The concept of sustainability in development(*) is enjoying a lot more respect than it actually deserves. That is a shame as in the long run, obsessing about sustainability is harmful to our industry. I think we should all worry less about sustainability and focus more on scale. Here is why:
- Sustainability is hard to measure or even define properly. It means anything to everyone and therefore it joins “coordination” and “capacity building” on the Just Another Buzz Word List (JABWL). Like all vague concepts it creates more noise in an already noisy world. Even worse, it creates a false sense of achievement and/ or reduces projects to a very low denominator. This distracts from important conversations that are dearly needed in this industry. Scale on the other hand is easy to define and measure – you’ll always know when a project achieves scale. It is also hard to bullshit your way around scale – it’s either there or it isn’t.
- Obsessing about Sustainability assumes everything will not change. That is a terrible assumption to make, as everything will change, guaranteed. (Evolution is a feature, not a bug, right?) We know now that Nokia was “unsustainable”, although it kind of changed the world throughout the ’90s and the early ‘00s ushering in the iPhone era and so much more. Investing in a project that has impact at scale at first and then crumbles, allowing others to pick off where it left is money very well spent. Great ideas are capable of evolving, and, if at all, the capacity to evolve is what we should worry about, rather than assuming the project will continue in its current form, like, forever.
- Obsessing about sustainability dis-incentivizes innovation. This is actually my biggest beef with this concept. Innovation carries risks. Risks can be costly and therefore are bad for “sustainability”. Or at least they are hard to foresee and therefore will not be accounted for in the “5 year sustainability plan”. Commitment to scale on the other hand, encourages innovation as small inefficiencies become huge and small gains lead to significant impact at scale.
- Concerns about sustainability dis-incentive agility. It is reasonable for a donor to expect the impact of their funding to last beyond the actual funding. However, insisting on a detailed sustainability plan that covers the next 10 years is counter-productive. Planning fallacies and other dodgy practices abound in this industry as it is. More agility would be so much more impactful: continuously adjusting strategies based on continuous feedback. Changing direction as realities on the ground are changing. Acting on real-time insights. This stuff is common sense elsewhere. Meanwhile in our sector, we are locking people in with plans that go beyond even the lifespan of a project, in the name of sustainability. Donors would be better served if they would put less restrictions on forecasting and insist on scale alone – then implementers could adjust their activities as needed to maximize scale, and therefore impact.
- Obsessing about Sustainability leads to false success stories. Some of the better publicized sustainability success stories have little impact in relationship with the investment. At Triggerise we call these projects “boutique innovations”. You probably know a few already, but here are some of their common features: (i) Their scale is very small – a handful of communities – even if they have been in implementation for years; (ii) Their models are often over-engineered – to the point that changes in the current environment will require radical redesign: expensive at best and impossible at scale; (iii) Their sustainability calculations do not really take into full consideration contributions of highly qualified (often expatriate) resources; (iv) their model relies on factors/ technology that do not exist in that combination elsewhere – that makes them very hard to replicate elsewhere;
- Evaluating sustainability assumes an understanding of complexity that is unlikely. Think of everything that truly achieved scale at any point. Even cliché examples like Facebook or the cellphone. Know of any committee that foresaw their impact? Meanwhile the Graveyard of Awesome Ideas is filled with well-thought theoretical models that never took off, although everyone thought they will. The point is – there is only one way to find out. Launch the thing, see what happens and adjust continuously, based on real insights. That’s how you achieve scale. Alas, no Sustainability Committee I know of will buy that.
- Obsession with Sustainability justifies non-action. The committee decides this is not sustainable therefore it should not be done. When you focus on scale on the other hand, none of this matters. Inaction has never led to scale. Imperfect ideas improved over time based on real-world feedback, on the other hand, have.
- It also legitimizes really bad ideas. Here is a real-world example: incentivizing health professionals in public facilities is not allowed by some donors out of principle and often fought against by local governments and international technical advisers. Their argument is that if health providers get incentivized for quality now, they will be disappointed when the project is finished and will quit. This should anger us, as incentivizing quality (or scale) would be an excellent way to increase impact. Once that impact is evident, more donors will probably put more money into these incentives (perhaps shifting it from paying for all those Technical Advisors?) making them work long term. Adjusting these at scale and playing with variables would also help us learn a bunch about incentives and behavior in those contexts, which can be transferred into projects elsewhere.
- Sustainability models discount the consumer experience. They call this consumer “beneficiary” and often treat her as a unidimensional individual exercising a predictable behavior that remains consistent over time. I believe that we must build everything around people, with the understanding that people will expect improvements of their experience over time. Only by delivering these incremental improvements can we achieve scale. Conversely, any model design to remain the same over time (i.e. sustainable) will fail eventually (because, evolution, right?).
- Finally, here is probably the most important argument: Obsessing about sustainability assumes there will be no more donors in the future. No more subsidies. Unfortunately, if that ever happens anywhere in the world, a lot of people will be in a really bad spot. Regardless where you live, some stuff is currently and will always need to be subsidized one way or another. Either by a government or by a donor or a family member. Designing for a world without donors is unrealistic bordering on delusional and harmful. Therefore “sustainable” in this context is nothing but an elaborate study in “someone else needs to pay rather than me”. This distracts us yet again from what is important – actual impact. We should focus on scale instead: knowing that we would not reach a situation where donor money won’t be needed, but hoping that we may help a situation in which donor money can be spent to bring scale to something else.
(*) Just to be clear. I am not talking about getting, say, a manufacturing plant to reduce its emissions. That stuff is different and I support it 100%. I am talking about projects aimed at reducing disease burden. Alleviating poverty. Increasing education, where sustainability is a scenario where donor funding won’t be necessary anymore.