Sustainability, commitment, and help: what do these things mean?

There is a similar dynamic in each of the two Disabled Persons’ Organizations (DPOs) with which I am working. In both cases, there are tensions about what should be done and why should it be done.

In my thesis research, I learned that the research participants with disabilities in Western Zambia were acutely aware that they are poor. For them, poverty meant a lack of material resources (money & things) that meant that their lives were worse than they could be. For the participants, there was a solution to this problem: that other people help them. In this sense, help meant receiving money or things from people who were better off than they were.

According to the conventional wisdom of development, help can hurt. When the rich just give things out to the poor, this can disempower people and make them dependent. Whereas gifts and charity are seen to be antitheses of development, the provision of grants or credit is celebrated. In the ethos of development, the giving things out is unsustainable, while providing seed money is sustainable.

Let’s use this foundational thinking to ask some questions about sustainability.

From the way that I hear people talking about sustainability, the logic goes a little something like this: “With starter capital and capacity-building, marginalized people are able to increasingly able to improve their own situation.”

Sound familiar?

I actually agree with the logic above…most of the time. The parts of the logic that trouble me are beliefs about its singularity and universality. In regular English, what I mean is that it is a problem if we think that there is only one approach to sustainability, and that this approach is always good.

If you think of sustainability in a way that is different than the one above, please let me know.

In the logic above, the key elements that I see are time and independence, and these two are meant to interact. Specifically, a sustainable initiative is one where things change over time – and an important part of this change is with respect to self-sufficiency.

My research was an awesome experience because I approached it with great faith in the above understanding of sustainability, but then spent a lot of time talking to people who did not see it the same way. Using the logic of help, as described by the participants, self-sufficiency is not necessary, and certainly not expected. What is expected, by contrast, is an ongoing relationship between rich people and poor people.

Have you noticed that the logic of help appears to be the exact opposite to the logic of sustainability?

Some people would say that the research participants spoke this way because they were disempowered. Maybe, but they were certainly empowered enough to speak this way with me, even when they saw me respond negatively to the preference for help. And what is more disempowering: me allowing them to believe what they believe, or me “correcting their mistaken views”?

With this in mind, I propose that we give some legitimacy to the participants’ logic of help; that we consider this to be a reasonable strategy alongside sustainability. But doing this can be a little scary, as it then means destabilizing what we might consider to be the right way for those of us in positions of privilege to collaborate with people in marginalized positions.

So what is different about help as compared to sustainability? From my assessment, the difference is commitment.

In the logic of sustainability, it is responsible to be planning for the eventual departure of the supporting party. This departure is seen to be natural and inevitable. But why is it that those of us doing “international development” approach things this way?

With the goal of making sustainability seem strange, I propose this metaphorical comparison: a sustainable marriage.

“Do you take this partner, for a period of 3 years, with the possibility of no more than one 3-year extension?

“Do you agree that the goal of this partnership should be the self-sufficiency of your partner, such that your involvement is no longer needed at the conclusion of the agreement?

“Do you agree that after the terms of this agreement are met – either according to the elapsed time periods or according to the achievement of self-sufficiency – that you should go out to find another partner under the same terms?”

That is a little different than the way that we think of marriage, no? And yet it is precisely the way that I have approached individual relationships in most of my international engagement.

I am not the first person to be questioning sustainability. Actually, writing this blog post is incentive to do some reading. What is new for me is being aware that I am in a position to decide about the extent that sustainability is mainstreamed into my own work.

From this position, I truly am uncertain as to whether I should renew my vows to sustainability, or to be building other styles of relationships.

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