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Dr. Snehalatha Mekala, WASHCost India

Editor’s Note: We pose five questions to foundation, NGO, and thought leaders in the WASH sector as part of our “5 Questions for…” series. In this post, Dr. Snehalatha Mekala, former country coordinator for WASHCost India, shares her insights into life-cycle costing, working with communities to collect WASH data, and other learnings from the WASHCost India project in response to our questions.

1.  What is the number one most critical issue facing the WASH sector today?

A critical issue standing in the way of successful community-based management of WASH services is the lack of technical, human, financial, and other resources in local communities to properly manage the water supply systems — even when governments do hand these over for community management. This lack of adequate operation and maintenance (including capital maintenance) reduces the life spans of these systems, and as a result doubles the investments required. This not only increases the costs of water service delivery (essential also for sanitation and hygiene) — especially in countries that can hardly afford to make such investment — but also affects the poor and the marginalized disproportionately.

The belief that local communities can manage on their own has only been validated by a few exceptions — islands of success created by NGOs or pilot projects, which have not been sustained when scaled up. Local communities do require timely and long-term support, both technically and financially, if they are to manage the WASH issues on their own.

2. Tell us about one collaboration or partnership your organization undertook and the lessons learned from that experience.

As part of the WASHCost India project, we adopted a learning alliance approach where key sector stakeholders — especially policy decision-makers at the Water Supply and Sanitation Department in India’s Andhra Pradesh State  — were involved in designing and implementing a five-year  research project that aimed to embed research results for lasting policy influence. Since these key stakeholders provided the data on investments made and the research findings on services delivered, it was relatively easy for them to realize that skewed investments do not deliver equitable services. What I mean by skewed investments is the higher percentage of investments on hardware versus the lower percentage on O&M and direct support (i.e., costs for awareness generation and capacity building). Furthermore, investments were skewed towards providing infrastructure to benefit rich households with less of a focus on poor households. It was also relatively easier for stakeholders to understand the need to adopt a Life Cycle Costing Approach (LCCA) for resources allocation — with each cost component getting appropriate allocations so that the water supply systems delivered services as per design. We thus learnt that:

  • Ownership by the key stakeholders in the research process (from design to results) is critical
  • Quick dissemination of findings is essential
  • Perhaps most importantly, this process requires time and champions
  • Impact is slow but percolates into the system more effectively than the conventional research process of simply ‘presenting findings’ to decision-makers  

3. How do you work with local communities to promote project ownership and sustainability?

It was a challenge in the WASHCost project to collect village-level data on costs and services, especially without written records. But the work in pilot villages to collect data through maps, graphs, and participatory methods (e.g., focus group discussions) — and to discuss possible solutions using geo-referenced maps — helped greatly. Villagers understood, perhaps for the first time, the importance of collecting data and using data to understand the relationship between the costs and services, and how using data can help them understand their village-level problems and possible solutions. Collecting cost and service data and discussing O&M-related WASH issues triggered community action in some villages to address these issues (although in some other villages there was only a passive reception!). Thus, while the process continued, it certainly built a sense of ownership and we hope it will be sustained.

4. Tell us about an emerging technology or solution that excites you and that you think will make a big impact in the WASH sector over the next 5-10 years?

Mapping water points and monitoring the functionality and service delivery of these systems by using smart phones are really exiting and can bring lots of improvement to the sector. The piloting done in the WASHCost project using these technologies to develop water security plans provided many insights into how many bore wells were drilled in the last ten years, how deep they were, and what impact they had on drinking water availability. I do accept, however, that while water point mapping and functionality mapping with advanced technological devices and gadgets are helpful, there has to be a support system to address queries and doubts and to resolve emerging problems quickly.

5. There are lots of great WASH resources, ranging from striking data visualizations to good, old-fashioned reports. What’s caught your eye lately (besides WASHfunders, of course)?  

The IMIS database, created by the Indian government’s Ministry of Water and Sanitation to monitor and report on the drinking water and sanitation across the entire country of 1 billion people, is certainly an impressive achievement (even if the reliability of the data will need cross-verification in some cases). The India Water Portal  and the India Sanitation Portal  are of great use for people working on these issues as they cover all relevant national news on water and sanitation, from legislations and the latest research reports to tested solutions and case studies from the field. The WaterSoft system developed by the National Informatics Centre for the Department of Rural Water Supply in the state of Andhra Pradesh is also a stupendous achievement, containing detailed cost and technical information on the water supply infrastructure in all 76,000 villages across the entire state (which is 275,000 sq. km — larger than Ghana).

