Monday, April 20, 2009

Sustain this

Sustainability is one of the buzz words in the world of development organisations - which used to call themselves charities until that word became unfashionable.

The great thing about the word sustainability is that it can mean so many things that in the end, it often means nothing. Blue Dragon recently received a flogging with a very damp kleenex on a public website because, the critic said, our results are unsustainable. And what does that mean? Well, there lies the mystery.

To be a sustainable organisation is often taken to mean that you somehow can pay for your work without having to ask anyone for help. So, for example, a training restaurant is sustainable because (in theory, at least) the income from the restaurant should support all the costs and training expenses needed to run the organisation.

This is a great concept, but how can you apply it to organisations that rescue teenage girls from brothels... or provide heart surgeries for impoverished children... or give a home to abandoned infants? How can they be expected to develop an income stream to pay for themselves?

So being financially sustainable is great, but it by no means should be the measure of how good an organisation is.

And then there's the other common meaning of sustainability: that when your organisation packs up and disappears, the results of your work live on.

Training restaurants again provide a good example of this. Once trainees, who are usually from disadvantaged backgrounds, have completed their training, they can be fully independent and no longer need any support.

Of course, that's a great goal to aim for. But again, not for everyone. What about organisations that care for the elderly? Or people with severe disabilities? Should these groups of people be expected to somehow show a sustainable result?

Last Friday one of our teen boys, Truong, was sprawled out on a sofa in our centre. He's recently dropped out of school and has been doing work experience in the Blue Dragon kitchen. He's 17 years old, and has no idea what he wants to do with his life. So I had a chat with him, and it went something like this (except in Vietnamese, of course):

Me: Do you want to get a proper job in a restaurant?

Truong: No.

Me: What sort of job would you like to have?

Truong: Dunno.

Me: What about a job selling clothes, or working in a shop?

Truong: Yeah, maybe. But I don't really like talking to people.

Me: What about joining a vocational training course?

Truong: I don't know.

... and so on.

We're hardly heading for a sustainable result with this kid, are we?

But then it hit me: millions of parents around the world must have had conversations exactly like this one with their own teens.

Maybe, just maybe, I was once Truong, with no strong passions, no career plans - just an interest in hanging out with friends and listening to music.

So who says that Truong has to somehow fit into the currently-fashionable mold of sustainability? Is it just because he's an abandoned, neglected, impoverished Vietnamese teen that he is expected to be different to any other teenager around the world? Seems to me that he's a perfectly normal teenage boy. And I, for one, have no problem with that.

Could it be that the development consultants, experts and critics around the world would really have such double standards - allowing their own kids to behave like normal people, while demanding that poor kids in developing countries deliver a sustainable result?



Terynn said...

AMEN! Well-stated position on this subject. I do not know so much about organizations, but I do know that loving and caring for teens, the disabled and the elderly requires the sustenance of love, patience, kindness. And thankfully, when handled properly, *those* resources are, indeed, sustainable. Carry on, Blue Dragon! Carry on.

Ramon said...

i see it this way , young people in VN dont get a second chance, actually no one does , that s why we should cherish projects like Hoa Sua ,KOTO and Blue Dragon..

I used to work at Hoa Sua and we give them an honest idea about working in the hotel industry..dont present wrong expectation. its so good to see that the students do well and their succes a sustainable joy for us..

Michael Brosowski said...

Ramon, I completely agree! Hoa Sua and KOTO are both great projects. My point is that "sustainability" is not the main reason that they are great; and "sustainability" is not necessarily such a hugely important measure of a project's success. I have seen some perfectly sustainable projects that help nobody and achieve no worthwhile outcome.

And I must say, it bothers me that so many people think that to praise one project, it's essential to criticise another.

Anonymous said...

This is such a really cool topic.
ie some make use of the component 'building capacity' tool to measure the sustainability of the project but in fact there's no such outcome if not say there would be too much outcome for the involved implementators

Anonymous said...

i would very much like to have a word with these guys. blue dragon is not a company, so financially sustainablity is not the primary concern. sustainability for organizations like blue dragon shoul be viewed as how the kids, after graduating from their programs, would sustain their lives. we don´t make money. we help people be sustainable, that´s what we do.