What is self-sustainability and why is it so important?

There are many common problems faced by different communities around the world: lack of access to safe water, poverty, climate change, etc.

Photo: Emilia Szekely

The identification of these problems led to the creation of an international agenda for sustainable development. The agenda seeks to coordinate the efforts of different development initiatives working on their solution (e.g. States, local governments, NGOs, universities, companies, citizens).

An obvious challenge is that different communities experience these problems differently. In each situation, there are different:

• Actors

With different people come different needs, interests, and perceptions of problems.

• Socio-economic, cultural, environmental contexts

• Resources available

• Legal and socio-economic frameworks

• Incentives or challenges

The development process needs to be fair and sustainable. As such, development agents must be able to adapt the international agenda in a way that is relevant and flexible to context without compromising the interests of the international community.

This will allow agents to achieve sustainable interventions, that is:

Photo: Emilia Szekely

integrative in their social, environmental and economic dimensions;

relevant to the conditions of different actors, in present and future generations;

decided and controlled by all affected actors.

Yet this capacity is usually limited by two conditions:

Dependence on external funding resources.

These are often accompanied by conditions that limit the initiatives in the design and implementation of their own projects.

For example, predetermined terms of reference to overcome accountability pressures, budgets that favour certain areas of development to the detriment of others, etc.

Subordination to external political agents and regulations.

These oblige agents to adjust their interventions according to criteria that are not always adequate to their context.

For example, through standardized and punitive evaluations or policies, regulations with non-shared ideological bases, etc.

As such, it’s important for initiatives to strengthen their self-sustainability to counteract these power relationships.

Photo: Emilia Szekely

Self-sustainability is:

•  The capacity of each development initiative to discern on and take advantage of inputs that suit its conditions, and sort out those that do not.

•  The capacity to identify problems that affect it, as well as the resources required to solve them.

• The ability to execute their local projects in harmony with the needs of global sustainable development.

The concept of self-sustainability complements that of sustainability. It addresses the conflicts between development actors and emphasizes the nature of their power relations in terms of:

• the status and influence of the development initiative within this relationship to determine what is relevant and effective to achieve its objective.

 • its level of dependence on external actors and resources to achieve sustainable interventions.

Democratizing development’s ownership means giving up on one-size-fits-all solutions. It means decentralizing the power concentrated in those with financial resources, those with political authority, those that dominate development discourse, and those that can lobby to affect legislation.

Photo: Emilia Szekely

It implies sharing control of the developmental process, giving space to more freedom, and thus, to flexibility, constant adaptation, contextualization, and the initiatives’ capacity to be relevant to a plurality of interests and responsive to different developmental needs at both global and local levels.

Strengthening the self-sustainability of development initiatives is a matter of practicality and principle. It increases their capacity to establish more sustainable development interventions. More than that, it recognizes that people have the right to be treated with dignity, to choose the life they want to lead, and to be responsible for their decisions. That is, the right and responsibility to exercise their freedom.

How to increase the self-sustainability of your development initiative?