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Editor's Note: In this post, Sam Drabble, Research and Evaluation Manager at Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP), discusses some best practices for those looking to improve sanitation on a citywide level.


A waste collector from Clean Team doing his rounds in Kumasi, Ghana. Photo Credit: WSUP

The concept of improving sanitation on a citywide basis, rather than looking at individual communities or projects, is gaining increasing traction in the WASH sector.

World Water Week in Stockholm, in late August, was a clear example. In a specific session on citywide sanitation, Guy Norman from WSUP spoke about our experiences in Kumasi, Ghana’s second largest city. The session drew upon a sector review, led by WaterAid, which has documented successes in Kumasi, as well as Vizag (India), another city where WSUP is playing a key role.

Citywide sanitation is undoubtedly a complex approach, but essential if we are to reach scale in urban contexts. It requires coordination between the many organisations engaged in service provision—local government, regulators, NGOs, donors—and in some cases, the development of a citywide sanitation plan that sets out a roadmap for future service provision and investment.

Here are five insights for those who are attempting to implement citywide sanitation improvements, based on our experiences:

Understand the city before designing the solutions

We say it often, but it can never be said enough: there is no one-size-fits-all solution to urban sanitation! Our experience underlines that every city—and in many cases, individual low-income communities—have their own set of conditions.

Kumasi is a case in point. The sanitation landscape in Kumasi has three interesting features: 1) an unusually high number of pay-per-use public toilets (the leading form of sanitation in urban Ghana, with around 700,000 people using one in Kumasi each day); a high proportion of compound housing in low-income communities, where tenants will often share a living space with more than 20 other people; and 3) the existence of a bylaw, longstanding but not properly enforced, which requires compound landlords to provide an in-house toilet for their tenants.

Our support to Kumasi Metropolitan Assembly (KMA), predominantly funded by USAID and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, evolved as a response to these features. Since 2011 we have worked with KMA to improve the standard of public toilets in Kumasi. This is an interim solution, but a pragmatic one, given these toilets already proliferate throughout the city.

By improving the standard of service, we improve the level of sanitation until the longer term solution gains traction: a five year compound sanitation strategy, targeted at landlords and centred around improve mediation and enforcement of existing bylaws.

Other ongoing activities in Kumasi include continuing to invest in Clean Team, a containerised toilet business that we established in 2013; and strengthening the back end of the sanitation chain by training tanker operators and rehabilitating the sludge dumping site at Dompoase.

Adopt a step-by-step approach

When we imagine a citywide sanitation programme being implemented, we might picture a range of activities being rolled out simultaneously across the city. In reality, as with so much in life, we come unstuck if we try to do too much at once. The task of achieving citwide sanitation coverage is massively daunting, but becomes more manageable if we break it down.

This is how Greater Vizag Municipal Corporation (GVMC), with WSUP’s support, decided to tackle the challenge of achieving open defecation free (ODF) status across the 78 wards that form the city. GVMC’s ongoing ‘ward by ward’ approach began by mapping open defecation levels in every ward to establish the baseline situation.

Those wards with low levels of open defecation (OD) were targeted first to achieve ODF status relatively quickly: this set an example for other wards by demonstrating that ODF status is attainable, and helped to build momentum as the focus moved to areas of the city with progressively higher levels of OD. These latter wards required more time for implementation, reflected in the staggered implementation timeline: one month was allocated to achieve ODF status for 20 of the initial wards and two months for the next group of 28 wards.

Sanitation planning is about the process, not the final document

In a session at World Water Week, Arne Panesar from GIZ emphasised that city sanitation plans should be seen as primarily about a process, not the production of a document. This resonated with our experience: in some cases, a lot of time and resources go into producing a document that sits on the shelf.

However, the process—creating a dialogue between the key institutions, mapping the current sanitation status of the city, and identifying the gaps and bottlenecks in service provision and how these could be addressed—is of enormous value in itself, above all because it engages the institutions who are ultimately responsible for providing the services.

Faecal sludge management (FSM) service provision needs to be made more systematic

One area where we believe citywide sanitation plans do have huge value to add is in promoting the systematic provision of FSM services. As discussed in Stockholm, a problem at the moment is a lack of good tools for estimating the costs of different citywide approaches (sewerage, FSM, or combined sewerage and FSM).

