Sustainability and Innovation: Aid workers, some linguistic clarity please!

A guest post by Jennifer Lentfer of

Why does jargon matter to people? Perhaps it’s because these words remind us that we’re involved in what @Semhar Araia describes as “intellectual debates over real people’s lives.”

And maybe that’s not such a comfortable place.

“But will this be sustainable?”

This is a question I find it harder and harder to tolerate it in discussions about international development. (Luckily, due to my nature and to being an aid blogger, I rarely have to bite my tongue.)

I share this though because we as aid workers and funders need to challenge this notion of the necessity of the “sustainability” of activities within aid projects. Basic services to people must be sustainable. Training workshops must not.

I do not expect the fire house or the library down the street from me in Washington D.C. to be sustainable. In fact, I expect these public goods to be funded in perpetuity.

But by whom? That is the important question. I vote to make sure these services stay in tact in my own community.

Therefore, donors must be more careful not to employ a double standard in their expectations, especially of local civil society organizations. Let’s talk about sustainability, yes, but let’s also make sure it’s not just an empty question.

sustainability-of-sustainabilityAnd while I’m at it, what about “innovation” in aid?

“This project will be innovative.” 

The development aid sector is not lacking in ideas or methods and it’s hardly appropriate to declare one’s self “innovative,” right?

Last year I found the one-page piece I wrote about a local implementing partner’s monitoring activity for kids in 2004 still being showcased as an “innovative best practice” by a former large aid agency for I used to work (of course by now with someone else’s name on it). It made me question whether or not innovation is even possible in these big ships that are hard to steer.

I don’t want to set the bar low, but maybe, just maybe, doing your work well and making any progress at all in challenging, changing, and complex operating environments, (let alone bureaucracies), should be considered innovative in and of itself. Maybe we should look for evidence of innovation not in the latest idea or product as in the private sector, but in the fact that individual and collective reflection processes to identify and overcome obstacles occur, resulting in changes or adaptations in our work.

Moreover, aren’t the people who intimately know a problem from the inside out, more likely to see where the possibilities for innovation or sustainability lie? In the scope of action by smaller grassroots groups focused on family and community structures, is there not the potential to draw upon these insights for larger programs?

Because who determines what is self-sustaining and where we look for innovation is ultimately most important to aid’s success.


CA2_9836-X2Named One of Foreign Policy Magazine’s “100 women to follow on Twitter,” Jennifer Lentfer is the creator of Lentfer has worked with over 300 grassroots organizations in east and southern Africa over the past decade, as well as various international organizations in Africa and the US, including the Red Cross, UNICEF, Catholic Relief Services, and Firelight Foundation. Lentfer is currently Senior Writer on Oxfam America’s Aid Effectiveness team and editor of the organization’s Politics of Poverty blog. Lentfer is also an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communication.



Interested in Contributing to the PIN Blog? Email us at


2 thoughts on “Sustainability and Innovation: Aid workers, some linguistic clarity please!

    • Thanks Ben! Great article and thanks for continuing the conversation. We’re always looking for guest-bloggers if you want to contribute to the Buzzword series – or write about anything else related to Global Development? Do you have a Twitter account?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s