What is sustainability?

By Abbhirami Rajagopal, PhD MPH
This was cross-posted to my own bog

Sustainability is the ability of a system or a process to endure. And for a process to endure, we have to build it in such that it remains flexible and adaptable in many contexts.

The health program that comes to mind when you think about sustainability is the eradication of smallpox. The smallpox eradication effort was continually adapted to fit the changing needs and goals of the disease eradication program. Over time, with decreasing number of smallpox cases, the emphasis shifted from routine vaccination to surveillance.

Far too often, public health policies and programs are implemented on small scales and with limited funds and risks being discontinued when funding runs out – even if it was successful. There is a mismatch between the expectation of long-lasting effects of large-scale interventions and reality. Trying to scale up health innovations or even continuing a program when the funding runs out or political landscape changes is challenging.

In the last decade, there has been a big push toward creating programs and interventions that are sustainable. More and more donors are recognizing the importance of the sustainability of evidence-based health interventions and favor programmatic approaches that include long-term maintenance. All of this recognition has culminated in the adoption of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the United Nations earlier this year.

The SDGs differ from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by virtue of being much more comprehensive with 12 goals and 17 focus areas. The SDGs set zero-oriented goals: getting to zero cases of hunger, child and maternal deaths and poverty. This lofty goal cannot be achieved by relying solely on the ever-shrinking development assistance from rich donors, as was the case with the MDGs. This is why the SDGs put sustainable, economic development right at the core of the strategy. The goals have been developed through consultation with nearly 100 member states and millions of citizens—probably the largest and most inclusive and participatory process we have ever seen. This allows for adaptable goal setting by countries that would then allow them to assess their own strengths and leverage their assets to meet the targets. To me, some of the most significant changes that we see in the SDGs are the emphasis on accountability, the separation of the issues of poverty from issues of food and nutrition security and the stronger goals with respect to women’s empowerment.

To strategically include sustainability in health programs and policies requires a “clear understanding of the concepts of sustainability and operational indicators to monitor sustainability” (1). The first step in designing sustainable health programs is to define the program elements that need to be sustained. It is also essential to build and effectively leverage partnerships for a program to be sustainable. This would imply that if you are planning a large scale program or intervention, you need to start early by planning, engaging the partners, using appropriate frameworks that conceptualize sustainability and incorporating outcome/success measures for your sustainability approach.

To go from theoretical frameworks to successful sustainability, there has to be more research with regards to how sustainable existing programs are, especially the ones that have incorporated “sustainability” into their programmatic approach. We need to know what works and what does not. We need to know what are the stumbling blocks that prevent programs from becoming sustainable. In doing so, in the future, we can design better plans for sustainable health programs, especially in settings where resources are becoming more and more limited.

Sustainability has been a huge challenge in programs designed to address micronutrient (vitamin and mineral) deficiencies. Micronutrient deficiencies impact a large number of children under-5 years of age worldwide. Many of these deficiencies co-occur with infections can exacerbate other infections that may be present (2-4).

One such micronutrient is Vitamin A; globally, nearly one-third of children under the age of 5 are deficient. We know vitamin A supplementation (VAS) works; a meta-analysis of 43 studies published in 2011 showed that VAS in children at risk for deficiency reduces mortality by about 24% (5). Despite large-scale efforts for VAS in children since the 1990s, as of 2013, the coverage rate is anywhere between 10-90% (6).

Nutrition interventions often rely on aid dollars and fortified foods or supplements from wealthy countries or private donors (for e.g. Vitamin A products for supplementation are obtained from the Micronutrient Initiative which is supported by Canadian International Development Agency). Both lack of support from the local Ministries of Health (since these programs may not align with their top priorities) and lack of policy initiatives to address micronutrient deficiencies contribute to the problems that dietary interventions encounter. The issues mentioned above point to one major theme— SUSTAINABILITY—that we as public health practitioners have to take into account when planning programs both at local and global levels.


1) Shediac-Rizkallah MC, Bone LR. Planning for the sustainability of community-based health programs: conceptual frameworks and future directions for research, practice and policy. Health Educ Res. 1998 Mar;13(1):87-108. Review.

2) de Gier B, Campos Ponce M, van de Bor M, Doak CM, Polman K. Helminth infections and micronutrients in school-age children: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014 Jun;99(6):1499-509. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.069955.

3) Amare B, Moges B, Mulu A, Yifru S, Kassu A. Quadruple burden of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, chronic intestinal parasitoses, and multiple micronutrient deficiency in ethiopia: a summary of available findings. Biomed Res Int. 2015;2015:598605. doi: 10.1155/2015/598605. Epub 2015 Feb 12.

4) Bhutta ZA. Effect of infections and environmental factors on growth and nutritional status in developing countries. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2006 Dec;43 Suppl 3:S13-21.

5) Imdad A, Herzer K, Mayo-Wilson E, Yakoob MY, Bhutta ZA. Vitamin A supplementation for preventing morbidity and mortality in children from 6 months to 5 years of age. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2010, Issue 12. Art. No.: CD008524. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD008524.pub2.

6) Vitamin A supplementation coverage rate (% of children ages 6-59 months). Available at http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SN.ITK.VITA.ZS

Abbhirami Rajagopal, PhD MPH: I am currently a postdoc at Baylor College of Medicine transitioning to a career public health. My graduate work involved identifying genes involved in heme homeostasis and for my postdoctoral work, I have worked on phosphate homeostasis and understanding pathogenesis skeletal dysplasias. During my postdoc, my drive for large-scale sustainable impact led me to an MPH degree from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. I am interested in health equity, environmental issues, sustainable food, nutrition security and social justice. I love to write and I love to volunteer! Find me on Twitter @abbhi_515 LinkedIn and Facebook


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