How do you make a project sustainable?

A few weeks ago I was invited to present at the UC Davis Student’s for One Health Club's Project Design Workshop on making a project sustainable.  The intent was to use HALI as a case study of project sustainability, a shining model for others to learn from and follow. But in preparing for the workshop, I confronted two unanticipated concepts:

  1. Sustainability for a research project is very tricky and maybe not all that relevant.
  2. While we strive towards a vision of sustainability for HALI, viability may be a more realistic goal.

There is an abundance of literature on sustainability and how to design sustainable projects, from the development toolkit to energy and natural resource management.  I promised to share a few with the Students for One Health group, so to keep my promise, here you go (IFAD's Sustainability of Rural Development Projects and PSU's Project Sustainability Manual).

For more, you can simply Google “how to make a project sustainable” and find all you need to get started. I did.  More useful in my opinion is communicating the challenges a project like HALI confronts in working towards a definition of sustainability. Let's get started.

How do you make a collaborative research and capacity building project like HALI sustainable?

What does sustainability even mean in this context? Does it have to be Venn diagram ready? What about viability, where does it fit into the picture?

Conventionally, sustainability and viability are different sides of the same coin separated only by time, where sustainability is viability over the long-term. HALI is a pretty good example of a viable research project.

The HALI Story  - A Decade of Hits (well almost…)

Viable projects generate info-graphics.

Viable projects generate info-graphics.

Once upon a time, 2006 in fact and with funding from USAID, HALI began as a partnership between UC Davis, the Sokoine University of Agriculture, Wildlife Conservation Society, the University of Vermont and other local Tanzanian organizations uniting multiple disciplines in a One Health approach to investigate the epidemiology and impact of zoonotic diseases on health and livelihoods in the Ruaha Ecosystem.  The initial USAID support lasted until 2009 (with the addition of other small grants), and our research team leveraged the capacity and infrastructure developed in the first 3 years along with research findings to secure a new collaboration with UC San Francisco and the Tanzania National Institute for Medical Research. Under this new collaboration, HALI was awarded NIH funds to further expand our One Health approach to investigate the epidemiology of tuberculosis and Brucella in the area, including medical surveillance of local clinics and sampling of people in HALI study communities. 

Around the same time, an international consortium led by the UC Davis One Health Institute was awarded the USAID Emerging Pandemic Threats PREDICT project, which included Tanzania as a priority country for strengthening disease surveillance at high-risk human-animal interfaces for spillover and transmission of potentially pandemic viruses from wildlife to people.  Since HALI had already established core capacity in disease surveillance, especially wildlife disease surveillance (thanks Envirovet Summer Institute!), PREDICT invested in HALI and Sokoine University of Agriculture’s (SUA) Faculty of Veterinary Medicine as the Tanzania implementing partner. Through PREDICT, HALI expanded in scope from Ruaha to other parts of Tanzania and further developed the diagnostic capacity at SUA for viral detection.

In 2010, HALI also received an award to build-on research in health and livelihood improvement back home in the Ruaha Ecosystem through the USAID-funded Feed the Future Innovation Lab - Collaborative Research for Adapting Livestock Systems to Climate Change. The HALI 2.0 project was forged, continuing efforts working at the community level to strengthen livestock health and pastoralist nutrition and livelihoods.

In 2013-14, through capacity developed with USAID and NIH support and relationships made during PREDICT, HALI forged another partnership with Metabiota with support from a new US Federal Agency. Two more One Health projects were designed, one exploring the epidemiology of Rift Valley Fever and Brucella in the Kilombero and Iringa regions and the other investigating viral transmission of bat, non-human primate, and human populations sharing forest fragment ecosystems in and around the Udzungwa Mountains National Park.  Our team is actually in Tanzania right now doing initial site and scoping visits with SUA and a new addition to the HALI family, the Ifakara Health Institute.

Finally, in October of this year, UC Davis and the PREDICT consortium were successfully awarded USAID funds to continue PREDICT under the second phase of the Emerging Pandemic Threats program.  As with the first round of PREIDCT, HALI is implementing the project in Tanzania.

In sum, from 2009 to 2015, HALI research has been supported by 3 major US government agencies investing in 7 major collaborative research and capacity building projects. Additional funds from smaller grants including USFWS Wildlife Without Borders and Safari Club International to name a few, dramatically enhanced our programs and overall viability and let us do really cool things like partner with Ruaha National Park on understanding African Buffalo population trends, health, and movement patterns.

But let's get back to where we started, viability.

HALI is a very successful and viable project.

We are fortunate to have a great team of scientists and collaborators from around the world that continue to push our research and impact forward at multiple levels, from field assistants working at the community interface to staff scientists and Principal Investigators interfacing with ministry and agency partners. There is a tremendous amount of energy invested in continued capacity strengthening for our team and in identifying new opportunities when existing projects approach their natural end. We even have a rubric, yes a rubric for evaluating if opportunities are a good fit with our core vision and approach. There have been some lean years and some uncertain times when we weren’t sure of HALI’s future and our ability to retain our amazing team and continue our work, but overall we have weathered the storms and find ourselves in 2015 with five major programs running simultaneously out of our UC Davis and SUA-based hubs. We are even hiring, always a good sign.

But is HALI sustainable?

Despite all of our successes, HALI today is not sustainable, at least not under a conventional definition of sustainability where the project operates independently over long-term horizons. As a research program, we are and likely will be always dependent on some level of donor or agency funding and investment, opportunities that ebb and flow in an extremely competitive and political climate over which we have no control.  I challenge any project operating in this environment to convince me of its sustainability. Except maybe PARIMA, that was some great work and took a few decades.

So what is a sustainable research project?

Is it one that facilitates lasting change and impact long after the funding stream dries out? One that cranks out high-impact publications of relevance and interest with tons of citations? Research for development that informs successful interventions? One that trains scientists who over long careers train another generation of scientists ensuring the creation and continuation of knowledge over time?

With these in mind, some elements of HALI seem very sustainable. For example, knowledge created and shared through higher education and in training a new generation of Tanzanian scientists in One Health, and the potentially long-lasting impacts of our disease awareness and environmental education programs in primary schools. 

Big Dreams Need Big Teams!

Our project does have visions of sustainability, just no pre-determined plan.  We even have an annual “Visioning Meeting” to talk about this stuff, it’s where we developed that rubric!   The challenge for HALI is in designing a “sustainability” plan in a context where the concept of sustainability itself is so obscure.  Sustainability in 2006 would have been a wildly different discussion and road map than what we would draw-up today.

Despite this challenge, our dedicated efforts towards viability have enabled considerable progress down that road, wherever it may lead.  As HALI evolves, so too does our vision of what sustainability could be.  A strength of HALI has always been our partnerships and shared commitment to improving health and livelihoods, and our ability to adapt to meet new challenges and take advantage of emerging opportunities.

Next year we celebrate the project’s 10th birthday. HALI is all grown up. A decade of hits.  A lot has changed since 2006: new research, new team members and institutions, new study areas, new directions. But the overall vision and culture remain the same, along with dedication and commitment.  For project sustainability’s sake, maybe that’s all that matters.