A particular problem is that FSM systems—transfer stations, trucking systems, etc.—tend to just randomly develop; if FSM systems were designed by engineers in the same way that sewerage systems are, they’d presumably be cheaper and more effective. We think the question of how to develop systematic FSM services that cover the full sanitation chain—and how these can be better integrated in citywide sanitation plans —is potentially an interesting area for future research.

There is more to stopping faecal contamination than providing improved toilets

At World Water Week, we were struck by some emerging findings from the Sanipath research team at Emory University, who are analysing faecal contamination pathways in Maputo (this work is linked to the USAID-funded MapSan evaluation of our Japan Social Development Fund-backed communal sanitation programme).

Sanipath’s early analysis of results suggests that a very important source of faecal contamination is salad vegetables produced in the environs of Maputo. This is very relevant for us: it suggests that even if we were able to provide perfect toilets in Maputo’s low-income communities (and convince people to wash their hands after each use), people might still get disease from lettuce and tomatoes because untreated waste is being used for crop irrigation elsewhere.

This final insight acts as a reminder that city sanitation is extremely complicated: the more evidence we have about what is really going on, both in the communities where we work and across the city as a whole, the better. 

Editor's Note: In this post, Melissa Moy, Special Projects Associate for Glasspockets, discusses how Olypmian Neymar leverages his fame and global platform to draw attention to issues around clean water and sanitation, as well as education and health services for children. This post originally appeared on the Glasspockets Blog, Transparency Talk. To view the original post, please click here, and for more information about Olympians and their philanthropy, visit Glasspockets’ Going for Gold.


In the midst of Olympic fever – when Brazil advanced in the quarterfinals – soccer phenom Neymar posted updates on Facebook and Twitter. 

He paused to promote his treasured Insituto Neymar Jr., which provides free education and health services for children in his impoverished hometown.

“One of my greatest achievements in life, to have the joy of creating the Instituto Neymar Jr. and see those smiles,” Neymar wrote on his personal Facebook page.  “Thank you God for making me able to give joy to the lives of these children and their families!”  

As one of the world’s best athletes and a Spanish FC Barcelona player, Neymar has earned comparisons to former Brazil and Santos forward Pele.  He’s racked up four consecutive Player of the Year awards, the 2011 FIFA Goal of the Year and league titles for Barcelona and Santos. In July, Neymar inked a 5-year contract extension with Barcelona, with an annual $16.9 million salary.


Source: New York Times

On the flip side, Neymar has also gained notoriety for partying with celebrities and repaying $51.7 million in fines and back taxes for tax fraud related to endorsement deals.  His temper has led to multiple penalties; and critics have questioned his conduct and sportsmanship.  Following Brazil’s first gold medal win in Rio, Neymar famously resigned as Brazil’s team captain.  However, the national team has not yet ruled out his return.

Neymar is a gifted athlete with an impressive online presence: more than 58.7 million Facebook likes; 57 million Instagram followers; and 24 million Twitter followers.  Earlier this year, ESPN dubbed him the world’s fourth most famous athlete, and Neymar topped U.K. media analysis firm SportsPro’s list as the most marketable athlete in 2012 and 2013. 

What’s interesting is how Neymar leverages his fame and global platform to draw attention to the causes he cares about.


Passionate Philanthropy

Neymar has targeted his philanthropy efforts toward impoverished communities in Brazil with a focus on clean water and sanitation, as well as education and health services for children.

The fiery and energetic Neymar has regularly partnered with Waves for Water to bring clean water ccto impoverished areas in Brazil.  In 2011, only 48% of rural Brazilian residents had adequate sanitation and 87% had access to improved water, according to our data on Additionally, 3.53 deaths per 100,000 Brazilians were attributed to diarrheal disease.

In 2014, Neymar leveraged his celebrity to new heights in a partnership with PayPal and Waves for Water through a global campaign tied to the 2014 World Cup held in Brazil. 

Since more than 3.2 billion people watched at least one live minute of the 2010 tournament in South Africa, this global water campaign banked on the World Cup’s popularity and PayPal’s global platform. 

The strategic campaign cleverly allowed fans to buy water filters for Brazilian cities with the bonus of an homage to the donors’ home countries.  For example, donations from the United States were used to buy water filters for Sao Paulo, where the U.S. soccer team stayed during the tournament.  And PayPal partner eBay auctioned off autographed Neymar memorabilia to boost the campaign proceeds.


