What is sustainable development really? The textbook definition is simply the fulfilment of human needs so these needs can be met in the present and future without undue damage to the natural environment. In reality, sustainability means giving people the tools to help to translate a dream into a reality.
And sometimes, it takes more than dreams. Sometimes, it takes a little help too.
That's where non-government organisations play a key role. Often, it doesn't take a lot of money to provide the basic ingredients for sustainable services.
Recently in Gaza, two youngsters, aged 5 and 3, drowned in an open sewage pool. It could have been prevented. Digging and repairing sewage treatment networks can eliminate unhealthy floods in the streets and allow children to walk to school or play outside unharmed.
Connecting families in remote Palestinian villages to clean drinking water can enable children to lead healthy, productive lives.
Sustainable development can be as simple as providing a dozen chickens, a bag of feed and a small cage to give a family a steady supply of nutritious eggs for their meals and eventually to sell for extra income. In a place like Gaza, where nearly half the labour force is out of work, that can mean a lot. And, it is something that can be sustained and expanded.
My organisation, the NGO American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA), has supplied 1,200 chickens to a West Bank orphanage of 70 children for eggs to feed the children and provide income too.
In the overcrowded refugee camp of Ein El Helweh, in southern Lebanon, ANERA teamed up with the agriculture department at the American University of Beirut to spearhead a "greening" project that has provided a group of women with seeds, containers and training to cultivate kitchen vegetable gardens in their homes.
This programme has helped turn empty rooftops, balconies and even stairwells into vegetable gardens that can nourish families and provide a source of income. In addition to providing an important coping mechanism for families with limited income, this project also provides a bit of green to an otherwise grey concrete jungle of narrow alleyways.
The project not only provides a sustainable source of food security but also helps to build self-reliance among the camp's women, who more often than not are responsible for their family's health and well-being.
Development programmes also benefit from a capacity-building aspect so that the men, women and youth who are helped by the project can pass on the skills and knowledge to sustain the project. Sustainable development provides the tools for economic empowerment and self-dignity.
Until now, about 4,000 residents of a remote Palestinian Bedouin community in the West Bank had relied on health services at a small three-room clinic that hadn't been upgraded in 30 years. With less than $200,000 (Dh735,000), ANERA expanded the clinic, pharmacy and lab and upgraded the water and sanitation facilities.
In the Bedouin village of Anab Al Kabir, seven new classrooms and a computer lab added to the primary school now opens a door for 160 students to pursue a high school education and a more promising future. These are relatively small projects in the world of global development, but they prove that it really doesn't take much to help to ensure better and longer-lasting medical services for people in need.
A vital key to such projects is getting local groups and communities involved and invested in the programmes and enabling them to carry on the projects on their own. But that means listening to the community and the potential beneficiaries to find out what they really need and responding to those needs appropriately. That's sustainability at its best.
At a time when governments are debating cuts in foreign aid, international humanitarian and development organisations are facing ever-increasing challenges. Sustainable projects aren't just a means of empowering communities. They have and always will be a necessary approach to ensuring that development organisations are not reduced to just relief and charity. Otherwise, we are in a cycle of dependency, and no one wants that.
Paul Butler is the country director West Bank/Gaza for ANERA (American Near East Refugee Aid)