From the ground up

Boat of produce on Mekong riverAssociate Professor Mick Paddon, Research Director at the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures, finds the true meaning of sustainability in a sprawling city on the shores of the Mekong River.

Anyone who has travelled as a tourist along the Mekong River in Vietnam is likely to have visited Can Tho City. It is a stopping-off point for boat trips up the Mekong to Cambodia, home to a wonderful floating market and a newly-erected bridge that bears striking resemblance to the Anzac Bridge in Sydney. What would be less obvious to the passing tourist is that Can Tho is a rapidly growing city, on track to be a major growth point for the development of the whole of the south of Vietnam.

Over the past three-and-a-half years, the UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF) has been working with Can Tho City on two different projects, both intended to assist in making the city’s development more sustainable.

The first, conducted between 2006 and 2007, involved the ISF working with city authorities and a team of researchers from the Hanoi-based National Institute for Urban and Rural Development to prepare a 20-year comprehensive and integrated strategy for the city’s development.

Now, the ISF is working on a project in the city of Can Tho to research options for providing sanitation to newly developing peri-urban areas (belts of non-urban land fringing the metropolitan centre) in the city’s south. This work is funded by the Australian Government’s development aid agency AusAID under its Australian Development Research Awards scheme.

These two projects illustrate some fundamental aspects of what we mean by ‘sustainability’: it is about enabling people in development contexts to find their own solutions. An important feature of the ISF project into sanitation options is that it is a partnership with the Can Tho City’s Water Supply and Sewerage Company and academic researchers from the local university. The focus and the location were decisions made by the city’s water company.

Throughout the process of economic analysis and sustainability assessment, decision-makers work together to compare several alternative ways to provide sanitation. This innovative approach to research has been developed by the ISF over the past decade through its work in Australia, the Middle East, North Africa and the US.

But there are serious challenges in applying this approach in Can Tho City. For example, securing agreement on possible technical solutions, which are often innovative and cutting edge, can be difficult. The approach is also about putting alternative options to local decision-makers and consulting with many key stakeholders. This can pose additional challenges because the bureaucratic mechanisms in Vietnam are far from fluid: there are a number of parallel processes that take place across the country at the same time.

For example, decision-making is being decentralised from the national level to cities like Can Tho; there are reforms underway in state-owned utilities, such as the water supply company; and there is a move to greater consultation by governments at all levels in what is termed in Vietnam “grass roots democracy”.

So a simple project can take considerably more time to complete as you work through these processes with local partners. It is as much about understanding local social and political dynamics as it is about the technologies, even on a project on what appears to be about ‘hardware’ issues in sanitation. But we have to recognise that if the option selected works for – and is, to a certain extent, ‘owned’ by the local partners – it creates valuable buy-in, enhancing the project’s chances for success into the future.

At the national and global level, sustainable development becomes about the long-terms impacts of providing aid, supporting particular initiatives and undertaking specific reforms or changes. The question – ‘How do we know that what we are doing is having a significant and positive effect?’ – is often raised by governments funding aid programs, international donor organisations and non-governmental organisations working on the ground.

This issue of whether development aid ‘works’ is one of the main underlying questions asked at a series of open forums held at UTS over the past couple of years as part of the One Just World initiative. The Sydney forums, which are due to continue into 2010, have looked at such issues as women and development, climate change and the overarching question: ‘Does aid work?’

There has been general agreement among the diverse speakers at these forums that aid is important, but there is no simple answer to the question of whether aid really works. One way this can be answered is to ask the people directly affected by the aid projects: the communities in developing countries.

Part of this process is to identify communities not just as recipients of development aid but as active agents and partners in projects. With AusAID funding, the ISF, alongside the IWDA and two nongovernmental organisations, is researching the gender impact of local water and aid-funded sanitation projects in Fiji and Vanuatu. At this local level, ‘sustainability’ takes on a different hue. As with Can Tho, it is a question of whether initiatives can be maintained locally, which often means ensuring that all the elements of the project are appropriate.

In the space of a decade, sustainability is one of those terms that, through force of argument, sound research and advocacy, has come into common usage in public policy and debate. Current development aid work requires the application of sustainability as it is understood in contemporary Australia: looking at the interdependence of social, political, economic and environmental dimensions. It’s about working on the ground to come up with solutions that are appropriate in the environment, relevant to the community and owned by the locals.

Words: Michael Paddon
Photography: iStockPhoto.com / Gina Smith