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Sustainability: processes, partnerships, and systems

2023-03-27 Comments Off on Sustainability: processes, partnerships, and systems

The idea of sustainability is so elusive. It is not something you ever have or get, it’s a pursuit.

In the world of development, “sustainability” is the holy grail – as it should be. We want the good that projects deliver to deliver for the long-term, we want to avoid people who benefit from projects to become depend on the resources that projects give. We want people to be better off for the long-term, long after our temporary projects give their benefits. Development organizations and donors are always looking for a clear strategy for sustainability.

Our understanding of sustainability evolves and matures, partly from lessons from successful projects, but mainly lessons from failures. So often our projects are not “sustainable”. They do some good – always – but often that goodness fades and dissipates. Too often we seek “phase 2” of the good project, in the pursuit of sustainability, which is elusive.

Blue Harvest is a long-term initiative that has endured – it has some sticking power, it seems to be relatively “sustainability. So we see this program as something to learn in the pursuit of sustainability. We introduced the idea of Blue Harvest at an SCAA conference in 2013, then it got wings in 2014 with funding from Keurig Dr. Pepper (KDP) (Green Mountain Coffee Roasters at the time), which was then amplified by BID Lab’s SAFE Platform. Keurig (KDP) has continued to support Blue Harvest almost continuously through various iterations, currently through Blue Harvest Regenerative, a collaboration with CRS in Honduras and Nicaragua. The key to KDP’s support has been continuous and moderate funding for the long-term versus short-term projects.

In El Salvador, CRS has supported Blue Harvest activities through a diversity of projects and donors, which has enabled us to constantly reinvent Blue Harvest, treating is more as an “approach” versus a project. Long-term funding from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, has been especially critical, enabling CRS to “take risks and catalyze” change by supporting our local partners to innovate and adapt, in the pursuit of sustainability and impact. This funding enabled us to pilot the RENACER coffee school in 2019 and build a robust model of a school that grown remarkably.

Last month, the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) told us that our RENACER coffee school and Blue Harvest initiative were together selected as a finalist in for their annual sustainability award. This gave us the opportunity to reflect on sustainability.

We have learned that sustainability has three elements, amongst many others. These are: (a) promoting processes versus implementing projects, (b) creating networks of local actors, and (c) transforming “systems”, e.g., markets – versus only creating small initiatives for a select group of actors.

Our understanding of sustainability has evolved and matured through our experience with Blue Harvest and Renacer. When we first started Blue Harvest, our focus was on making a “project” sustainable, working with a limit set of producers and coffee companies. Now, we recognize that sustainability requires (a) Promoting processes that are adaptive, long-term, and scalable; (b) Creating a network, or ecosystem, of diverse partners, where each partner collaborates toward a shared mission; and (c)Transforming systems, i.e., markets, to ensure that everyone involved in a value chain can sustain their businesses and be profitable. When all these elements come together, we can contribute to a truly sustainable economy, where diverse partners are intentional about creating good jobs and protecting the environment.

From the perspective of CRS, as a development agency, we have a better understanding of our role to support farmers and other supply chain partners. As an NGO, we do best when we act as facilitators of processes, playing the role of a catalyst, building trust amongst diverse partners. When our partners’ businesses thrive (e.g., farms, mills, and roasters), then it’s possible for these businesses to create jobs that pay living wages, while also protecting the environment.

This recognition by SCA of the work that has “started” in Blue Harvest and RENACER is motivating. It is a good validation that we are on to something.