needs and expectations of those beneficiaries, rather than to the criteria of donors and NGOs. For this to be effective and reflect the needs and desires of the communities and individuals, it is necessary to know, master, and apply participatory techniques and methods. Some methods used by development agencies include Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), Participatory Gender Analysis, or Empowerment Matrices.
Other project sustainability metrics have to do with the financial, economic, and technical feasibility of the designed project. Depending on the type and context of the intervention, the project needs to be productive, generate value, shouldn’t generate a negative return on the investment, and be technically implementable for the given budget and resources. Additionally, risks and vulnerabilities need to be identified in the identification phase and accordingly, the project design should have sufficient contingencies and the ability to adapt within the constraints.
Results-oriented frameworks like the Logical Framework Approach follow a logic-based approach to create a strong narrative for a sustainable project design. Not only does this define the specific scope of the project and the specific goals, but also has integrated steps for stakeholder analysis, problem, and solution identification phases, strategy analysis, objectively verifiable indicators and means of verification, resource identification, and budget planning. Combined with strong and diverse implementation partners/teams, a solid financial plan, and a monitoring and evaluation plan, a project in the development sector can have all the processes to achieve sustainability.
These are some of the key building blocks to project sustainability contributing to sustainable development!
Feel like exploring the Logical Framework Approach in further detail? Have a look at our blog post here, or check out our training courses for hands-on practice on the method to design strong projects!
Morfaw, J. (2014). Fundamentals of project sustainability. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2014—North America, Phoenix, AZ. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.