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Three Key Insights into WASH Systems Approaches

Earlier this month, LINC Program Director Matt Guttentag joined a workshop in Addis Ababa with IRC, Tetra Tech, Environmental Incentives, and the University of Colorado Boulder to kick off one of the four core activities under the new Sustainable WASH Systems (SWS) Initiative. This activity brings together the deep and complementary experience and skills of each partner to test a systems approach to improving water and sanitation delivery in several districts in Ethiopia and Uganda. While the activity is just getting underway, the consortium came away with a few key insights on implementing systems approaches to WASH effectively:

1. It’s hard, but necessary, to resist the impulse to rigidly plan WASH interventions based on a linear theory of change.

Veterans of the development sector know the drill: start with a set of outcomes and work backwards step by step to arrive at a suite of activities, create a detailed five-year plan to implement the activities, then simply follow the plan and watch the impact roll in!

If only it were so simple. The reality is that we live in a complex world that demands constant adaptation, and nowhere is this more apparent than with WASH. Water and sanitation services sit at the intersection of technology, politics, culture, and finance, and any approach that assumes a unidimensional or linear solution is bound to fail.

Rather than developing a detailed intervention plan in the workshop conference room, the SWS team instead mapped out an open and adaptive approach that builds on IRC’s significant experience convening groups of local stakeholders (called “Learning Alliances”) to deconstruct and understand the messy tangle of the conditions that underpin local WASH systems. The SWS team plans to facilitate these Learning Alliances to develop and test to-be-determined interventions while regularly monitoring progress and allowing for adaptation to inevitable shifts in the realities on the ground.

2. Research and analysis is only as good as the buy-in it gets from local partners.

There are plenty of sophisticated tools out there to help understand the underlying dynamics of complex systems. But all the data and rigor in the world doesn’t matter if the knowledge isn’t put into practice. It’s critical to view local organizations not only as research subjects or beneficiaries, but also as co-designers and co-implementers of the research and analysis. While the fast-growing toolkit of complex methods for visualizing and quantifying systems changes provides an excellent methodological starting point, the best research method is always the one that speaks most directly to the needs and realities of local organizations. The only way to ensure this is to engage these organizations throughout the research process — and no, sending a PDF of a draft final report for feedback doesn’t count as “engagement.”

3. Influence and power networks matter

 

It is often tempting to try to avoid the messy web of power dynamics and relationships that are deeply embedded into any issue system. But these networks are critical to understanding the potential opportunities and pitfalls for successfully improving any system, WASH systems are no exception. LINC is excited to be bringing Organizational Network Analysis (ONA) into the consortium’s overall systems approach to ensure that each local intervention is based on a deep understanding of the relational dynamics of the network of organizations working together for sustainable change. We’ve found that visualizing networks is a powerful tool for helping organizational alliances work together effectively towards achieving their own common goal.

These lessons are, of course, just the beginning of the learning process for the SWS initiative, and LINC is looking forward to moving ahead with our partners in the consortium and putting these lessons into practice. Check back for more updates in the coming months!

LINC’s Program Director, Matt Guttentag brainstorms with consortium partners at the the Sustainable WASH Workshop at Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Consortium partners, IRCWASH, Tetra Tech, Environmental Incentives and the University of Colorado Boulder discuss developing sustainable WASH systems