In talking about development, often times the word “sustainable” gets thrown into the conversation. But what does it truly mean to develop a region or community sustainably? Let’s take a look at Northwest Cameroon.

70% of people within this region rely on subsistence farming for their main source of food.

Access to technology also presents a great struggle for this rural region as well, with electricity, irrigation systems, plumbing, and Internet being some of the top tier resources urgently needed by many within the Northwest.

So, as a non-profit working within the region, Himalayan Institute Cameroon must be that much more innovative and vigilant when it comes to program development, resource attainment, and complex problem solving. Although many people relate “sustainability” to matters of environment, when it comes to rural community development, part of this sustainability effort relates to what is possible within these communities, how best we can utilize limited resources, and what kinds of solutions can actually be undertaken by the people in these communities.

Within many of these challenges lies ample opportunity to implement environmentally conscious solutions too. For example, problems related to electricity can be largely eliminated with solar power; creating single barrel rainwater collection systems and clean water wells can help communities get away from relying on a government run water supply; and utilizing satellite systems for Internet access can help people stay connected even within struggling rural regions. The wealth of technological capabilities out there today provides an incredible opportunity for disconnected regions of developing countries to develop at a much faster and cost-effective pace than traditional methods.

However, one crucial aspect of development must always be remembered: solutions that come from native peoples, produced by native peoples, and run by native peoples continue to have the highest rates of success. In conjunction with innovative environmental solutions, this participation from rural communities every step of the way is what we see as sustainable development, i.e. the solutions we create together will last long after we are gone from the region, people feel empowered to advance their own innovations in community problem solving, and communities begin to implement systems (whether social, economic, or cultural) that best suit their needs.

This sustainable approach takes time and dedication by many, throughout many sectors, and from a financial perspective can actually be very challenging to fund. For example, when funding non-profit work overseas first became a priority for the US government, caps were put in place on overhead and indirect costs, meaning that individual organizations were quick to follow suit in how they granted funding to local and national non-profits. The lasting effects these outdated policies have on the non-profit community today are vast, but there is one main characteristic dominating the conversation: most successful non-profits must start with a large amount of overhead and indirect costs in order to keep operations in the field moving forward. Usually, these costs account for things like maintenance, transportation, and human resources.

Most successful non-profits must start with a large amount of overhead costs in order to maintain operations in the field.

Traditionally, donors shied away from giving to these operations in an attempt to make sure their money was going to the people and projects it was intended for. This fail-safe is necessary, but in today’s non-profit world, must be understood in a much more complex and nuanced manner. Just like in any for-profit business, non-profits need partners, collaborators, and organizations looking to see projects and programs through for the long hall—the needs of a non-profit often change at a fast pace due to the response of that organization to the region in which they operate. The ultimate cost of sustainability lies within the steadfast nature of these different relationships.

A holistic approach to development, looking both from the outside in, and the inside out, can help guide non-profits and larger grant-making organizations alike to discover much more effective models of change.

Great ideas must first come from the people we are trying to serve.