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The WASH Sector School of ‘Hard Knocks’ – learning from experience for dealing with the future

By Deirdre Casella and Carmen da Silva Wells 

The capacity to continuously learn and adapt is critical for dealing with complex challenges and future uncertainties. In this first blog in a series about ‘a learning and adaptive sector’, we discuss why learning is central to achieving water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services for life.

If our intent is to change people’s lives, water must flow forever, toilets must safely separate humans from faeces and good hygiene behaviours must be upheld. Yet, there is ample evidence that many water systems in the global South work poorly or break down altogether and that toilets fill up, break or are simply never used despite decades of efforts.

Clearly, we need to do things better and differently. A first step is understanding better what causes service failure.

Common challenges in our sector are:

  • weak government leadership
  • fragmented approaches and one-off projects
  • diverging priorities, often driven by external aid agendas
  • a focus on delivering new hardware rather than on operating and maintaining what is already there
  • lack of political commitment and related chronic under-funding by government, particularly of management related aspects of service delivery

(See Lockwood and Moriarty, 2014, in their blog Changing the whole system to provide services that last)

Wider societal change processes add an extra layer of complexity to water, sanitation and hygiene service provision:

  • changing population dynamics such as rural to urban migration, population growth, changes in median population age
  • changes in long-term climate conditions and in availability of water sources
  • technical innovations
  • macro- and micro-level economic booms or recessions
  • ‘emergency’ or crisis circumstances – conflict, extreme weather, earthquakes, etc

The combined impact of the above is that some degree of future uncertainty is inevitable. The water, sanitation and hygiene sector(s) can be understood as ‘complex adaptive systems’. This is not to suggest that the sector should not plan for sustainable services. Quite the opposite.

With a vision for services for everyone, everywhere, plans, strategies and budgets can be created that can be adapted along the way in response to changing circumstances, while keeping the ultimate aim in sight. We need to recognise the reality of uncertainty in our efforts to provide services and foster capabilities related to observation, learning, resolving problems and adapting approaches or models.

Looking beyond our sector we see similar challenges and solutions.For example, Professor Richard de Neufville of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) speaks about ‘Flexibility in Engineering Design’ and proposes that planning and designing infrastructure (in his case flood control works and skyscrapers) requires a mindset of planning for unknown futures: Accept the inevitability that the current design will not stand up to the unknown future requirements and be prepared to respond accordingly.

While we cannot predict the future, we can keep our long term vision in sight, identify various plausible future scenarios and be prepared with a varied series of plans at the ready for adapting and implementing when the time comes for us to make a change in course toward achieving the long-term vision.

De Neufville places the human actions of observing, visioning, planning, decision taking, sense making and adapting at the centre of how we design and operate infrastructure in order to make it work according to what people need – now and in the future.

A learning and adaptive sector

Multi-stakeholder learning platform in Uganda visits primary school

Multi-stakeholder learning platform in Uganda visits primary school. Photo by C. da Silva Wells

Learning in its broadest sense is at the core of providing public services in an equitable and sustainable manner – for life; the life of the service user, the life of the infrastructure, for future lives and livelihoods. Learning and adapting has been identified as one of the building blocks of a service delivery approach. Learning is the process of incorporating evidence and lessons learned into ongoing practices to increase effectiveness and sustainability. Learning includes documenting and sharing good practices.

In the blog series calling for a new and bold way of thinking*, Patrick Moriarty and Harold Lockwood point out that learning is of central importance for a shift towards service delivery and for on-going sector health, but it is very difficult for people to get their heads around. Change throughout the sector takes time and lots of ‘baby steps’, but we are cautiously optimistic.

IRC facilitates and catalyses such experiential learning and collaborative change through action research, monitoring and learning alliances, which bring together multiple stakeholders throughout the sector. Like for example in Ghana and Uganda, where we are working closely with government and other implementers and experimenting with improvements to service delivery.

Last month’s WASH sustainability Forum in Amsterdam showed an increasing awareness that there are no silver bullets, but that we need to move away from ‘business as usual’. System wide change means multiple solutions must be implemented across all levels of the WASH sector.

Ad hoc training will not suffice. The sector needs to move beyond improving existing measures, towards building capacities of sector professionals to take stock, to question, challenge and change old assumptions and paradigms. Continuous improvement requires a commitment to ongoing monitoring, innovating, learning and the willingness to adapt course. This in turn requires not-too-rigid institutions and policies that enable sector actors to experiment, give feedback and be prepared to respond in the face of uncertainty.

The ‘Experiential Learning Cycle’, adapted from Kolb, 1984

The ‘Experiential Learning Cycle’, adapted from Kolb, 1984

A ‘learning and adaptive sector’ encompasses a range of capabilities: to identify, observe and understand what drives or hinders progress towards sustainable services, and to take action based on this.

In our next blogs we will explore the concepts underpinning IRC’s approach to learning and change through the system that delivers water sanitation and hygiene services and some practical examples of recent work fostering learning for improved services.

The image of the experiential learning cycle below depicts the necessary link between implementation, monitoring, reflection and improvement based on evidence. It represents a simplified cycle of track, assess (make sense of), learn (seek and test suitable solutions) and adapt that is at the heart of this notion of a learning and adaptive sector.



* The series consists of four blogs:

Changing the whole system to provide water, sanitation and hygiene services that last

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

Long, expensive & messy: the realities of sector change

Cautiously optimistic




No more fairy tales

In the third of three blog posts, CEO of IRC Patrick Moriarty explains why “government leadership” is critical to tackle inequality, poverty and to create sustainable water, sanitation and hygiene services – and why we need to stop believing in fairy tales be they about self-supporting communities or scrappy social entrepreneurs.

This blog was originally published on www.ircwash.org on 16 July 2014.

