The idea of sustainability is so elusive. It is not something you ever have or get, it’s a pursuit.
In the world of development, “sustainability” is the holy grail – as it should be. We want the good that projects deliver to deliver for the long-term, we want to avoid people who benefit from projects to become depend on the resources that projects give. We want people to be better off for the long-term, long after our temporary projects give their benefits. Development organizations and donors are always looking for the strategy for sustainability.
Our understanding of sustainability evolves and matures, partly from lessons from successful projects, but mainly lessons from failures. So often our projects are not “sustainable”. They do some good – always – but often that goodness fades and dissipates. Too often we seek “phase 2” of the good project, in the pursuit of sustainability, which remains elusive.
Last month, the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) told us that our RENACER coffee program, and the Blue Harvest initiative, was selected as a finalist in for their annual sustainability award. They wrote us to ask, “How has your thinking about sustainability changed since starting Blue Harvest a decade ago?”
We responded that we are learning to understand that sustainability requires, as a foundation, three elements: (a) promoting processes versus implementing projects, (b) creating networks of local actors, and (c) transforming “systems”, e.g., markets – versus only creating small initiatives for a select group of actors.
Below is our longer reply to SCA:
Our understanding of sustainability has evolved and matured through our experience with Blue Harvest and Renacer. When we first started Blue Harvest, our focus was on making a “project” sustainable, working with a limit set of producers and coffee companies. Now, we recognize that sustainability requires (a) Promoting processes that are adaptive, long-term, and scalable; (b) Creating a network, or ecosystem, of diverse partners, where each partner collaborates toward a shared mission; and (c)Transforming systems, i.e., markets, to ensure that everyone involved in a value chain can sustain their businesses and be profitable. When all these elements come together, we can contribute to a truly sustainable economy, where diverse partners are intentional about creating good jobs and protecting the environment.
From the perspective of CRS, as a development agency, we have a better understanding of our role to support farmers and other supply chain partners. As an NGO, we do best when we act as facilitators of processes, playing the role of a catalyst, building trust amongst diverse partners. When our partners’ businesses thrive (e.g., farms, mills, and roasters), then it’s possible for these businesses to create jobs that pay living wages, while also protecting the environment.