Admitting failure: the “naked truth” for water and sanitation?

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?


7 Comments on “Admitting failure: the “naked truth” for water and sanitation?”

  1. Hi Stephen – Great post. On costs of proving health impact, see WSUP’s recent paper on this “Evaluating the health impact of urban WASH programmes: an affordable approach for enhancing effectiveness”

    The paper argues that contrary to popular belief, measuring health impact is cheaper than previously thought and should be included at about 10% of programming budgets. Also in great, easy to read style that will appeal to a wide audience.

  2. 10% might be cheaper than before, but I am pretty sure I would have a great deal of difficulty getting through a couple of hundred thousands of euros worth of impact measurement into each of our multi-million euro proposals for water / watsan in east and central africa. Maybe on a less frequent (sampling) basis we could though. I also note that the paper you’ve referenced Andy is actually only about urban wash programmes with high population densities, which to me obviously lowers some of the core operating costs of conducting both ongoing monitoring and impact evaluation. D’oh.

  3. On the broader points in the video

    (a) is this really news that you can install all the hardware you want but unless you invest in the software (WASHCOs) for your water points and sustained change there, ultimately everything will fall over? Or is Ned there making a bigger point that our community capacitation methods are a flawed model in general?

    (b) if it is all doomed and the challenge for communities to self-finance is a bridge too far in too high a proportion of interventions, the question comes back to donor financing approaches. Less wham-bam one-year-plans please, but if they have to happen that way, the ability within those to hand over to a community a lump sum of unspent capital that will sustain these communities for spares & repairs over 5+ years?

    • On (a): I think the wider point, gradually being acknowledged by the sector, is that the “community management” approach is usually not enough, however good the initial training for the water committee. It needs some sort of external support too, for example regarding costs which are more than basic maintenance and small repairs, conflict resolution, additional technical support etc. Some people have called this “community management plus”.

      On (b): I agree re donor financing approaches, for example supporting local government units to in turn provide technical and financial back-up to communities (and increasing the ability of this support structure to access funds from elsewhere – local taxes, central government funds, other donor money in the short-term). I think handing over a lump sum intended to last multiple years to one community is unlikely to work unless there is a very good transparent system in place for saving that money, which probably still needs longer-term support than the one-year project…

  4. […] Admitting Failure: the “naked truth” for water and sanitation? –… Admitting failure is trendy but, at least for NGOs, not prudent – […]

  5. […] power, vested interests and bureaucratic inertia all play their part. At this level perhaps ‘admitting tension’ between competing priorities and interests makes more sense than trying to ‘admit failure’. […]

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