Reflections on the 38th WEDC Conference: how can we link debates on practical implementation and political context?

I’ve been back in DRC for a week now since the 38th WEDC Conference, “Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Services Beyond 2015: Improving access and sustainability”, and have had time to reflect on the event. It was an enjoyable and thought-provoking week, and an excellent opportunity to connect and re-connect with colleagues and friends from (47 countries!) around the world.

The biggest strength of the conference is its practical and interactive nature. From the first day (which included practical exercises to help understand issues of gender-based violence when siting water points) to the last day (watching demonstrations of different materials for sealing well shafts) and almost everything in between, the emphasis was always on interaction, trying new things and learning from other participants.

The many side events and workshops were the best examples of this, but the presentation sessions were also well-designed to maximise engagement. The facilitators (and of course the presenters) did a great job in keeping everyone to their 10-minute slots to allow plenty of time for discussion. Likewise the timings and physical set-up of the coffee and lunch breaks were excellent for keeping everyone involved and energised. The best sign of this was that the long days and variety of sessions felt motivating rather than tiring. It is easy to see why Robert Chambers, in the closing ceremony, complimented WEDC as being his favourite conference.

My one suggestion for future WEDC conferences would be to think how to build the practical debates more into issues of policy, advocacy and politics. One participant told me that the best presentation they saw was on “how to talk to policymakers” by Chandrika Nath of the UK’s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. More contributions in this style would have been great to link the practical work of the majority of participants with discussions of the policy and political contexts that we work in.

This discussion could include session themes such as the politics of service delivery, learning from failure, lessons from history, and how change happens. These issues did come up in some sessions and presentations (and I may have missed some of the others given how much was going on at any one time). There were discussions on the shift from the MDGs to the SDGs in the Sanitation Community of Practice event; a side event on the implications for NGOs of Payment by Results for WASH; and presentations on the evolution of sector policy and coordination in countries such as Ethiopia. WEDC keeps the call for papers intentionally quite open-ended and then groups presentations into thematic sessions once they are received. However it could be an interesting idea to specifically seek some contributions and contributors based on these types of themes (rather than their ‘technical’ content). If necessary, some future sessions could also be under Chatham House Rules to help promote openness of debate on potentially controversial issues.

The next WEDC International Conference is planned for 11-15 July 2016 in Kumasi, Ghana, a place from where I have good memories while on a student placement many years ago. Hope to see everyone there to continue the debates and learning!