Admitting failure: the “naked truth” for water and sanitation?Posted: October 18, 2011
Here is Ned Breslin, CEO of Water for People, standing naked next to a handpump in Uganda (safe for work thanks to two strategically placed jerrycans). Why? To illustrate the “naked truth”: this project is going to fail, because the long-term financing needed is not in place.
This is part of recent moves in aid towards “admitting failure”, and I’m going to take it as a starting point for discussing what this idea means for the WASH sector, as part of the Second Aid Blog Forum organised by Tales from the Hood.
Sustainability – of water supplies, sanitation services, and hygienic habits – is now widely acknowledged as the key challenge in the sector. We know this because of previous failures: tens of thousands of water points, toilets or handwashing practices that were abandoned after the initial intervention.
So the WASH sector has already started admitting failure to itself, even if it is often implicitly, via a more positive framing of “sustainability”. But I think we are in the early stages of admitting this to Western donors. Breslin’s video above is still a rare example of communication meant for a general audience which directly refers to these problems.
Is this because of the fear of losing funding suggested by Tales from the Hood? In other posts in this Forum, Marc Bellemare and Terence at Waylaid Dialectic disagree on whether NGOs who start admitting failure before the rest are right to be afraid – there are plausible arguments for donors responding either positively (good, you’re honest and learning, here’s more money) or negatively (so you failed, why should we give you more money?).
Which is more likely for the WASH sector? For example, does it matter that a charity evaluator such as GiveWell already takes the position of not recommending giving money to water programs, based on the criticism that few organisations in the sector can currently demonstrate the sustainability of either the basic functioning of water services or the real impacts on health? Two points are important in response to this. Firstly, GiveWell is currently reviewing its research on this topic, so it will be interesting to see how their 2012 update reflects the recent initiatives on sustainability in the sector. Secondly, it is generally agreed that measuring the health impact of any particular WASH intervention is difficult and costly – but that we know that an acceptable basic level of water, sanitation and hygiene services is an essential part of good health. For these reasons it seems unlikely that there would be a large-scale withdrawal of funds from the sector as a whole – but money may come with more demands for better monitoring of long-term services, or be reduced in unstable countries where failure is seen as more likely. This is probably the “two steps forward; one step back” scenario that IRC suggested as one possible vision for the sector in 2020.
But perhaps before we talk directly about admitting failure, we should start by “admitting tension”. As part of the WASH sustainability debate, there is a growing recognition that we need to think about services rather than projects or programs. In the long-term this means some local combination of users, the private sector, and government working together with enough money, expertise (and incentive) to keep services running indefinitely – if any particular water or sanitation infrastructure breaks or reaches the end of its life, it is repaired or upgraded and the service continues. But in the short-term much of the sector still works via time-bound projects and programs, and understandably feels the pressure for quick construction to increase the official numbers of users covered in line with national or international targets. We need to more openly admit that there is a tension between allocating resources to new construction vs (less sexy) post-construction support, and that failures can and will still occur at either end.
Are we ready for this? Tim Harford makes the point in Adapt that Western politicians or policy-makers do not often admit they got things wrong (nor that they probably will in future too). Unwillingness to admit failure is hardly unique to aid. So I think there is a key question linking issues of WASH, sustainability and aid to a higher level – how much will our discussions of failure in the development sector lead or lag the issue in wider public policy debates? If openly admitting failure becomes an accepted and encouraged practice in the aid sector, could this contribute to more constructive debates in other areas? Or will the idea of admitting failure in aid and development only become common if other public debates reach this level of self-criticism first?