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!


How to analyse institutional arrangements for rural water services and how they evolve: new paper linking political economy analysis and theories of institutional change

I have a new paper in the International Journal of the Commons. The title is Bridging political economy analysis and critical institutionalism: an approach to help analyse institutional change for rural water services. The paper is part of a special issue on “Challenges of critical institutionalism” edited by Frances Cleaver of King’s College London and Jessica de Koning of Wageningen University. Their overview paper sets out the ideas of “critical institutionalism” as a way of helping to understand how institutions for natural resource management evolve. My paper links this literature with work on institutional reform by Matt Andrews (in particular his excellent book on the limits to institutional reform – see here for a good review), David Booth (and the Africa Power and Politics Programme) and the structured approach provided by political economy analysis approaches such as those developed by ODI. My aim is to show how this academic literature can be used in a practical way to help understand how organisations such as NGOs can work with communities and local governments to find ways of improving public services by building on existing local institutions rather than trying to import templates from outside. The approach also fits into recent debates about Doing Development Differently, working with the grain and thinking and working politically.

The abstract is below and the full paper is open access:

This paper argues that approaches to understanding local institutions for natural resource management based on “critical institutionalism” (Cleaver 2012), which emphasises the importance of improvisation and adaptation across different scales, can be placed within broader political economy analysis frameworks for assessing challenges in public services delivery from national to local levels. The paper uses such an extended political economy analysis approach to understand the role of the international NGO WaterAid and its partners in Mali in relation to institutions for financing rural water services, drawing on collaborative research undertaken in 2010 and 2011. The case study shows that WaterAid’s approach can be understood through elements of both mainstream and critical institutionalist thinking. At local government level, WaterAid primarily promotes formal institutional arrangements, which exhibit the challenge of “reforms as signals” (Andrews 2013), where institutional reforms appear to happen but lack the intended function. However, the work of WaterAid’s partners at community level supports processes of “institutional bricolage” through which they try to gradually work with local actors to find ways of ‘best fit’ for financing rural water services which adapt existing local practices into new arrangements.

Five ways of thinking about failure in sanitation

I’m inspired back to blogging by a thought-provoking workshop yesterday on Learning from Failure in Sanitation, organised by the UK Sanitation Community of Practice (SanCoP). Huge thanks to all who contributed. We will share notes and ideas going forward very soon. If you are interested in joining the network, email us and join our Linkedin group. For now, these are my thoughts on one of the key questions of the day: what do we mean when we talk about failure? There are at least five approaches to thinking about failure that I picked out from the discussions: Read the rest of this entry »

More changing Theories of Change, and the importance of flexible and trusting donors

I wrote recently about the how the Triple-S sustainable rural water services initiative has tried to promote change in the sector:

  • Relationship-led (i.e. using champions to mobilise change)
  • Value-led (i.e. leveraging peer pressure and creating coalitions for change)
  • Evidence-led (i.e. providing proof that the current approaches don’t work and proof that other ones do)

These were the approaches originally identified with the external learning facilitators from the Impact and Learning team at the Institute of Development Studies. The Triple-S team and the “ELFs” have just held a further learning retreat, and agreed on the need to improve external communication: more blogging and more resources on the Triple-S website.

So, good news:  more members of the team active on the Water Services That Last blog. It’s great to see the self-reflection and insights on the internal process involved in trying to create external change. Here’s Ton Schouten, previous project director of Triple-S:

We did not have a theory of change when we started … but a lot became clearer in the first year of Triple-S. The clarity did not come out of a planned, linear process; it was not done in a well-organised workshop of two days. It took hours of talking in corridors, meetings, waiting areas and trains to sharpen our ideas of how to make a difference. And it was gut feeling, years of sector experience and good intuition that fed our thinking. For a long time it concentrated on how NOT to do Triple-S.

Read the rest of this entry »