Friday, June 18, 2010

This word called sustainabilty

One very common word in the charity sector is the word “sustainable”. We are constantly asked by various well wishers, donors and others about the sustainability of our work. Often, after a visitor has had a long tour of the work being done and the change that is happening in peoples’ lives, in the final debriefing session, the question inevitably gets asked.... “but is your work sustainable ?. What is your outcome? What has been your impact so far? What are your goals for the next three to five years and how much will it cost to achieve these goals?”

All of the above are valid questions, but I can never respond to these questions without relating an incident that occurred long ago, but which still plays on my mind. I was attending a conference where the subject of discussion was that institutional and residential care was costly and not sustainable in the long run and needed to be weeded out. Many arguments were presented by speakers from different disciplines with irrefutable facts and figures. Near the end, a diminutive figure stood up to speak. He introduced himself as a consultant to the World Bank on urban planning and began by saying that in his infancy, he had been abandoned outside a hospital, in a garbage bin, presumably by his parents. He was then picked up from there and taken to a children’s’ home where he received his education.

After he finished his schooling, he chose to become a priest and joined the Jesuit order. The Jesuits then furthered his education and sent him to study urban infrastructure planning and he became a person of such rare distinction that the World Bank picked him to advise governments around the world so that they could contain unplanned urban growth in the world’s growing mega cities. He summed up his talk by saying that although there was great merit in all these debates, a wholesome human being who was given the opportunity to realize his gifts and who then in turn used his vocation to serve his generation was the greatest definition of sustainability and something whose worth could never be factored in financial terms.

For the last few months, those thoughts have been constantly resonating in my mind. For indeed the cost of restoring broken lives and restoring them to a point where people are no longer “beneficiaries” of aid, but active and empowered participants in society is huge. When we talk of costs, bills and finances are the imagery that most commonly come to mind, but I am not just talking about the money involved here. The human cost involved and the sheer diversity of people and skills needed at different stages in a person’s transition to wholeness is immense and the task can seem daunting.

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