However, Neymar’s heart remains with his hometown.  In December 2014, Neymar launched the Instituto Neymar Jr. in Praia Grande, a coastal city outside of Sao Paulo.

The facility, which provides education and health services for children, is just a few blocks from where Neymar grew up on B Street in an impoverished community plagued with crime, drugs and unemployment.  It was in this neighborhood that Neymar played street games and futsol, an indoor version of soccer.

The soccer star values the opportunity to give back to his community, and he said it spurs him to excel professionally.  “It makes me really happy to do something for these kids and their families,” Neymar said in an in an ESPN story.

Neymar donated $6 million to the facility and also attracted additional sponsorship contributions to support the effort.  About 2,400 children, ages 7 to 14, attend the facility for two hours before or after school.  The children have free access to computers, dental and medical services, and can study English, Spanish and Portuguese.  Additionally, adults attend vocational classes in the evenings.

The institute is a family affair.  Neymar’s mother serves as the chief executive of the institute, and Neymar and his father spend time with the children. 

“I could not come to Brazil and not visit (the institute),” Neymar said.  “It’s my family’s dream, and I am always happy every time I visit.  It makes me want to keep growing this and doing this the right way.”

What’s Next?

With Neymar’s huge success and talent in sports, marketing, social media, endorsements and philanthropy at age 24, Neymar knows no limits. 

The next few years will be an exciting time for Neymar and soccer fans.  He will no doubt seamlessly continue to navigate player contracts and lucrative endorsement deals – $23 million in 2016 – with global brands like Nike, Red Bull, Gillette and Panasonic. 

With his tremendous fan appeal, social media and online presence, one can only imagine the awareness and improvements Neymar can bring to social justice issues in Brazil as well as the impact and influence he can wield in the philanthropic sector, from local to global levels.  All that to say… More, please.

Editor's Note: In this post, Marc Gunther, a reporter at Nonprofit Chronicles, discusses approaches to sanitation problems worldwide. This post originally appeared in Nonprofit Chronicles, to view the original post please click here.

It’s easy for most of us to take the simplest things–like flushing a toilet–for granted. Yet almost 2.4 billion people lack access to modern sanitation, and nearly 1 billion practice open defecation, according to the World Health Organization. The problem is worst in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia, particularly India.

What’s to be done?

That’s hard to know, says Seeking Sanitation Success, an excellent report commissioned by Catholic Relief Services:

Very little information on sustained solutions is available, making funders and practitioners in the sector vulnerable to repeating mistakes or investing in unproven approaches.

The report also found:

There has been no NGO-led sanitation approach that leads to success at scale (depending on the definition).

The report was written by Susan Davis, who is the founder of Improve International, a small NGO aimed at improving the quality and sustainability of water and sanitation projects in poor countries. By phone, she explains that most progress in delivering modern sanitation has been led by governments, and not NGOs.

That doesn’t mean that NGOs can’t play a constructive role, she says. They can advocate for government action, they can help spur behavior change around sanitation (which is harder to do than you might think) and, importantly, they can help figure out which of the many approaches to sanitation work best.

This is an all-too-familiar story in global development. We don’t know enough about what works. Programs are under-studied. Results are under-reported, if they are reported at all. Successes are trumpeted. Failures, not so much. Followup is rare.

“People aren’t really paying attention to what happened 10 years ago,” Davis says. “We’re more excited by innovation.”


Helping governments, foundations and nonprofits use evidence to improve their impact is the purpose of IDinsight, a nonprofit that I profiled in the July issue of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. My story, Data at the Speed of Life [subscription required], explains how IDinsight does high-quality, affordable research to enable nonprofits to learn quickly, adjust their programs and make more of a difference.

IDinsight’s work is valuable because too many leaders in global development “lack the evidence they need to make well-informed decisions,” says Neil Buddy Shah, IDinsight’s CEO and founding partner. This isn’t something you’ll read about on the websites of charities that help the global poor, but it’s true.

While reporting on IDinsight, I came across one of its clients, a Colorado-based nonprofit called iDE (it stands for International Development Enterprises) that stands out because it is committed to learning, to measuring its impact, to transparency and to developing market-driven solutions to global poverty. (All my biases!)

Which brings us back to toilets.