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The elephant in the room

“The 2030 Sustainable Development Goal of true WASH service delivery is entirely within our reach,” argues CEO of IRC Patrick Moriarty in this second of three blog posts. “We’re ready. What’s to stop us? Two big scary words: Government and Money.”

This blog was originally published on www.ircwash.org on 8 July 2014.

The heart of the keynote that I gave at the 2014 WASH Sustainability Forum (as explained in the first blog of this series) revolved around the twin issues of government leadership and government money – which I defined as an elephant in the room – and Harold Lockwood translated into an 800 pound gorilla – for the benefit of transatlantic guests.

I think we can say that the water, sanitation and hygiene sector is ready – possibly for the first time ever – to seriously engage with its aim of achieving universal coverage with services that last for more than 2 billion people. We’re fired up about service delivery, we’ve got the tools and attitudes we need. What’s to stop us? In two words: government leadership and money – or the lack of both. Continue Reading »


Tools for life

In the first of three blog posts, IRC CEO Patrick Moriarty addresses the next big challenge: the critical role of public finance and government leadership.

This blog was originally published on www.ircwash.org on 1 July 2014.

I’ve hugely enjoyed meeting friends, old and new, at the 2014 WASH Sustainability Forum. This is the fifth sustainability Forum, the fourth that I’ve attended. With a nice manageable group of committed and passionate people from the full range of sector actors, it’s a nice barometer of how we’re doing on sustainability. Which I’d have to say is rather well.

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Sustainability tools for hygiene, sanitation and water

This week, the 2014 WASH Sustainability Forum brought together representatives from civil society, government, universities and the private sector eager to share ideas on how to make our investments and efforts in water sanitation and hygiene have sustainable results.

During the Forum, IRC’s Carmen da Silva Wells hopped between tracks and interviewed the Forum track leads to learn more about the different tools that are out there – resulting in three blogs, originally published on www.ircwash.org. Continue Reading »

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Fifth WASH Sustainability Forum, tipping point in the sustainability debate?

Sustainability is a hot topic in the development sector at large. In the water, sanitation and hygiene sector, there have been a range of events, partnerships and websites dedicated to collectively recognising, understanding and addressing sustainability challenges. In March this year, for example, the Australian WASH sector hosted the ‘WASH for everyone, everywhere‘ conference in Brisbane exploring the topic in light of the post-2015 development agenda.

On June 30th and July 1st, over 160 professionals working on WASH for the world’s poorest will gather in Amsterdam for the fifth WASH Sustainability Forum.  This is part of a series of international WASH sustainability events organised by a coalition of organisations. IRC, Aguaconsult, Global Water Challenge and WASH Advocates have been core driving members behind the WASH Sustainability Forum series. This year’s event is also supported by UNICEF, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program.

Exploring sustainability tools 

According to Harold Lockwood of Aguaconsult, one of the organisations behind the fifth edition, there is a definite shift in mind-sets since the first one in 2010: “There is a collective recognition, as well as growing momentum and support around moving towards a service delivery approach. We seem to be at a tipping point, where discussions initially focused on why we need to focus on sustainability, but are now moving to the ‘how to’ part of the equation for different actors”.

The 5th WASH Sustainability Forum aims to move donors, civil society and governments towards application of sustainability principles and tools. One of the significant inputs to the event is a study of WASH sustainability tools conducted by Aguaconsult as part of Sustainable Services at Scale, or Triple-S, an IRC-led initiative. Triple-S Working Paper, ‘Mapping of WASH sustainability tools‘ contains the findings of the mapping, as well as the outcomes of online survey looking into demand for sustainability tools and a 2-part webinar series.

The good news is that there are plenty of tools out there for understanding, measuring, or predicting sustainability.The assessment included a review of over 220 tools, and the 25 tools with clear content and methodology for understanding, measuring, or predicting sustainability have been presented as 1-page practical summaries in the Working Paper. Altogether these 25 sustainability tools have been applied 92 times in 52 countries, with most addressing the technical, institutional, and management areas that affect sustainability.

There are also notable gaps, such as tools that can be applied across all stages of the service life-cycle, tools that address sanitation and hygiene interventions and that focus can be applied urban or peri-urban areas.

According to Ryan Schweitzer, Claire Grayson and Harold Lockwood, authors of the Working Paper, the emergence of cluster of similar sustainability assessment tools is a positive signal that a new paradigm is emerging in the sector. However, most tools are driven by external development partner organisations. Therefore, they conclude that much more effort needs to be made to align tools with country monitoring systems and country sector capacities  and to use the data that these tools generate in order to improve services.

Word cloud from 4th WASH sustainability Forum

Word cloud from 4th WASH Sustainability Forum


This challenge of linking tools with national systems – and indeed showcasing some national government tools – will be one of the core topics at the Forum. Representatives from government, private sector, donors and NGOs will engage in a panel debate to talk about how to improve the application and alignment of tools so that investments in the sector deliver services that last.


Cautiously optimistic

What will it take to create WASH sectors that work? 

By Patrick Moriarty, Harold Lockwood, and Sarah Carriger

Over the past few months in a series of posts we’ve been advocating for a change in the goal of the WASH sector – from increasing coverage to delivering a service over the long haul; from simply building infrastructure to building infrastructure and managing it into the future to provide services worthy of the name.

And we’ve been calling for a change in approach — from piecemeal projects to strengthening the whole system that delivers services.

We’ve shown how we’ve gone about supporting this type of change in Ghana together with the Community Water and Sanitation Agency, and we’ll continue posting examples from other countries where we’re working.

For now, in the final post in this series, we’d like to talk more about what committing to this change calls for from governments and their partners in development – and to highlight what we see as some positive signs of progress. Continue Reading »