Sustainability

17 12 2009

In the U.S., sustainability has become a buzz-word synonymous with “green” or “environmentally-friendly.” In the world of people focused on development, sustainability is a buzzword hailed by international aids organizations as the answer that will help countries develop and at the same time is loathed by on-the-ground aids workers who struggle with how to really create and foster sustainable change. Rightly so, organizations have realized that you can place the world’s best volunteer on the ground and they can do a bang up job for however long they’re there but ultimately if you’re not teaching, mentoring and creating a sustainable aspect of your work, the work means little in the big picture. With that in mind, many organizations put a priority on sustainable contributions. As volunteers, we are told not to just write a press release but to engage in capacity building and help our organizations create and own a media strategy. I have met doctors who are told that while serving patients directly would be nice and is certainly needed, their skills would be better utilized by analyzing the structure and helping create a guidebook and/or policies for certain practices. On the surface it makes sense. Yet, when it comes to practicing what we preach, it becomes much more difficult. After all, as westerners we are used to instant gratification. I’ve found myself wanting to come in and during the short time I’m here, write and place an op-ed in the NY Times that raises the profile of the NGO I’m working with and raises them a ton of money. Lofty goal – maybe? But worth taking a shot – why not? Except even if that did happen, it would be a drop in the bucket and realistically may not actually help the people we’re trying to help on a day-to-day basis. How can you expect a country and its people to “develop” and achieve “success” like the rest of the world, when here simple, basic infrastructure needs (water, electricity, road repair) are not being met? It is incredibly difficult to manage the cultural differences and often I have to pull myself back from thinking the western way is the “better” way. Is it? I don’t really know. So often, I feel frustrated at the inefficiencies I see here and think if only more people knew about this or there was more money or more corporate types cared enough to come and mentor – things would change. And yet, I now know firsthand that creating change isn’t easy. Creating sustainable, lasting change is bigger than one person or one act and often feels like an impossible task. So, while I love that I’m here and I love that I’m volunteering, it is still hard sometimes to feel like any of this is really making the difference I have idolized in my mind all these years.

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2 responses

19 12 2009
Noelle

I was wondering when my deep-thinking Allison would emerge! And I got to read your post on a Friday — our usual one-on-one day! Keep your chin up. You’re making a difference. It might be small, but the fact that you care, and are helping all of us to understand, makes a difference.

22 12 2009
Kristin

I agree with Noelle… you are opening our eyes by living and experiencing something so different, first-hand. The expertise you bring to your NGO may seem small, but you are making a big impact for being one person 🙂

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