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Everyone together for everyone forever: changing the whole system in practice

by Patrick Moriarty and Harold Lockwood

In the first post in this series, we explained why we believe that a paradigm shift is needed in the WASH sector: moving beyond the construction of physical hardware to the universal provision of safe drinking water (and sanitation) services worthy of the name.

Because of the number of activities and actors involved, water and sanitation service delivery is inherently complex. And as much as we may be drawn to the idea of straightforward technological or market-based solutions, this complexity means such solutions will never get us all the way to sustainable services for everyone – particularly for the poorest people in the hardest to reach and most remote areas.

It is not enough that one individual or organisation begins to perform better or that an improvement is made in some technical aspect of service delivery. The whole system of individuals, organisations, technologies and the institutions (political, financial, and regulatory) that link them needs to work and work more effectively. This is a messy reality with many incentives at play involving both national politics and the politics of aid.

The challenge of alignment

Effectiveness in such systems starts with alignment, and alignment in turn comes through a shared vision or purpose – often requiring significant investment in understanding and ‘accepting’ the problem or challenge as a first key step.

But alignment of efforts also requires the alignment of incentives. Put simply, if the money in WASH is primarily focussed on building hardware, then WASH actors will deliver hardware. If, instead, we want them to deliver good quality services, then we must pay them and assess them on their ability to deliver good quality services.

At its core, IRC’s work is therefore about triggering a shared understanding of WASH as being about universal service delivery, and then supporting the alignment of incentives to the delivery of those services.

Our work starts from a number of assumptions, essentially axioms, by which we approach driving change:

  • Lasting (sustainable) change has to be developed and owned locally and nationally. Outside agencies have a critical role as triggers, catalysts and supporters. But to be successful the change must be desired, understood  and eventually owned by local actors. Development aid can only ever play a small (ideally catalytic) part in this transformational process.
  • Change should be driven by people through evidence. At the end of the day it is people who make decisions and people are influenced by evidence, which comes in many forms from anecdote to formal experiments. But to bring about lasting and meaningful change, each step must be fed with and create relevant and actionable information that allows people at all levels to make decisions about change and work effectively together.
  • It is the process of letting go that people resist, not the change itself. Getting people to stop doing things the old way and start doing things in a new way requires transitions. Providing a self-critical, but supportive environment in which people  reflect on the challenges of current practice and to come to terms with the new situation is essential; being perceived as a ‘neutral broker’ helps enormously with this process. Interestingly, our experience has shown that it is during the transition period when new ideas and innovations emerge.

Phases of change

Over the past five years we have worked hard on driving and supporting change in rural water supply in Ghana, Uganda and other countries (see links below). From this experience we are starting to see the outlines of a replicable process for driving change emerge. It is important to stress that the precise details and, most importantly the pace of change, will vary  across different country contexts, but our experience points to three broad phases, which are summarised in the diagram below.Phases in systems change process

Phase 1: is all about creating shared perception of the need for change. In practical terms this has meant carrying out (or collating existing) research into the current state of water (or sanitation) service provision and then bringing this evidence to the table to trigger interest in and demand for change. Examples of the sort of evidence we used can be found here and here.

The triggering of interest and creation of broad intention to change (at least among initial champions and leaders) typically takes a year or two depending on the existing level of convergence and the willingness to collaborate. Critical activities revolve around building the foundations for change: establishing dialogue and trust between partners, including joint reflection and analysis of the main challenges at national and more local levels.

The intensity of these activities will drop off over time but will continue to be  required in some form throughout the change process – as new challenges arise and actors enter the playing field. A critical outcome of this phase is the shared vision of success or the end state that is desired by all stakeholders.

Phase 2: revolves around  learning and testing: searching  for practical, actionable solutions to long-term, underlying problems that are preventing either universal access to, or the sustainability of, services. These are likely to be both strategic and more operational: updating or harmonising existing policy and legislation that may be absent or incomplete; and or trialing and testing, through action research, new ways of monitoring for service delivery, improving asset management, creating demand for sanitation, clarifying roles and mandates at the local level and so on.

The learning and testing can take the form of more formal experiments or trials, or can be based on case studies or more anecdotal methodologies. Critically, learning and research at the  local level is constantly fed-back into national  dialogue and policy review processes.

Phase 3: in this phase the fruits of the change process really start to materialise through the impacts of systemic improvements to both policy and practice and the adoption and replication of good practice. The whole point of our way of working is that scale emerges through an internalisation of the activities and processes identified during the phase of learning and testing. Because key national and local stakeholders are actively involved in all aspect of planning, designing and executing the research, they are much more likely to recognise and accept the outputs as their own and embrace the change, rather than seeing it as imposed by external organisations and their global ‘experts’ and ‘consultants’.

The timeline set out in the figure above represents a highly conceptualised abstraction of the reality of sector change processes. In practice these are messy, never linear and often confusing. They do not follow neat predictable lines; intense activity can proceed for long periods of time with seemingly no impact, and then change comes in a rush.

Because most aid projects are conceived as stand-alone initiatives and have only three or four years to deliver, they are often unable to invest in some of the critical activities in phases 1 and 3. And, indeed, by the standards of many ‘projects’ the work we do can be seen as ‘slow’, not producing immediate (or immediately measurable) impact. All of which flies in the face of aid delivery as ‘value for money’ at the superficial level of maximising beneficiary numbers.

But we are convinced, through our experiences and those of others, that such an approach does, in the long-term, deliver results in terms of adoption, scale up and indeed impact. More importantly we consider that this approach is really the only game in town in terms of providing an exit strategy for aid (see Ton Schouten’s earlier post on the end of aid).

Almost everyone these days seems to be seeking transformational impact – which is a good thing. Unfortunately, much of this search seems to be focussed on quick (technological) wins. We believe passionately that aid should seek to be transformational and catalytic. But we also believe that transformation takes time, needs proper resourcing, and needs to follow a process that looks at least somewhat like the one we are describing in these posts.

In our next post we will give further detail and some real world examples from our experience in Ghana and the approaches and tools we are using to trigger whole system change.

About Sarah Carriger

I work with international development and research organizations to put knowledge into the hands of policymakers, practitioners, NGOs, and communities. My job is to help people understand more than just the science, but also how it benefits them—the possibilities it opens up, how it has relevance for their work, and ultimately how it can improve lives. I have served as a strategic communications adviser to over half a dozen international organizations and programs and have worked with individuals and teams of researchers to develop hundreds of communications products over the course of the past 15 years.

6 comments on “Everyone together for everyone forever: changing the whole system in practice

  1. Are you open to a real dialogue? The issue is naturally both centrally important and difficult.
    Gilles Corcos, ( gilcorc@gmail.com).Executive and Technical Director, Agua Para la Vida (Nicaragua), see http://www.aplv.org.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree that WASH is about universal service delivery. I think the gaps can be framed in terms of factors of household economic capacities and democratic deficiencies. Neither factor has an easy fix, but that isn’t saying that there aren’t partial ones, from participatory budgeting processes to complementary economic interventions that actualize triggered/aspirational demand for services.

    The processes that you describe above are useful in addressing much of this, so I would love to hear details from the Ghanaian experiences.

  3. […] the last post in this series we described our approach to changing the whole system to deliver water services […]

  4. […] we’ve been calling for a change in approach — from piecemeal projects to strengthening the whole system that delivers […]

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