The main river crossing in Kibera slum, Nairobi. Credit: BPD Water and Sanitation

The main river crossing in Kibera slum, Nairobi. Credit: BPD Water and Sanitation

Editor’s Note: This guest blog was authored by Aliki Zeri for BPD Water and Sanitation, a nonprofit working to bring safe water and sanitation to poor, urban communities in developing countries through effective stakeholder relationships at the local, national, and international levels. Aliki captures the discussion taking place among sanitation professionals about the need to reassess perceptions of failure and the dilemma of “marketing” failure in WASH. A version of this post originally appeared here.

What do we mean when we talk about ‘failure’? How can NGOs in the development sector and, in particular, in the field of sanitation use ‘failure’ as a learning mechanism? Is it prudent to ‘market’ ‘failure’ and if so, is there a right way of doing it? 

These were just a few of the questions the 11th Sanitation Community of Practice (SanCop) meeting, which was held on the 14th of November 2012 at the Water, Engineering and Development Centre (WEDC) atLoughborough University, strived to answer. ‘Strive’ appears undoubtedly to be the right word, since after considerable debate a number of issues still remained unanswered. And although this may be perceived by some as a ‘failure’, for me it represents a clear indication of the meeting’s success. Bringing together more that 40 academics, engineers, NGO representatives and sanitation experts, the meeting provided a ‘safe space’ where ‘failure’ was recognised and embraced as part of the development-aid organisations’ learning curve. 

Is there a difference between ‘lessons learnt’ and ‘admitting failure’?

‘Failure’, ‘lessons learnt’, ‘learning opportunities’ and ‘learning return’ were used interchangeably by participants throughout the debate; illustrating the difficulty of defining the precise context and the ambit of this concept. Is the term ‘lessons learnt’ radically different from the term ‘admitting failure’? Participants appeared to think so. The former was perceived as indicating a backward-looking process, a mechanism of revisiting a project/programme and assessing what went wrong. On the contrary, an ‘admission of failure’ is associated with a process of learning which is embedded within the project’s/programme’s structure, allowing implementers to constantly re-assess the project/programme and adapt it to changing and often unforeseen circumstances. 

Reassessing perceptions of failure

Within this context participants were implicitly prompted to reassess their perceptions of ‘failure’. The commonly shared understanding that a failed project or programme means that potential beneficiaries are no worse off than they were before the intervention took place was accordingly challenged. There was consensus for the need to “reframe the public image of development” (traditionally perceived as something that is inherently benign and could therefore have no negative effect).  

Incentives and disincentives of recognising failure 

Having recognised the malleability of ‘failure’ as a concept, participants shifted their attention to the incentives and disincentives of recognising ‘failures’ — the fear of displeasing donors and the associated ‘competition for a piece of the donor pie’  appeared to be the main concerns. Could EWB Canada’s ‘safe spaces’ counteract these disincentives? And more generally could they provoke a fundamental change in the ‘donor culture’, one that would result in donors not only actively promoting an honest reflection of what is not working, but also rewarding NGOs that are openly admitting their failures? 

The dilemma of marketing failure in WASH

Building a ‘safe space’ across the development sector (the WASH sector included) is unarguably challenging; expanding this ‘space’ outside this limit is expected to be even more difficult. ‘Marketing failure in WASH’ was the title BPD Water and Sanitation chose for its discussion group. Is it indeed advisable or even prudent for NGOs to ‘market’ (i.e. communicate) their ‘failures’ to the public? Could Bellemare’s cynical argument that: “admitting failure is the not-for-profit world equivalent of corporate social responsibility in the for-profit world” be the answer to this question? As Terence argues: “if you’re the first NGO trying to do it, you’ll find yourself at the sharp end of a ‘first penguin to leap off the ice sheet’ type collective action dilemma (i.e. it’s the first penguin that has the highest chance of getting chomped by the sea lions). Who’s going to keep giving money to the one NGO that’s forever feeding journalists with stories of what it did wrong?” Even though there is some truth in this argument, it is equally true that: “the more people who are honest about how challenging the work is and how rife it is with failures — not because of incompetence but because we are courageously taking on some of the most complex and dynamic problems — the more the public will see the admission of failure as a sign of transparency, humility and learning/innovation cultures and not as a sign of weakness.” 

