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.

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What will the WASH sector look like in 2020?

A team from IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre has been “horizon-scanning” – trying to identify the possible trends in the water, sanitation and hygiene sector leading up to 2020. The analysis combines predictions of how key on-the-ground programme issues may develop, and anticipates their interplay with national and international political and economic changes, especially changes in approaches and levels of funding from international donors. Putting together these trends suggests four possible scenarios for 2020:

  • Scenario 1: “Two steps forward; one step back for the sector.” An increased focus on aid effectiveness means that donor funding is reduced for unstable and middle-income countries. Support continues towards poor but stable countries, and better indicators and monitoring are adopted which focus on sustainable services rather than simple coverage – but the “maintenance backlog” and limited accountability mean that sustainability is still a long way off.
  • Scenario 2: “New players in a less stable environment.” Financial and food price crises return, but traditional donors continue give similar levels of aid (perhaps because of political inertia). However the sector as whole becomes more chaotic as newer donors with differing priorities emerge more powerful from the crises.
  • Scenario 3: “Towards a post-aid WASH sector.” Political stability, worldwide economic recovery and growth – aid is reduced and focused on a handful of very poor and fragile states. The global focus shifts to water scarcity and resources management.
  • Scenario 4: “A multi-polar WASH sector.” Economic growth leads to more new donors, especially through increased regional cooperation. Financing becomes more haphazard although there are some efforts between donors to seek effective division of labour and specialisation in their activities. Read the rest of this entry »

Is the debate on sending soap to Africa missing the point?

The Global Soap Project – reprocessing unwanted soap from American hotels and sending the new bars for free distribution in Africa – has been in the news recently thanks to recognition of its founder Derreck Kayongo as a “CNN Hero”. But the project has also received criticism from Scott Gilmore and Dean Karlan that this is yet another example of “SWEDOW”: sending unwanted Western goods as in-kind donations to poor countries, without paying sufficient attention to if they are really needed, if this is the most cost-effective way of providing the goods, or if there could be unintended consequences such as damage to local businesses trying to supply the same products.

Encouragingly, representatives of the Global Soap Project have shown willingness to engage with the criticism, and are promising more evidence on their website soon to demonstrate why they think their business model is the most cost-effective way of ensuring poor people have access to soap – this will put everyone in a better position to debate the actual figures involved.

However, this debate about SWEDOW seems to skip over the wider point: even if people have soap, they don’t often wash their hands when they should (Karlan alludes to this as an aside at the end of his article). The Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing with Soap puts it simply:

Low rates of handwashing are rarely caused by a lack of soap. Soap is present in the vast majority of households worldwide, but it is commonly used for bathing and laundry, not for handwashing … In studies around the world, one major reason for low rates of handwashing with soap is that this is simply not a habit.

The challenge remains: make handwashing with soap a worldwide habit and social norm.

As part of its soap distribution, the Global Soap Project says that it works with partners to “educate recipients on the best way to use it for health and sanitation purposes”. But even if this reprocessing and distribution system turns out to be the most cost-effective method of enabling poor people to have immediate access to soap (and doesn’t do longer-term damage to local markets), we need to understand and question where free handouts fit into making handwashing with soap a consistent long-term practice.

Sustainability of water, sanitation and hygiene services: where does my research fit in?

I’m going to be at a WaterAid West Africa workshop next week to discuss the challenges to the sustainability of rural water services in the region and help plan action research in each of WaterAid’s country programmes to address these problems.

The process is going to be based around the wider Sustainability Framework that WaterAid published this month, which also considers sanitation, hygiene and urban water supply. The full document and press release is available on the WaterAid website. Put simply:

Sustainability is about whether or not WASH services and good hygiene practices continue to work and deliver benefits over time. No time limit is set on those continued services, behaviour changes and outcomes. In other words, sustainability is about lasting benefits achieved through the continued enjoyment of water supply and sanitation services and hygiene practices.

Why has sustainability been such a problem in the WASH sector? The document identifies three reasons which stand out:

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Are speed bumps a sign of development?

I’ve just spent a few days in the same villages where I did the research for my MSc in 2009. The main purpose has been to test some of the new research methods – such as interviews and focus group discussions – that I hope to use for my main PhD research (I’ll write more on this soon). But it has also been a chance to observe some of the visible changes that have occurred in the last couple of years. The first is new mobile phone masts springing up, with arrays of solar panels alongside. The second is a simpler form of technology: speed bumps.

Speed bump

Enough people now have motorbikes that speeding has become a real danger. After a child was hit and injured recently, the villagers took action themselves to resolve the problem and reduce the risk. There is an interesting parallel here with hygiene promotion, which is a key element of all water and sanitation projects: if people come to understand and accept that poor hygiene practices also pose a danger to children, they may take action themselves (such as handwashing with soap or building latrines) to reduce this risk too. But even if people know the link between poor hygiene and poor health, old habits can be hard to change – one participant at World Water Week in Stockholm observed that many of the water, sanitation and hygiene experts there did not bother to wash their hands after using the toilet.