If you only read one thing this week…

Sustainability – what happens after we leave? by ifyouonlyreadonethingthisweek
January 14, 2008, 8:15 pm
Filed under: Development theory, Environment, If you have 30 mins

The million dollar question for those of us working in international NGOs is to understand what happens when we stop working in communities. When resource flow stops coming from us, do communities continue to maintain the projects that they invested in? Do they continue to maintain behaviors or practices that were promoted during the program life cycle or do things return to the status quo? In the summer of 2007, Mercy Corps invested its own resources to go back into communities in Central Asia to ask these questions. And it discovered some interesting things – some anticipated or hoped for, others that were quite surprising. For the full report click here. The 6-page, stand alone  executive summary shares many of the most noticeable findings.


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RESPONSE – Martin Ede

It is sad to say that it is not only a million dollar question for NGOs but is relevant to all aid and donor organisations. A few years ago I was working on a water and sanitation project financed by a major European donor in Guatemala. Design was community managed – the villagers of Nisnic (or Paniste in Alta Verapaz – I cannot exactly remember which) told the engineers where to go – methodologies which built on PRA and MPA (thanks Nilanjana for the great guidance and inspiration) put decision making in the hands of the community, the women, the poor and those who are generally left out. The result is that the community owned the system and looked after it – paying users fees and even expanding the system. A farmer came to me after the design session (having done a transect walk, drawn a community map and the work was analysed by the community themselves – aid workers took notes and provided help when asked, with the community– no pens or flipcharts but sticks, stones and sand) and asked “Ingeniero, do you always let people make the decisions?”. This was a powerful testimony to the effectiveness of community management of design, construction and implementation.

The community went on to build a sustainable water system – it was theirs, designed and built according to their criteria.

In 1978, I was fortunate enough to go to Bolivia to build water systems with a Bolivian NGO. The village of San Isidro, Canton Ilabaya, with help from the NGO, decided what they wanted, where the water would come from and how would contribute. It was self-help water system construction (unfortunately only water systems were built in those days!). I went back to San Isidro in the mid nineties and the water system had been expanded and it was working. Self help had consolidated the sense of ownership and the community had looked after the system and had later expanded the service.

The bottom line – if water supply and sanitation systems are given away they fall into immediate disrepair. If people own and identify with the sanitation or water supply, systems will last a life time –a simple straight forward rule based on experience from agencies and also acquired after many years in the field.

One last point, if you are an emergency relief expert you will know that time is of the essence but the Inter Agency Standing Committee “Gender handbook in Humanitarian Action” states:

“The active participation of people affected by crisis in identifying needs and designing and implementing relief programmes to address those needs substantially improves programme effectiveness and sustainability.”

As relief workers, it is important to echo these words in the approach to emergency aid. It may not be possible to achieve community management among thousands of IDPs in a camp, but it is possible to give people the option to have a stake in their lives and build up their dignity.

Comment by Martin Ede

Thanks for sharing that Martin – it’s great to hear people’s experiences and ideas.

Comment by ifyouonlyreadonethingthisweek

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