Anne Heyman on making development projects sustainable

Rwanda youth perform during a commemoration ceremony for genocide victims. Photo by: Elisa Finocchiaro / CC BY-NC-SA

EDITOR’S NOTE: To ensure any aid project’s long-term success, building local capacity is key — but donors should recognize that this comes at a cost, writes Anne Heyman, using the example of an initiative she led to establish Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda.

Everyone implementing projects in developing countries faces the challenge of ensuring their sustainability. Often these efforts focus on financial sustainability, but this is only part of the equation. Equally important is the question of operational sustainability: how can founders ensure that the project will continue at the expected level of program delivery even after they have left the country?

This question has been a critical component of strategic planning for the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda since the project’s inception in September 2006. Our focus on hiring and increasing the capacity of Rwandan staff has been more expensive, and this approach is more time-consuming at the outset than using already-trained staff from abroad. But it has been essential to making the project sustainable over the long term.

The village, which I helped establish in the Eastern Province of Rwanda, is home to 500 teenagers orphaned principally by violence, but also by AIDS and other causes. It is not an orphanage or a boarding school. Modeled on the youth villages (such as Yemin Orde) built in Israel after the Holocaust to house and reintegrate orphans of that genocide, it is instead an innovative community where young people live in surrogate families and receive guidance, comprehensive health care, and a quality formal and informal education that emphasizes the value of critical thinking and practical skills needed in a developing nation.

Beginning with a direct purchase of the land (rather than requesting it from the government), we concentrated on supporting the local economy. We hired a Rwandan architecture firm and a Rwandan construction company, and we put together a Rwandan advisory board consisting of people working in all the areas relevant to the village programs (such as education, youth development, culture, HIV/AIDS, and post-conflict reconciliation). The architects, contractors, and advisory board members all spent time in Israel studying the Youth Village model, giving them a deep understanding of the villages’ philosophy, methodology, and benefits. Moreover, we designed the Rwandan village’s physical and programmatic structure in full consultation with these individuals. Knowing that their voices were heard has made them passionate supporters of the village.

Perhaps our biggest investment in operational sustainability involved the hiring and training of local staff. We hired only locals where possible. In other cases (for example, the director’s position, which required previous experience running a youth village), we kept foreign staff in the job only as long as it took to set up systems or train a local person to take over.

We identified and addressed skills that needed strengthening in our local employees through ongoing trainings — an effort that continues today. One thing we have learned through experience is that one-off trainings are never worthwhile. Instead, we have found success through long-term training programs where the trainer transitions out gradually, allowing local staff to build their capabilities and responsibilities over time.

For example, in our high school, we have conducted some individual trainings for teachers, but we have also employed a full-time pedagogical adviser living in the village and working with staff every day. She has now identified staff members who can fill her role in the future, and this year she will be coming to the village three times for two months each time to oversee that transition.

No matter how well planned, not all transitions are smooth, and sometimes a “plan B” is necessary. For example, we had an educator who trained staff in the Youth Village philosophy and methodology living in the village for the first three years of operation. He identified and trained a Rwandan successor on our staff, but after one year in this position that successor was hired away by another institution. To address the problem we identified a new candidate from our staff who would excel at the job and brought over a team from Israel to train (and re-train) all staff in our philosophy and methodology. This team will continue to provide support to the new educator and other staff members until everyone feels it is no longer necessary.

This methodology of intensive training with an eye toward operational sustainability inevitably results in two salaries being paid for one job. Travel, training, and consultant costs can be avoided by simply using expatriate staff. We are very clear with our funders, however, that this is our strategy, and our budget includes the necessary costs of these trainers and consultants. Our donors are aware that without this type of investment, it is impossible for a project like Agahozo-Shalom to ever become truly independent.

Republished with permission from the Council on Foreign Relations. Read the original article.

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