From an engineering perspective, project sustainability can be defined as the ability to resolve existing problems while allowing future generations the opportunity to meet their needs. When transplanting the idea of project sustainability into an international setting, two important considerations must be included to promote long-term sustainability: cultural appropriateness and local project ownership. The question that arises is how can the uniformed services maximize sustainability with logistical and time constraints?
One solution is to collaborate with and learn from local groups. Long-term international partnerships help alleviate the sustainability challenges facing entities engaged in short-term, project-based missions. This article addresses the lessons learned by local groups that work in a permanent, program-based environment, while pinpointing key principles that the uniformed services can apply to improve project sustainability.
Limitations of Project-Based Development
Part of the excitement of working abroad comes from the myriad novel challenges that it presents. As Peace Corps volunteers, the authors experienced these challenges firsthand while constructing water and sanitation systems in rural, indigenous villages throughout Panama. Military engineers face similar challenges abroad when engaged in disaster relief, humanitarian assistance, training exercises and infrastructure development. Such projects, by their nature, face two critical limitations that hinder sustainability: the condensed timeframe available for project implementation and the lack of local experience and knowledge held by the project managers.
Lack of adequate time to accomplish project-based missions can impede sustainability. Ideally, the project team has enough time on site to gather data regarding existing conditions, locally-available resources, stakeholder needs and the cultural environment. A project objective is only selected after careful consideration of alternatives and consultation with project stakeholders. Once stakeholders select the preferred alternative, the project is implemented and monitored to ensure long-term success. With the addition of long-term training, the time required to ensure high-level sustainability may take several years for a small community project.
In reality, the project team usually has a limited amount of time on site. This limitation stems from security concerns, budgetary shortcomings, personnel availability, diplomatic restrictions, or inadequate lead time. To maximize sustainability within this time constraint, the team often must gather information remotely and design a solution without substantial time and experience on the ground. As experienced engineers are aware, this approach often fails as the project recipients have had little opportunity for project buy-in, resulting in devalued local ownership.
The second critical limitation facing project-based endeavors is the lack of local experience and knowledge. Regardless of location, projects must be based on local knowledge, stakeholder concerns and environmental conditions. With these factors weaved into the project framework, sustainability is enhanced, producing a more locally-derived and appropriate solution tailored to the unique complexities of the situation; thus, instilling a greater sense of ownership among project stakeholders.
It is often difficult to acquire local experience and knowledge when working in the project-based framework. Project teams deployed in response to natural or humanitarian disasters have short lead times during which to gather information on local conditions or form meaningful indigenous relationships. Even in less urgent scenarios, the hectic workload of most engineers leaves no time for grassroots project development. Without local knowledge and trusting relationships, the project remains geared only towards short-term emergency relief and may prove ineffective in the long-term.
Successful Stakeholder Involvement
In the Peace Corps, the authors observed the broken and abandoned relics of countless failed projects present throughout the communities they served. Time and again, systems were installed by foreign governments or private organizations that imported non-native technologies and ideas without adequate local stakeholder training or project buy-in. The decayed remains of these failures were daily reminders to the communities of the often harmful hand of foreigners, which frequently discouraged outside assistance for future community development.
Conversely, local program-based entities possess the experience to implement multiple projects successfully in the same region over extended periods. They are able to avoid many of the difficulties of project-based endeavors by investing time into building local relationships and gathering local knowledge, allowing for more complete project development. All project phases, from initiation and feasibility studies to completion and monitoring, can be completed on site with the full cooperation of local project stakeholders. By spending more time in the region, the project manager can gather more thorough technical information while directly involving local stakeholders in the process. Trusting relationships with local community, political and educational leaders provide intimate access to all levels of the community and are key to developing project ownership and ensuring long-term success.
The advantages of sufficient time and local experience can be explored through a U.S. government agency that specializes in grassroots capacity building and infrastructure development. The Peace Corps applies a program-based international development approach, leveraging time and local experience to maximize sustainability. Engineers in Peace Corps spend two years living in the communities they serve. They interact with community leaders and observe local customs daily. Through these observations and interactions, they can advocate for environmentally- and culturally-appropriate technologies and solutions that utilize locally-available resources. Through this partnership, they can effectively incorporate long-term monitoring and training into stakeholder-initiated infrastructure projects.
Solutions and Lessons Learned
The time limitation inherent to a project-based framework prevents the development of high-level sustainability. While the conditions under which military engineers work will not change, by partnering with and using the tools of local, program-based groups, such challenges may be overcome.
One tool project teams can use to overcome time and local experience constraints is the use of advance deployment and post-project monitoring teams. The effectiveness of these teams is magnified when partnered with local, program-based groups. By taking advantage of the local group’s established relationships within the region and environmental knowledge, such teams can gather more reliable and holistic information from a technical, cultural and political standpoint.
This collaboration can be taken one step further by outsourcing advance and monitoring tasks entirely to program-based groups. This approach can be very effective in urgent disaster relief or humanitarian assistance situations, when advance deployment is infeasible. In these instances, permanent coordination with the local program-based partners can be invaluable in determining the nature of the response and maximizing the effective use of locally available resources.
Furthermore, once a project is implemented, supported yet fully functional local monitoring teams can lead data analysis tasks and track sustainability indicators. Local partners consequently would be better equipped to execute appropriate corrective actions when needed. By empowering local partners and end users to perform these tasks, project stakeholders take greater responsibility for the long-term operation and maintenance of the systems.
Another powerful tool available through collaboration with program-based partners is the incorporation of short-term projects with existing community-based initiatives. Use of an existing initiative, bolstered by financial and technical inputs from the short-term project, helps instill a legitimate sense of stakeholder ownership while injecting long-term sustainability into a short-term project.
This collaboration is advantageous not only for the project team, but also for the local program-based group and project beneficiaries. By facilitating the entry of the project’s financial and technical assets, the local counterparts are rightly given ample credit for the project’s outcome while gaining the prestige and political capital of working with international entities to resolve local problems.
As an example of such collaboration, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) regularly partners with the Peace Corps to implement infrastructure projects abroad. USAID employs the grassroots knowledge of volunteers to identify program-based projects with the potential for high-level sustainability. As a result, USAID is able to efficiently accomplish its mission without expending unnecessary manpower on project development, while the Peace Corps and the communities it serves acquire invaluable financial resources.
While it is difficult to guarantee sustainability in infrastructure development projects abroad, collaboration between the uniformed services and local program-based groups can benefit the missions of both. Synergistic relationships allow engineers to bridge the gap between the local and the global, while using local resources efficiently, minimizing time constraints and more effectively serving the global community.