What is this ‘sustainability’ thing, anyway?

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011


Ever wondered what sustainability means? People use it a lot in our line of work, usually when thinking about the IMPACT development work has. I thought I’d try and go for a definition today as I sit here thinking about how to get more of it! Interested? Have a read of this and tell me what you think! 

Whilst I was in Lodwar, (Turkhana District, Northern Kenya) last week I experienced first hand an ‘aid drop’. The Water Project and one of our partners delivered 150kg of maize and beans to the community of Kakiriing, with whom we are currently doing a water project. These are people who cannot grow enough food for themselves. They are dependent on regular food aid for their survival. Although it was a great thing we did, and it undoubtedly helped the community, what we did that day was the opposite of something ‘sustainable’.
Most people would argue that African societies should be able to feed themselves. Clearly, if this is to happen, people need to be given the tools and the knowledge to grow their own food for today and the future, rather than one off meals handed out by well meaning folks like me. That is what the ‘sustainable’ bit of sustainable development means.
Sustainable development means a way of using natural resources that allows for people to meet their needs whilst safeguarding the environment for tomorrow. In a place such as Turkhana where they are currently suffering through a ten year drought, this means practical things like helping the people think through new ideas on desert agriculture, composting or water use.
These ideas have been around a while. It was the Brundtland Commission, convened by the United Nations in 1983 that first provided a formal definition. Since then people have taken the ideas and run with them, but the definition remains strong and central. They defined sustainable development as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

I guess the crucial bit here is about ‘future generations’. Sustainable development means leaving the world in a decent state for our children. People like the kids pictured above.
Simple? In theory yes, in practice maybe not. We’re always working with our partners to help them (and us) become more sustainable. Perhaps next time I’ll try and write about an example or two!