Traditional approaches to sanitation have provided free community latrines or toilets to all, driven by the belief that if-you-build it-they-will-come. But absent strong reasons to change behavior, these projects have disappointed. Put bluntly, people continue to crap outside, the way their parents and grandparents did. Numerous other strategies have been deployed to end open defecation which, in case you didn’t know, can spread disease, pollute waterways and contaminate fruits and vegetables growing nearby.

iDE favors an approach known as sanitation marketing, which sets itself apart by treating households as consumers, not as beneficiaries. The NGO has been working in Cambodia since 2009, with the support of US AID, The World Bank, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (which paid for the research with IDinsight), the Stone Family Foundation and the government of Australia.

It is getting results. iDE’s work in Cambodia has grown into “the largest-scaled improved rural sanitation project” led by an NGO anywhere in the world, according to Yi Wei, who directs iDE’s global WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) initiative.


Sanitation marketing aims to (1) increase the demand for toilets and (2) to strengthen the private sector’s capacity to supply them. This is Econ 101. "Everything we do is market-based,” says Chris Nicoletti, the global IQ director at iDE, who oversees its work on measurement. “It’s very much our ethos.” To succeed, iDE and its local partners need to design and make the right product and sell it at the right price.

Their product, known as the Easy Latrine, was developed in the late 2000s with the help of Jeff Chapin, a designer on leave from the renowned design firm IDEO. It’s been modified since then but remains a simple, low-tech, low-cost concrete latrine that came about using the principles of human-centered design, which is a fancy way of saying that Chapin and iDE  listened to their customers at every step of the process. It’s made by local manufacturers and costs roughly $36, before delivery and installation, which brings the price up to about $50. A growing number of customers add what’s called an Easy Shelter, a cement structure that provides privacy to latrine users and costs another $200 or so. (That’s price-competitive, more than shelters made of sheet metal and less than those made of bricks, I’m told.)

Latrines sold slowly at first. A World Bank Field Note from 2012 found that households bought 10,621 latrines from local private enterprises in the first two years, results it called “promising.” WHO’s most recent estimate, also from 2012, is that 8.6 million Cambodians practice open defecation. How could iDE speed adoption? 

Being a learning organization–seeing what works and what doesn’t–was key.

To improve the sales process, iDE worked with Whitten & Roy Partnership, or WRP, a global consulting firm, to train the Cambodian rural sales agents who go door to door selling toilets. “They get very high-quality training on how to sell,” Nicoletti says. “They are mentored, managed and trained by WRP.” WRP found, among other things, that sales commissions at first weren’t high enough to motivate the agents, so the commissions were increased. Instead of wielding Powerpoint presentations, Cambodian salespeople go door-to-door with flip charts to guide them through their spiel.

IDinsight was brought in to see if offering financing would help, as I wrote in the Chronicle of Philanthropy:

To test the market, IDinsight ran a set of randomized, controlled trials. Nearly 90 percent of Cambodian consumers, they found, were unwilling to pay the market price for a latrine, which ranged from $35 to $55. But when they were offered a 12-month loan, half of these same consumers agreed to pay $50.

Meantime, iDE worked to simplify and consolidate the supply chain and help local government officials promote improved sanitation. “The iterative approach is part of our DNA,” Yi Wei says. “There’s always room for improvement, and the market is always evolving.”

All the tweaks made a difference. Latrine coverage in Cambodia had grown by about 1.5 percent a year from 1992 through 2012. Since then, coverage has increased by 6.4 percent a year in the seven provinces where iDE works. Cumulatively, iDE has sold 238,406 latrines through its network of about 100 latrine producers and 300 sales agents. Program costs per unit have dropped, as volumes grew. Here’s an iDE website with more information.


That’s the good news, but issues remain. For now, there’s no single strategy for disposing of the waste after the latrines fill up, which takes months or years.

Susan Davis of Improve International says that, without a plan to recycle or dispose of sludge, the program can’t be called a success, yet. “We as a sector have focused on getting people to stop going outside and start using a toilet,” she noted. “What happens next?”

iDE is seeking “a commercially viable fecal sludge management solution,” perhaps by creating businesses to collect the waste and turn it into fertilizer, Nicoletti says. The Stone Family Foundation and the government of Australia continue to support iDE in Cambodia but the Gates Foundation no longer supports the work, unfortunately; it’s been pushing a a buzz-generating challenge to reinvent the toilet.

