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!


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

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 »

Learning for Sustainable WASH: my four lessons from yesterday’s event

The Sustainable WASH Learning Event, hosted by Arup yesterday, was overall an honest assessment and discussion by different actors involved of where the sector has got to on thinking about sustainability, and how this general awareness of the challenges needs to translate into actions which lead to a long-term service delivery approach. Many thanks to the organisers for bringing it together, particularly the team from Aguaconsult and IRC. I know they are busy collating the presentations, videos and discussions – and hopefully plenty of new stories for Sensemaker – but in the meantime here are the four lessons I took from the day:

Analyse local and national politics

Analyse donor politics

Think about scale

Talk about subsidy

Read the rest of this entry »