The word sustainability is derived from the Latin word sustinere (tenere, to hold; sus, up). Dictionaries provide more than ten meanings for sustain, the main ones being to “maintain", "support", or "endure”.
Before I begin to write what is my notion of sustainability, I think it’s important to bring some context.
Being in the development sector (Social Sector) for some time now, the word for me is associated to any or every activity we do towards welfare of our community.
To be honest, I do not even remember using this word while I was in corporate sector, strange! You can blame that on my lack of social consciousness or the fact that the corporate sector in itself is a sustainable system!
So, my notion of sustainability is actually two fold –
a. The system designed to provide certain services, does so without any external assistance or dependence
b. And also the people for whom the services are designed are able to make use of it by self-realization.
Let me take an example –
Mid day meal is a great scheme introduced by our Government to encourage children to go school. In this case the sustainable environment would mean that the system which is responsible to implement this scheme should be able to do so without any help from the VOs or NGOs and that the community should be able to utilize this scheme pro-actively.
What does this mean? This means that over a period of time the VOs, NGOs, CBOs should become redundant!
At least for me, that would have been an ideal world scenario from a development sector’s view!
Is this a myth?
I am beginning to think so because of
A. System’s incapability to withstand sustainability -
Let’s take another example to understand this.
I recently attended a dissemination meeting held for Gender Equity Movement in School, a two year module being implemented in 45 BMC schools in Bombay. One of the point we discussed was, how do we make this model sustainable and majority of them were of a view that it’s when the BMC School teachers will start teaching about Gender Equity along with other subjects, the movement will be sustainable!
Sounds sustainable? Well, yes if you are outside the implementing system.
Let’s think from the pov of a BMC school teacher – The TPR ratio in Govt school is already unfavorable, the quality of the staff has always been doubted on, Teachers are often put on other Government duties like Election, the sensitivity required to handle children is always less; part of it is also because they are handling 50-60 children at the same time! (Unlike private schools)
This clearly means that the current system is not fully equipped to withstand sustainability!
So what looks like a perfect sustainable solution from outside the system is actually something that will weaken the system further, if implemented and the worst affected would be the beneficiaries, in this case children!
In the same example, to me the sustainable solution would have been if we make suitable changes in the curriculum to include Gender Equity and at the same time assist the BMC schools to recruit more teachers!
B. NGOs working towards their idea of sustainability
I am increasingly reaching towards a conclusion that VOs, NGOs, CBOs working towards community welfare are actually working towards what they think is sustainable OR what they think is good for the community. (There are certainly some exceptions and I am glad I know of them!)
This is basically doing a great damage to the community as a whole because it leads to making the community dependent on an outside help, depriving them from achieving self-dependence.
I think the term sustainability in development world needs to be looked at from a completely different view. For communities, NGOs should play a role of a facilitator AND NOT A PROVIDER! And for the system, the role should include holistic assistance. What I mean is, NGOs should not only come up with model to cover what the system is missing, but it should also assist the system in becoming strong enough to withstand the sustainability.
Basically we need to look at sustainability from the point of view of the system in which we are trying to bring it!
‘Be the change you want to see in the world’