A couple of closing thoughts: First, solving hard problems like sanitation takes time. To tackle them, grantmakers need to commit for the long term, particularly as nonprofits like iDE demonstrate progress and a willingness to learn. It’s tempting to turn to the next new thing, before we even know whether the last old thing has worked.

Second, iDE’s commitment to research does not appear to be rewarded in the nonprofit “marketplace,” such as it is. Without shared metrics around success and with little transparency in the sector — as I blogged about last year in Water Taps and Information Gaps — the work of one NGO can’t be compared with another. Flashy websites and marketing claims (“every dollar goes directly to clean water projects”) carry the day.

Yi Wei asks: “How are we ever going to use resources more efficiently if we are not going to be more transparent and accountable?”

Fortunately, people at IDinsight tell me there’s more demand for their work than they can handle. That’s a sign that more foundations and charities, like iDE, want to learn how to do what they do better.

Here’s an excellent video about iDE’s work in Cambodia:

Editor's Note: In this post, Jayde Bradley, Advocacy Coordinator at WaterAid UK, reflects on what was learned at the recent High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. This post originally appeared on WaterAid's website, to access the original post click here.  

When policy makers gathered recently at the UN in New York, WaterAid was there to highlight the importance of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in achieving Agenda 2030. Advocacy Coordinator Jayde Bradley reflects on what was learned.

Nearly 300 days after UN member states adopted Agenda 2030, I visited New York for the 2016 High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). The HLPF is the not particularly catchy name for an annual summit at the UN where countries come together to share how Agenda 2030 implementation is going at the national level and discuss the big challenges on the path to achievement of the Global Goals.

Member states and representatives from civil society, academia, the private sector, and more filled the corridors of the UN’s basement to discuss the progress being made. The main item for discussion was the first ever set of so-called Voluntary National Reviews, for which 22 countries had volunteered to report back to the UN on their Agenda 2030 plans. This included countries where WaterAid works, such as MadagascarUganda and Sierra Leone, as well as high-income countries such as France, Germany, and Finland.


A group of children from Ampilanonana village in Madagascar supporting Goal 6. Nearly a year on, member states have been discussing progress at the UN. Photo credit: WaterAid/Ernest Randriarimalala

So what did we glean from discussing this big Agenda in the Big Apple? Here are my top five discoveries.

1. Process over progress

Most member states were keen to emphasise that we are still in the ‘early days’ of implementing the Global Goals. There was much discussion surrounding the processes that need to be put in place to take the Agenda forward, rather than the progress that should already have been made.

But already the clock is ticking very loudly – we are more than six months into year one and urgent action is essential to achieve the progress needed before 2030. As Elizabeth Stuart of the ODI said during the summit: “Agenda 2030 implementation is like a pension…the longer you leave paying in, the less rewards you see.”

2. Bringing Agenda 2030 home

One of the recurring challenges for member states that came up during the HLPF was how to move Agenda 2030 on from being a UN-led process coming out of New York to nationally owned action plans, with participation from a key range of stakeholders, including civil society, citizens and many more.

Some governments have taken great steps forward on this front – Sierra Leone has published a simplified version of the Sustainable Development Goals for its Parliament and the public, and Germany shared their platform at the HLPF with a representative of civil society to present their plans on implementation. But much more needs to be done to ensure all of us, everywhere, can play our part in achieving the Global Goals.

3. The challenge of ensuring no one is left behind

The theme of this year's HLPF was ‘ensuring that no one is left behind’. Agenda 2030 means ending extreme poverty and creating a more equal world for everyone everywhere, and prioritising actions to reach the most vulnerable and marginalised people. The importance of data – especially disaggregated data to capture information about the hardest to reach groups – was raised time and again throughout the HLPF. Many countries also highlighted the huge capacity gaps that are preventing this from happening.

4. The low profile of WASH

WASH received a relatively low profile throughout the HLPF, and just a handful of mentions by member states in the Voluntary National Review presentations – for example Sierra Leone, which highlighted sanitation as one of the areas where the most progress was needed.

Although WaterAid participated in discussions where WASH has not always been present (for example about health and improving the lives of women and girls [see below]), the HLPF was another reminder that there is still much to do to ensure actions to achieve Goal 6 are prioritised to help achieve the entire Agenda 2030. Our HLPF Storify gives a snapshot of what we got up to while we were there.