An encouraging first step in the ‘development-aid failure’ debate 

Acknowledging the novelty of the issue and the breadth of arguments that could be raised within each of the aforementioned themes is unarguably the first step in engaging the sanitation sector with the ‘development-aid failure’ debate. Taking this first step within the context of the 11th SanCop was for me a particularly challenging, yet fulfilling experience. The high level of discourse and the enthusiasm and commitment of all participants (not only during the formal sessions but also during the breaks and the group discussions) were indeed admirable. In this sense, the participants’ promise to revisit the issue in the future SanCops was particularly encouraging. 

Read more about the Sanitation Community of Practice (SanCop). 

Editor’s Note: In this guest post, charity: water announces the receipt of Google’s Global Impact Award. The $5 million award will enable charity: water to develop and pilot a remote sensor technology to determine which water points are working and which need repairs in real time. A version of this post originally appeared here.

Woman in India pumping water from water point. Credit: charity: water

Woman in India pumping water from water point. Credit: charity: water

We’re proud to announce that charity: water is a recipient of a Global Impact Award from Google.

The first projects we ever built were six wells in a refugee camp in Uganda. We wanted to prove to our donors that their money was spent exactly how we said it would be, and where it went.

So we walked into an electronics store and bought a handheld GPS device for $100. We took it to Uganda, went to each project and plotted six points on Google Maps™. Then we made the information public on our web site along with the photos for everyone to see. We’ve been doing that ever since.

Fast forward six years later, and we’ve now funded over 6,994 water projects in 20 countries that will serve more than 2.5 million people. And although we’ve continued to map every single water project, we don’t think knowing their location is good enough anymore. We want to know whether each one of them is working right now, in real time.

Today, we’re excited to announce that we’re launching a $5 million pilot project with Google to develop remote sensor technology that will tell us whether water is flowing at any of our projects, at any given time, anywhere in the world. Google has funded this entire initiative through the new Global Impact Awards. This award will help charity: water further advance transparency and sustainability in the water sector.

Although our staff and local partners visit our programs frequently, it’s simply not possible to visit every project often enough to ensure that water is flowing all the time. Thanks to this Global Impact Award from Google, we’ll be able to go from hoping that projects function over time, to knowing that they are.

charity: water's sensors will transmit real-time data to determine whether or not a water point is working. Credit: charity water

charity: water's sensors will transmit real-time data to determine whether or not a water point is working. Credit: charity water

Over the next few years, we’ll develop and install 4,000 low-cost remote sensors in our existing and new water projects in several countries. These sensors will transmit real-time data to us and our partners, and eventually to you, the donor.

But just knowing the status of projects isn’t good enough. If a breakdown occurs, there needs to be a system in place to ensure that it gets fixed quickly. That’s why an important part of this pilot will be to continue training and establishing local mechanic programs all over the world who can dispatch to communities within their reach and make repairs. This will create new jobs and small business entrepreneurs in places where they don’t exist today.

We know the data will uncover new challenges, but we’re excited and committed to meet them head on. We’ve used Google Maps™ to innovate over the last six years, and today we’re incredibly excited to work with Google on remote sensor technology, this time to further increase transparency for our donors, and to deliver water more reliably than ever before, to the people who need it most.

African Ministers' Council on Water

The African Ministers' Council on Water, an initiative of the African Union, has announced a three-year, $2 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to build its capacity for sanitation policy development, monitoring and evaluation coverage, and WASH-related advocacy across the continent.

Awarded through the foundation's global development program, the grant will be used to provide training and technical assistance in four countries working to develop and adopt effective sanitation and hygiene policies and plans; organize the fourth AfricaSan conference as a mechanism for tracking progress, refining targets, and enabling peer support and advocacy for implementation of the 2008 eThekwini Declaration and AfricaSan Action Plan; and help countries fulfill their obligations to report to the AU.

"We face tremendous challenges of diminishing access to clean water and safe sanitation," said AMCOW executive secretary Bai Mass Taal. "AMCOW is committed to working with partners such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to reduce this scourge and improve access to safe sanitation, thereby achieving our overall goal of decreasing poverty and disease in the continent."

Source: “African Ministers' Council on Water (AMCOW) Gets US$2 Million Grant to Improve Sanitation Coverage in Africa.” African Ministers' Council on Water Press Release 12/18/12.

