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 »

Political economy analysis of rural sanitation in Vietnam: changing Theories of Change

The WASH sector is beginning to explore how donors can more explicitly analyse political economy issues in order to better understand how they can influence WASH sector reforms. This is part of a wider growth in other sector-level political economy approaches. Paraphrasing Edelmann (2009), this trend is due to increasingly open acknowledgement that development is political, development aid is political, and stating a ‘lack of political will’ as the explanation for failed development projects is insufficient analysis. We need to understand politics better, and sector-level support requires sector-level political analysis.

The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) has developed guidance on how the water and sanitation sector can analyse political economy in practice. A recent working paper applies this approach to Vietnam, working with DFID to answer the question: why is performance so poor in the rural sanitation sector in Vietnam, and why have apparently effective innovative pilot projects not been scaled up? Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

“Reinventing the toilet”: a justification?

The Gates Foundation’s recent announcement that it wanted to “reinvent the toilet” was understandably met with cautious scepticism by some in the sector. But the text is now online of a more detailed speech where the head of the WASH program at the Foundation, Frank Rijsberman, tries to satisfy us “hardcore water and sanitation enthusiasts”.

The whole speech is worth reading in full, but here are some highlights and comments:

The only form of sanitation that we are really interested in is on-site sanitation, i.e., sanitation that is not connected to sewers. It is a wonderful ambition to provide entire populations with gold-standard flush toilets connected to sewer systems and wastewater treatment plants. Indeed, this still appears to be official policy in many places. But it is not the form of sanitation that serves the people we aim to serve…

That does not mean, however, that we think that poor people, who can’t afford the flush toilets that you and I use, have to be satisfied with the outhouses that we happily left behind us sometime in the last century…. Wouldn’t you rather have a toilet in your house that directly recovers the energy, nutrients, and water that we currently throw away? Wouldn’t you like a toilet that helps you recycle waste in the same way that we now recycle paper, glass, and plastic? I bet you would. So, yes, we think that the toilet should be reinvented.

Well, maybe some people would. But we know already that cultural attitudes to shit (and what to do with it) differ widely according to time and place and have a big influence on what types of toilets people use (or don’t). The ambition here is to use the technology to change people’s desires – “toilets that everyone will aspire to have”. Rijsberman makes the now-common comparison between the number of mobile phones and toilets in Africa and extends the analogy to iPads and Kindles, things we didn’t know we wanted until we saw them. It’s certainly ambitious, and I’m fascinated to see how the different grantees for the toilet-reinvention challenge try to adapt and pitch the different ideas in different contexts.

Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

Community-led total sanitation (CLTS): the backlash

Some fascinating observations from Liz Chatterjee on the Guardian’s Poverty Matters blog after a visit to Karnataka to review local implementation of India’s national Total Sanitation Campaign:

“Best practice” turned out to be slightly alarming. The toilets had indeed been constructed, local officials had made superhuman efforts, and people of all classes and castes were using the facilities regularly. But we weren’t prepared for the degree of (often community-backed) coercion used to get the job done.

… At its mildest, this meant squads of teachers and youths, who patrolled the fields and blew whistles when they spotted people defecating. Schoolchildren whose families did not have toilets were humiliated in the classroom. Men followed women – and vice versa – all day, denying people the opportunity even to urinate.

… Equally common, though, were more questionable tactics. Squads threw stones at people defecating. Women were photographed and their pictures displayed publicly. The local government institution, the gram panchayat, threatened to cut off households’ water and electricity supplies until their owners had signed contracts promising to build latrines.

This is in response to a recent article by Robert Chambers arguing for the potential of community-led total sanitation (CLTS) to help achieve the (way off-track) MDG for sanitation.

There are excellent reader comments under both articles, including thoughtful contributions from some of those engaged in this work on the ground. The key points:

  • CLTS is not a magic bullet. In particular, it seems to have been successful so far in persuading many communities in different countries to abandon open defecation and construct latrines, but moving further up the ‘sanitation ladder’ and permanently adopting good hygiene practices such as handwashing with soap may be bigger challenges.
  • CLTS is a community-level approach; scaling-up and working out where it fits into wider public health policy is a more difficult question. Chambers and the CLTS advocates highlight some of these key obstacles, including existing vested interests in hardware-subsidy projects, and the pressure for target-driven construction programmes. Commenters on Chatterjee’s article argue that her observations illustrate exactly this point – many of the problems she saw arise from the reward-based system of targets employed by India’s rural Total Sanitation Campaign rather than the concept of CLTS itself.
  • CLTS, as any idea in development, is context-dependent. I’ve already discussed how WaterAid’s partners in Mali have started adapting the approach. A wider WaterAid report on the social-cultural barriers to total sanitation in Mali and three other West African countries highlights some of the context-specific issues to consider – this type of analysis and adaptation is crucial anywhere.