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Creating sustainable communities

Creating sustainable communities
anita cheria and edwin

Sustainability is not a permanent condition. Creating sustainable communities out of the presently marginalised and excluded is not an easy task. But it is possible. Sustainability of a community is its survival with security and self–respect. It is the power to access and control the resource base. The fundamental requirement for a sustainable community is that the locus of power lies within it. It means that social, political and economic power, in the long run, has to be a part of the in–built capacity of the people. This capacity has to have the resilience to adapt to change and stay on top of the evolving situation in a world in permanent transition. The initial provocation, leadership or support may be external, but this should not be for long. In the long term there is a contradiction between sustainability and dependence.

There are many components to the sustainability of an intervention. All are important. But the absence of one, or even a few, does not mean that a particular intervention is not sustainable —only that it is vulnerable to that extent. Extra strength in one area can help cover up weakness in another. The analogy for the relationship of the components of sustainability is not links in a chain—break one and you break it all—but strands of a rope. The more strands in a rope and the tighter they are woven, the stronger it is. The more elements present, the more sustainable the process.

The 'R's of sustainability
Literacy has three 'R's. Building sustainable communities, being a slightly more difficult process, needs four. The community will go through a relief—resist—reconstruct—rectify process. It will go through progressive needs of survival, sustenance, self–esteem and finally to assertion of rights. This is not a linear process.

First, if the community is on the edge of survival, the people may have to be brought from survival to sustenance through a welfare program, but this should have a strong component of awareness of the political situation.

Once the community fills up the charity space of 'relief' provided to it by society, there can be a backlash. Once this backlash is overcome, then the community can go along a road to political empowerment—which includes participation in formal governance, or else it is like making a 'successful sale' without getting paid. It should take back control over its resource base— including the right to be human—that is illegally and immorally denied to it.

Now the focus on the development organisation and the community shifts to building platforms of strength, so that the community does not revert back to the pre–intervention days. The resource base should be strengthened so that the basic rights of all can be fulfilled. This includes a natural resource base with enough unpolluted land, water and air to support the community. Education, so that literacy levels improve—and the skills needed to be productive in the global economy are gained. Health, both preventive and curative. Housing... in effect everything that the middle classes take for granted. When these reach sustainable levels, the development organisation can move on to information provision, since the community will have become politically and economically sustainable by then.

Oppressed communities also oppress those within them. The community needs an intense process of internal rectification so that the justice demanded from the outside world is made present within it—be it in terms of age, religion, gender, caste or class. Gender equity is at the very top of any internal rectification process as the first and primary objective. This is closely followed by the annihilation of caste and class divisions.

Internal rectification should be rigorous enough to enable each individual to identify totally with the group. It should not be possible for any external group to be able to fulfil any need of an individual or sub–group better than the community. This process should be a conscious, and continuous, effort. Internal rectification is, in itself, very powerful process. It increases the 'pull' factor of a group tremendously. Any issue or crisis can bring people together. Internal rectification is important for staying together in the long run.

A continuous process...
Are the processes to create sustainable communities replicable and permanent? Of course not. This is a question one repeatedly encounters when explaining different models. Putting the same question in a different way, another group might ask, rather rhetorically, whether the model will be compatible with the local ethos and conditions in another area. Those who made significant impact are clear that their interventions are not replicable.

Is it that there is no fool proof method that can be followed, and each development intervention must develop with individual experiences? Or that though lessons can be learnt from others, none can be duplicated as the 'successful type?' History, as Henry Kissinger tells us, is not a cookbook of pretested recipes. It teaches by analogy, not by maxims. It can illuminate the consequences of actions in comparable situations, yet each generation must discover for itself what situations are in fact comparable.

Replicability of models is not an issue for communities, though it is for NGOs and donors. Most of the best practices have evolved by breaking and [re]making the 'rules.' The common thread is that sustainable communities can be created only by a process of empowerment that leads to a capture of power. The more power captured, the more sustainable a community.

How long will the community institutions built by these organisations last after the withdrawal of the development organisation? That is to miss the point. The achievement of interventions that have made a substantial difference in the quality of life of the communities has been to make the process of empowerment irreversible. The community will not go back to the pre–intervention days.

Sustainability is not static, nor a permanent condition. What is sustainable at one point in time or in one place need not be so in another. It requires constant praxis—action and reflection. Dynamic processes cannot have static responses. Sustainability does not mean cutting off from everyone and everything else to become completely independent. Rather it means interdependence based on complementary skills, and on mutual respect. This comes about only when each community has a certain amount of social, economic and political power.

Social mobilisation for action to initiate an empowerment process, and carry it forward to its logical end is needed to create sustainable communities for those excluded in present relationships. Stopping at the welfare stage, or being comfortable in charity, actually hurts the process, and keeps people in dependency. Creating sustainable communities is not a spectator sport. It is not for the faint–hearted—those frightened of wielding power, or facing its consequences. It is a long distance race. Those without stamina should not get in.

[The concepts discussed are elaborated in our book Life goes on.., and A Human Rights Approach to Development.]
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