Learning from failure: lessons for the sanitation sector – new discussion paper

A version of this post first appeared on the BPD Water and Sanitation blog.

I last blogged about the discussions at the Learning from Failure in Sanitation workshop organised by the UK Sanitation Community of Practice (SanCoP). Now five of us have co-authored a discussion paper called Learning from failure: lessons for the sanitation sector. We presented the paper at the most recent SanCoP workshop, held at University College London in April 2013. The abstract is below and the full paper can be downloaded from BPD Water and Sanitation, one of the SanCoP convening organisations. Comments are open for discussion on the BPD blog and we would love to hear feedback and ideas.

Nicola Greene and I have also co-authored a shorter commentary piece for the journal Waterlines based on some of the ideas in the discussion paper, entitled Crossfire: Can ‘admitting failure’ help the WASH sector learn and improve its work?, available in the April 2013 edition of Waterlines.

Learning from failure: lessons for the sanitation sector

Stephen Jones, Nicola Greene, Andrés Hueso, Hayley Sharp and Ruth Kennedy-Walker


This paper explores the idea of learning from failure in the sanitation sector. The recent trend of ‘admitting failure’ in aid and development forces sanitation practitioners, researchers and policy-makers to ask if we can and should address failure more openly in order to improve our work. The ideas in this paper developed from discussions at a workshop on ‘learning from failure’ convened by the UK Sanitation Community of Practice (SanCoP) designed to kickstart this debate.

We first discuss the concept of failure itself and identify different approaches to learning from failure relating to sanitation. These include acknowledging past failures in order to learn and adapt, and planning for ‘safe’ future failures through deliberate experimentation and innovation. We also argue that a series of further steps are required: understanding relevant previous approaches to learning from failure in the sector; recognizing different types of failure; seeking different actors’ perspectives on failure; and framing the debate about failure constructively rather than negatively.

In the second part of the paper we examine different practical examples of how actors in the sanitation sector have tried to learn from failure, to assess how this happened and what changes resulted. In the final section of the paper we conclude with suggestions for how individuals and organisations working in sanitation and international development more widely can learn from failure. We also propose the UK Sanitation Community of Practice (SanCoP) itself as one example of a ‘safe space’ in which people can meet to discuss and learn from failure.

April 2013