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Water, Sanitation & Hygiene

Boulder and Bolder

I recently took part in a panel discussion on the unlikely topic of business opportunities from sanitation services as part of the Colorado University WASH Symposium in Boulder. The mix of flatiron mountain peaks, snow, and altitude made for a heady combination. Coupled with the Symposium’s impressive range of guest speakers and enthusiastic students on my favorite water, sanitation, and hygiene subjects, it made for a lively couple of days.

Three ways to improve the WASH practice.

The longer I work in Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH), the more clearly I see how it has changed. 

When I started my career, the preoccupation was with performance of infrastructure and engineering solutions – these were the days of technology-only “fixes.” Over time, engineers slowly learned that only if the “hardware” of WASH (the taps and toilets) was loved and cared for by users, households, and communities alike would it be sustainable. As a result, the WASH sector moved in large part to embrace behavior change (the “software”) alongside engineering solutions. Nowadays, our focus is on the big levers of change – how politics, financing, regulation, and governance have the potential to help those who remain unserved with water and sanitation solutions.

Interesting as Boulder was as an event, it also offered some time for critical reflection – long evenings in a hotel and U.S. airport delays tend to be trigger points for me – and I came back to our D.C. office at Plan International USA thinking anew on a few points. With World Water Day this coming Sunday, sharing and testing these ideas seemed right. 

So here goes - three areas where we need to be bolder in our thinking spring to mind: 

1.There’s a huge appetite for data crunching and evidence at the heart of stronger decision making in WASH, but some naiveté about the personnel implications from endless streams of more rigorous and better quality M&E information. If we can’t deal with small data now, how will we ever manage big data? There’s a void here in capacity development and leadership that is continually being overlooked but instead needs to be embraced. At last, the GLAAS report is now making this issue much more central in our discussion of inputs required to the sector if we are to achieve the goals of universal coverage by 2030. 

2. The sector’s focus on business and entrepreneurial development tends to be flat and one dimensional. The single biggest missing link is how we can identify the right financial motives at the municipal/local government level to create new business development opportunities in waste collection, for instance. Successful triggering of investment from the small scale private sector into the business side of WASH will require both “push” factors (raising awareness of the return on investment, looking at complementary product lines) and “pull” factors (financial rewards for small to medium enterprises to not only collect fecal waste, but to dispose of it within the formal waste management stream) for significant change to happen.

3. We must recognize that the space in which we provide WASH services to communities is rapidly changing and will be transformed within the next generation. The movement of children and their families from predominantly rural settings to generally more urban centers is predictable and tangible. This shift requires a wholesale rethink of programming approaches by government, NGOs, and other development partners – how to plan for service provision in dense settlements on marginal land; how to cope with the deadening hand of illegality and insecurity of tenure rights; how to conduct participatory forms of community engagement in ethnically diverse communities; to even define traditional notions of “community?”

This is not to say that action on these three topics can’t be done or that we haven’t started down this road already. I see this all the time - one of the terrific things about working with Plan is its willingness to invest in new approaches, new operating environments, and new relationships that help push these frontiers forward. However, it does require all of us working in WASH to question ourselves, reflect on our modest successes and immodest failures, and be prepared to be bolder in both our thinking and doing.

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