Author Lilian Kiefer, April 3 2014:       Sustainability is now a buzzword, featuring in almost all discussions on community development and donor funded initiatives.

There is a reason for this. For any community-based intervention to succeed, there ought to be a mechanism for sustainability by generating benefits that go beyond the end of external funding.  This aspect has always been a challenge for organisations working with [economically] poor communities. Development practitioners always have to battle with the challenge of how poor communities would be able to spare benefits from their intervention as capital for sustainability of their development interventions. One question remains: what happens when funding expires?

It is not possible to answer the issues of sustainability without bringing out issues of community leadership. For community interventions to effectively develop a sustainability mechanism and implement it, there is need for skilled leadership at community level as well a political support from the local/traditional leadership. This kind of leadership can only be attained if communities are allowed space to develop and drive development interventions relevant to their communities and external support only used to facilitate and support. When community members see the value of certain interventions, they are inspired to take ownership and sustain the initiative.

The focus on ownership for sustainability puts communities in control of development interventions. They are encouraged to give their best and live a legacy for their generation in efforts to overcome poverty.

As part of its work to empower communities in Southern Africa Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf) focuses on building capacities of communicators and the media to create space for local participation. This strategy empowers community actors with capacity to galvanise their potential. Building capacity of the community leadership to be able to take this responsibility forward is crucial.

Various players including community philanthropists, government workers, civil society organisations and private sector have achieved great social impact through capitalising on their geographic focus and an in-depth knowledge of what their communities need.

To inspire community ownership, it is important to understand what the community needs before embarking on any development intervention. That knowledge of the community needs can then be used as a foundation for building community ownership of the interventions, creating an environment for community members to work to sustain the interventions beyond external funding. Unless community members themselves and their leaders are involved from planning level, ownership and sustainability of such interventions remains questionable.

Some key lessons that have been learnt from PSAf’s previous interventions at community development projects in Zambia and other Southern African countries have included:

1.    Community engagement:  Engaging communities right from the conceptualisation and design of the intervention through its implementation, until the evaluation process builds community ownership and creates a base for community support after external funding phases. When community members are involved at all stages, they take charge.

2.    Building local capacities: Projects that factor in capacity building of the community in project management have potential to be sustained by the communities themselves beyond project funding. Communities need capacity building in leadership skills, developing and managing projects, monitoring and evaluation in order to appreciate impact and value of their interventions, as well capacity in forging partnerships and collaborations at community levels.

3.    Interfacing community groups with public institutions: In working with communities, linking public institutions with local people assists in developing sustainability structures whereby citizens develop means of following up and fostering accountability at that level without the need for external support.

Factoring in sustainability mechanisms in community-based intervention is crucial, and with the success of that, impact of various interventions will be felt on a bigger scale

Lilian Kiefer is the Executive Director of PSAf. For feedback, email