Why I hate the word sustainability

What happens when your intervention is over? When you stop training the doctors, providing the bags of food, or advising the Ministry of Finance? Will anything remain? If something will remain, your project is sustainable. That quality – being designed to continue once the outsider effort ends – is sustainability.

I hate this word because the grammar makes no sense.

I also hate this word because it means so many things to so many different people. The definition I just gave you was the one that I learned from a former boss, the smartest woman in the world. (Seriously, she is. If you had ever met her, you’d agree with me.) Sheila taught me that sustainability isn’t about your project continuing, or even the institution you support or develop. Sustainability is about the change you help bring about being a lasting change. It doesn’t matter if your child health center closes if children continue to get improved medical care.

Other people think other things. Some people think sustainability is about building organizations and institutions that last. A lot of projects think that sustainability is about having a steady supply of new donors; a project is sustainable if it will be able to find a new donor once you stop funding it. MSF, of course, thinks sustainability is irrelevant.

So, I guess I hate the word sustainability because it has no agreed upon-meaning, and it’s a prime example of the kind of jargon that keeps planners from thinking about the details of what they want to do.

Edited to add: Jeff Trexler reminds me that I left out an entire set of meanings for the word sustainable. One of its most common usages is as part of the phrase “sustainable development.” Sustainable development refers to development which occurs without damage to the environment, culturally appropriate, and continues on its own once begun (according some combination of the criteria I defined above).

Edited again: Owen Barder has his own take on what’s wrong with sustainability.