Harold Lockwood, Director of Aguaconsult

Editor’s Note: We pose five questions to foundation, NGO, and thought leaders in the WASH sector as part of our “5 Questions for…” series. In this post, Harold Lockwood, director of Aguaconsult, shares his thoughts on the changing nature of aid, project ownership as a flawed concept, and more in response to our questions. Find him on Twitter: @haroldlockwood

If you are interested in participating in this series, send us an e-mail at: WASHfunders@foundationcenter.org.

1. What is the number one most critical issue facing the WASH sector today?

Undoubtedly this is the challenge of changing the way we work. For decades ‘aid’ to the sector — most especially the rural sub-sector — has been delivered largely through the provision of infrastructure in short-term, cyclical interventions which solve an immediate problem, but leave many others unanswered. NGOs, charities, foundations, and even large donor grant programs and loans have delivered a lot of hand pumps, tapstands, and toilets, but have been much less successful at delivering permanent water or sanitation services. If national WASH sectors in the South are to truly move forward, our support must address the entire ‘eco-system’ of service delivery. This is particularly true as the donor world becomes more complex, as lower income countries move to be lower-middle income countries, and as expectations for services rise — as they rightly should. The challenge of ‘tomorrow’ for many in the developing economies is going to be household level piped supplies, not yesterday’s point source handpumps, and we should be ready to meet this.

2. Tell us about one collaboration or partnership your organization undertook and the lessons learned from that experience.

As part of the sustainable services at scale initiative in Ghana managed by IRC of the Netherlands, we have been working with the government’s Community Water and Sanitation Agency (CWSA) to address some of these systemic weaknesses and gaps in the rural water sector. This has involved intensive work to better understand the structural problems behind poor functionality of water supply systems and really attacking some of the most pressing solutions: a new legal instrument for CWSA, improved policy and implementation guidelines, better monitoring, and a truly comprehensive vision of what rural (water) services should provide. This has meant working with a range of institutions and organizations, including donors, many with vested interests in the current arrangements. After three years of intensive work at national, regional, and district levels, we are starting to see a growing consensus and demand for real change which is very encouraging.

The lessons I take from this experience are that this is a process that takes time; there are no quick fixes. Secondly, sector dynamics are often messy, but if the space can be created to reflect on what is going wrong and where the solutions might lie, it is possible to bring diverse stakeholders with competing agendas on board. Finally, we know that this process is not cheap, but compared to the relatively huge scale of resources being channeled into sector investments, it is affordable and absolutely necessary.

3. How do you work with local communities to promote project ownership and sustainability?

I believe that ‘project ownership’ by communities is a flawed concept. Much of what has been promoted as ‘community management’ by projects in the past has often been based on a very shaky understanding of national sector policy and legislation. It assumes firstly that communities are legally able to take on the ‘project’ assets (the pumps, concrete, and tapstands, latrines, etc.), but this is often not the case, is unclear, or is contested. Secondly there is the assumption that (rural) communities have the wherewithal, capacity, and desire to manage their own systems. Twenty years of experience have shown us that this works for some, but that for many communities these two assumptions are wildly optimistic and deeply flawed.

Sustainability of services can only be ensured by having competent operators (community, public, or private — I am agnostic on the modality, but it must be relevant to the context), good long-term support and monitoring, clear legislation, and financing frameworks to address regular short-term and longer-term capital maintenance costs. This is where we need to put our efforts.

4. Tell us about an emerging technology or solution that excites you and that you think will make a big impact in the WASH sector over the next 5-10 years?

Unfortunately I am a bit of a Luddite and still have a ‘dumb phone’, but even I can see that telemetry, in aspects such as system monitoring with data flows either by SMS or internet enabled phone systems, is a game changer. These technologies can result in reduced travel and costs and empower users to monitor their own services and demand improvements. I am, however, concerned that all the noise and fuss created by these very clever technologies can at times detract from some of the fundamental principles behind their use — who has access to this information? How is it used? And, ultimately, will it result in improved performance and better, more sustainable services? We should not lose sight of these issues in all the techno-hype and flashy maps.

5. There are lots of great WASH resources, ranging from striking data visualizations to good, old-fashioned reports. What’s caught your eye lately (besides WASHfunders, of course)?  

What I like are several interesting sites, including the newly revised Sustainable WASH, which includes a great resource database, Water For People’s Everyone Forever campaign, as well as our own site at Water Services That Last. But beyond these new places, we shouldn’t forget some of the Golden Oldies like USAID’s old Environmental Health Project and the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program, both of which have a lot of great in-depth reports and analysis. We should always try to avoid reinventing the wheel!

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