Sustainability Patterns

Early Wins

Early Wins



Show immediate small successes.

Grameen Foundation's Village Phone program has long been touted as the poster child for using mobiles in the economic empowerment of poor women. The program gives villagers in Bangladesh—and now in several other countries—access to microcredit to buy a mobile phone that can then be rented to other villagers who do not have a mobile of their own. The mobile phones not only create a new business opportunity for the poor, but also bring access to information, market, health and other services to the remote rural areas of Bangladesh. This was a major innovation, but a small thing: placing modern cell phones in the hand of the woman from the poorest households in remote villages, something that no telecom operator had dared to do in the past. A borrower buys a mobile phone to become the Telephone Lady of the village. She provides the telecommunication services to the village while earning profits for herself. By the end of 2008, there were about 354,000 village phone ladies who have together taken loans amounting to BDT 2.57 billion (USD 37 million). Now that mobile phone use is more common within the villages, the Telephone Ladies are gradually becoming Internet Ladies, offering the use of small computers to others in their areas. Building on their success as entrepreneurs with phones has enabled them to move to a new venture.

Your organization identified Organizational Cornerstones. You have selected an area for development. You have started to have Cultural and Environmental Awareness to determine the needs you can address. You’re ready to start supporting projects.

Your organization has a list of potential solutions to tackle the problems in the field. Where should you start?

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the problems in a development situation. You want to tackle all the problems immediately, but everyone involved in the program has a limited amount of energy and time. Usually, the local people are only willing and able to work on a few problems at a time and they will tackle these problems at their own pace.

When people work for a long time without achieving recognizable success, they start to doubt that they can solve the problem. When programs fail, cooperation can degenerate into mutual recrimination and bitterness.

We have a tendency to want evidence in the form of a big success. Surely, that will be convincing. What’s hard to see is the power of a lot of very small successes.


Identify a very small number of high priority problems that show potential for solution and address them to show immediate small successes.

Start with a limited number of projects chosen, above all, to achieve significant success in the shortest time possible; three months is a recommended time. Stay close to these pilot programs, so that 90% of them, if at all possible, achieve success.[1]

We all like to continue doing tasks that bring us satisfaction. Success is as crucial to making participation constructive as it was to creating the enthusiasm that motivated the participation in the first place.

In an agricultural setting, this can mean increased crop yield, decreased costs, decreased risk, or some combination of these. Carefully choose sustainable technologies for their ability, in a relatively short time, to bring significant increases in yields and/or decreases in costs without increasing risks.

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Applying this pattern builds a series of small successes. Early recognizable success is crucial in making participation constructive. Success can attract the highly concerned leaders that can result in Constructive Participation. It can strengthen bonds between workers and earn positive feedback from neighbors and friends. Success eliminates pressure to deceitfully claim results that were never achieved. It will overcome hopelessness and help to convince people that they can solve their own problems. Skeptical individuals are more likely to be convinced when they see that the program has achieved successes that benefit them directly.

One of the goals of successful projects is to teach people how to design and run their own projects. A second goal is to develop confidence both in the development organization and in the participants themselves. After achieving success on a small scale, doubts are diminished and hope is increased. The community is more likely to consider additional projects that they determine meet community needs and to put together a plan to make it happen. Make the community aware that not all projects will be successful and that failure provides learning opportunities. Successes and failures help to point the way to possibly larger projects.

Between 1987 and 1993, the Cantarranas Integrated Agricultural Development Program, financed by Catholic Relief Services and managed by World Neighbors, worked in some 35 villages around the central Honduran town of Cantarranas. They applied simple technologies that would not mean a lot of upheaval for the local farmers: in-row tillage and intercropped green manures. When these proved successful and agricultural output was increased, the program was gradually expanded into more general agricultural development and preventive health.

In his two best-selling books, Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, Greg Mortensen describes his efforts to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The interest in female education extended to women’s vocational centers in Kabul—places where women could gather to learn skills such as weaving, embroidery, and other domestic crafts. The units became neighborhood literacy centers—classrooms where older women who had been deprived of the chance to go to school could learn to read and write. Classes were held in homes taught by teachers moonlighting for extra cash. It was a good experiment—but they failed to anticipate the reaction. Women attending these classes told their friends, who in turn told their friends, and soon applicants were signing up in such numbers that each center soon reached maximum capacity. Initially women came to learn to read and write, but the scope of their ambitions began to expand radically. Some started book clubs. Others began to exchange information about dental hygiene and reproductive health. The curricula spilled into nutrition, diet, and disease prevention. There were seminars on typing, learning to read calendars, counting money, and the most popular of all, for which the demand was off the charts: the rudiments of using a mobile phone. This was the result of a small, simple experiment with women who had been forced to lead restricted and sequestered lives, putting them into the same room, and giving them the license to dream. The idea of women teaching other women was so electrifying that each class rapidly grew, forcing them to set up 2, 3, and sometimes 4 teaching shifts to handle the load. Husbands permitted wives to attend classes hoping that learning to read and write might enable them to earn additional income for the family. Each night after preparing dinner and attending to domestic duties, many women did their homework together with their daughters.

The Delancey Street Foundation was started in California in 1971 by Mimi Silbert, a criminologist, and John Maher, an ex-convict. The two formed the foundation's core beliefs: That people thought to be incorrigible can get better by working hard and holding each other accountable. Most new residents start with simple tools and simple tasks. They are given a broom and a list of chores. While sweeping or mopping or shoveling snow, the more experienced residents whisper in the ears of the new residents, telling them about the foundation and its history. By the end of their time on a maintenance crew they know the entire history of the property they're cleaning. Slowly but surely, in a series of small steps, a foundation is built. While doing menial work, newcomers are also required to get their high school equivalency diploma if they do not already have it. Over time, every resident learns a job skill. Slowly but surely, self-confidence comes back. Delancey Street residents can't say what moment or event caused them to abandon their old ways. All they know is that they're not the same people they once were.

 [1]Bunch, R., Two Ears of Corn, A Guide to People-Centered Agricultural Improvement, World Neighbors, 1982.

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