The Biggest Challenge: Sustainability

Posted on: June 18, 2010

When I first thought of EIA, I thought the most important thing we’d be doing is providing logistics for teams coming to Bolivia. I was wrong. Our greatest gift is sustainability. We make sure the damn things work over the long haul.

Without a doubt the biggest challenge facing development in the Developing World is sustainability. Bolivia and the rest of the Developing World are littered with well-meaning, well-designed, and well-constructed projects that don’t work and are abandoned as quickly as a year after they’ve been built. We come across someall the time in the campo of Bolivia. EVERYONE says that they have solved the Sustainability Problem. Most organizations train a local guy or a few local folks in how to do basic maintenance of the infrastructure.

But here’s the problem: Who do they train? Inevitably they pick someone who is young, aggressive, and intelligent. The problem with that is, what happens to a young, aggressive, intelligent person in these remote villages? They don’t stay! They move to the city to find work and a better life for them and their family. And they take the knowledge and sustainability with them.

EIA’s solution has been to work with Community Water or Sanitation Committees. But we’ve encountered the same problem. The best committee people often leave for work in the city.

EIA is only 3 years old and we are still learning, sometimes from our mistakes. Increasingly the only solution we can see, at least initially, is to go back time and time again to check on the project, fix what needs to be fixed, teach – yet again- the local folks on how to properly use the infrastructure, and teach yet another group of folks on basic maintenance and upkeep. We believe that if we can do that regularly, over a 3-5 year period, then eventually the community will “get it” and it will move into self-sustainability. But even then the community will need back-up for major repairs.

We are developing a Sustainability Plan for each project. It includes: How we approach new communities regarding projects, Expectations of our EWB, Rotary, and other partners; the engineering design; the ‘buy-in’ by the community; Ceremonial transfer of ownership; Immediate and frequent follow-up and community training by EIA the first year; Gradually decreasing frequency of follow-up and training over the next 2-4 years. And perpetual back-up for communities over the coming decades.

I’d be interested in any comments you have about Sustainability and EIA’s role in that. Just fill out the stuff below and send them to me. We are still learning.

Your Sustaining Partner

David Stephenson, Executive Director, EIA