DevLearn Digest 6: Avoiding the Sustainability Delusion

Hi everyone,

A few exciting announcements, before we get into our main newsletter.

Firstly, we are excited to say that we have developed a Course Handbook for our online training, offering guidance, advice, and examples on market systems development. Download it here, and please give feedback on whether it’s useful – this will really help us decide how much effort to put into maintaining it.

A job opportunity; we are hiring our second Young Professional, offering opportunities to young professionals from the Global South looking for a career in international development. Download the job ad here and please share it within your network.

Congratulations to the graduating cohort of 147 students from our April 2022 courses on results measurement and market systems development! We will open applications for our November 2022 course in July. You can get yourself (or your colleagues) on the waiting list by clicking here or emailing us directly.

Finally, we are planning on improving our learning and communications over the next few months, with more regular learning briefs and research summaries. Follow us on LinkedIn for updates.

Enough announcements, let’s get on with the newsletter!

The Sustainability Delusion

More than one in three market systems development professionals will suffer, at some point in their careers, from the Sustainability Delusion. To raise awareness of this debilitating and little-known condition, this newsletter asks what the Sustainability Delusion is, why it exists, and what we can do about it.

What is the Sustainability Delusion?

While there are several meanings of ‘sustainability’, I will concentrate on the idea that market development projects should aim at phasing themselves out. At the end of the project, the root causes of market dysfunction will be addressed, supporting functions will be provided by permanent market actors, and the project has ‘become sustainable’.

The Sustainability Delusion is a confidently held belief in the sustainability of an intervention, in defiance of evidence, experience, and common sense. Frequent symptoms of the Sustainability Delusion include:

  • The belief is that an uninterested government, donor, or private sector will continue to fund the intervention if only you can produce a sufficiently well-formatted evidence brief.
  • Constantly revising the date at which an intervention will be ‘sustainable’, which is typically 6-12 months from the present.
  • In severe cases, the sufferer may get trapped into a ‘Sustainability Plan Cycle’. A Sustainability Plan is requested (often by a donor or senior management), developed, criticised, forgotten about, and then a new plan is requested and the cycle continues.

Why does the Sustainability Delusion develop?

The Sustainability Delusion emerges among practitioners who believe passionately in the value of sustainability. They have taken our course, which mentions sustainability in almost every video. They have immersed themselves in blogs and papers on what sustainability means, how to monitor and evaluate it, why we don’t get it, and how to improve it.

The practitioner then finds themselves implementing an intervention which they really believe is important and successful. Perhaps they provide an intensive package of training, inputs, and loans to help farmers in marginalised communities increase their income. Or mentoring and advice to small businesses to help them grow. Or investment capital for women-owned enterprises.

Despite the demonstrated impact, the happy testimonials, and the glowing evaluation report, over time the practitioner starts to worry that the impacts of the intervention will not last forever.

Rather than admit that the intervention is a failure, or question the importance of sustainability, the practitioner succumbs to the Sustainability Delusion and becomes irrationally convinced of the sustainability of their chosen intervention.

What can you do about it?

The Sustainability Delusion is a reasonable approach to the way our sector sometimes treats sustainability. By seeing it as the only possible justification for development funding in market development, we create pressure for people to claim sustainability, even when it isn’t remotely plausible.

I think a better approach is to recognise that, in many contexts, the services that go into a functioning pro-poor market economy cannot be locally funded, and are unlikely to be so in the foreseeable future.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Infrastructure, education, vocational training, access to credit, insurance, research and even agricultural inputs are all subsidised, at least partially, in the richest economies in the world today. Some of the biggest success stories in private sector development, from the Green Revolution to China’s economic growth, rely on heavy and continuing levels of government support. Many of the roles played by market development programmes are simply not going to be replaced by private sector funding.

Governments in low-income countries are – almost by definition – lacking ready cash. Pushing these governments to fund new services is unlikely to work, takes huge amounts of time, and is likely to take money away from other essential services, such as education or health.

In market systems development-speak, we often look for the ‘critical constraints’ that, if addressed, will allow a sector to develop. For the average programme, however, these just don’t exist. There is no magic button that can be pressed to trigger systemic change. Our interventions can only address a small number of constraints – and most sectors experience challenges at the local, national, and global level.

In this context, development programmes can make real – if unsustainable – gains. Rather than succumb to the Sustainability Delusion, it is better to recognise and accept when interventions are having an impact, and accept when continuing outside sources of funding are likely to be required. It’s not necessarily a bad thing – you just need to recognise and plan for it.

Tips and advice

If you find yourself working with an unsustainable intervention, don’t panic! Just follow these tips:

  • Think about an exit strategy. An exit strategy doesn’t need to lead to sustainability. But it does need to clearly communicate what will and won’t continue, and what support stakeholders can expect. Better to be upfront about an intervention’s lack of sustainability, rather than succumbing to the Sustainability Delusion and suggest that everything will continue.
  • Think long-term. Being unsustainable isn’t the same as being short-term. Unexpectedly giving smallholders inputs for a single season, for example, can damage existing markets, create confusion, and lead to everyone being worse off in the long run. If your intervention isn’t sustainable, at least make it long-term and predictable.
  • Coordinate with others. Most development projects start by coming up with their own market analysis, ideas, and interventions. Although fresh thinking is important, the implication is that the successes of past projects tend to disappear, and failures tend to get re-visited. Rather than setting up new interventions, look to see whether there are any closing projects that you can take good ideas from.
  • Build ownership, not funding. As discussed above, key support functions are likely to be donor-funded for the near future. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have local ownership. Requiring commitments of time, energy, and strategic insight from partners is a good way to make sure that the intervention really is impactful.

Approaches to sustainability are often driven by donors rather than projects. A donor can set and follow long-term planning, and coordinate with others much more effectively. They can be realistic about the level to which sustainability can realistically be achieved, have honest conversations with partners and implementers about it, and play their role in addressing the Sustainability Delusion.

That’s all from us this month. Let us know any resources you would like to have featured, and send in any tips or ideas for the next newsletter,

Adam