The notion of sustainability, bandied about as the ultimate goal of international development programs, troubles me.
In its simplest definition, sustainability is the ability to exist constantly. Few things in our world – from marriages to businesses to social projects – actually enjoy sustainability in that sense. Some endeavors are just one-off or ‘band aids’ to avoid deeper engagement.
Sustainability is a concept widely used by western development organizations to mean ‘balanced’ efforts to meet basic human needs – but usually in a hurry. Large NGOs with government contracts enjoy ready access to capital. No so much for the small organizations doing equally worthy work.
Sustainability is always in flux, changing over time and place. It’s not a goal but a process.
The greater the level of poverty, the more challenging it is to improve the lives of those who experience it. The ‘unbanked,’ the un- or undereducated, the sick and traumatized face a struggle of indeterminate length to achieve an acceptable quality of living. Being a woman, and especially a women of color, means you have to navigate out of a deep trough of exclusion and internalized devaluation.
If we are to inculcate sustainability in initiatives that assist the poorest communities, then we have to reallocate resources to women. The two resources that matter most: knowledge and capital.
Where women are systemically excluded from education, we offer rigorous instruction. Where women know only subsistence economic activities, we share the knowledge, tools, and mentoring that growing a profitable business requires. Where women need to meet operating costs, we open accessible channels to capital, knowing their children’s welfare motivates their long-term vision.
Success as they define it takes as long as it takes; some achieve breakthroughs, others fail and must try again. Both outcomes have to inform the patience and quality of assistance.
It’s the group we must elevate, enabling them to build both social capital and access to capital – without draconian conditions.
We have an effective way to assist this mighty transition: the Women’s Center. With this foundation, we can let go of that nagging sense of impermanence when we witness their resilience.