5. Integration wins buzzword bingo

Achieving the Global Goals will require a transformation in how the WASH and other sectors work, especially with each other. Discussions identified this ‘integration’ across different issues as a key challenge – and opportunity – on the path to achieving the Global Goals.

WaterAid’s global Healthy Start campaign is just one example of bringing together two interconnected sectors (health and WASH) to reach common advocacy goals – in this case that WASH is essential to improving health and nutrition outcomes for newborn babies and children. Margaret Batty, WaterAid’s Director of Global Policy and Campaigns participated in an ‘Every Woman, Every Child’ side event at the HLPF to make just this point.

Overall it was good to be part of these discussions: there was a high level of engagement from a range of different countries and groups, and the summit provided a necessary global level moment for countries to share learnings and challenges in this early phase of Agenda 2030 implementation. But we are already more than halfway through year one of Agenda 2030 – the most important message for all of us to take home from New York was the need to now turn these words into action.

Editor's Note: In this post, Tal Woolsey, an International Technical Advisor with CAWST who works in areas across Africa, including Zambia, Ethiopia and Uganda, tells a powerful story of what capacity building means in the WASH sector. This post originally appeared on the CAWST blog, to view the original post click here


The term capacity building is used a lot in international development and the water sector. It’s a nice, compact phrase that tries—but fails—to capture just how powerful it can be in peoples’ lives.

Sure we need clean, universal phrases to help standardize communication, but they can sterilize emotion and impact: the very things that compel us to take action.

Robinson Mufumbilwa’s story is what “capacity building” means to me. It takes more than two words to communicate his story, and stories like his. But it’s these stories that leave me with no doubt about the effect of “capacity building” on a person’s life, and how it empowers that person to then impact others.

It was 2009 and I was in Zambia as a CAWST International Technical Advisor, working with a local organization called Seeds of Hope. I was sitting in a quiet room when suddenly there was a knock on the door, and a young man walked in, introducing himself as Robinson. He had completed a three-month community development program through a local college, been to a biosand filter seminar and was raring to go. The problem was, he didn’t really know how to go. He was excited and was hoping Seeds of Hope would commit to building biosand filters in his village.

I told him to remember what he’d learned about needs assessments. They were the best way to get an agency to commit because they helped to determine whether there was demand or need for filters in a village. I told him it wouldn’t take much more than some photocopying and going door to door in his village, and asked how much he thought it would cost.

Robinson said he thought it would cost about 50 Kwacha, the equivalent of nine Canadian dollars, which I told him didn’t sound like all that much.

Not much, but it was money Robinson didn’t have. So I pulled the equivalent of ten dollars out of my pocket and gave it to Robinson, who thanked me and walked out of the room.

Over the next few weeks, I visited several other African countries as I continued my work for CAWST. I never thought I’d see Robinson again and if I did, I guessed he had spent his money on something other than doing a needs assessment in his community.

Much to my surprise, when I returned to Zambia weeks later, I found Robinson sitting in an office at Seeds of Hope with a neat stack of papers on his lap, waiting to speak to someone. He had all these sheets of his needs assessment, and they had been compiled into percentages of houses visited and so on, all the stuff he’d learned to do.

Robinson wanted to hand the pile of information to someone at Seeds of Hope. So, I advised him to go straight to the Biosand Filter Centre and to present his research directly to management. That’s exactly what Robinson did. Through his research, Seeds of Hope understood the need and subsequently supplied filters to people in his village.

Three months passed when I again found Robinson, this time working in the Biosand Filter Centre, building the very filters that would benefit his village with his own two hands.

In later years, I returned to Zambia to teach seminars on rainwater harvesting, monitoring and evaluation, water quality testing and so on. Robinson was a participant in all of them, an avid learner and an increasingly valuable asset.

In 2012 I discovered Robinson had become Manager of the Biosand Filter Centre. Since then, he has been going through the CAWST Competency Validation Process and has achieved the designation of Lead Trainer. He has delivered training in Zambia, Ethiopia, Uganda, Malawi and, I expect as time goes by, many more African countries. He has become a leader and a subject matter authority in water issues.

I often wonder what would have happened if Robinson hadn’t taken that first seminar on the biosand filter and what would have happened if I didn’t have ten bucks in my pocket that day.

For me, this is the story of capacity building.  Investing in knowledge and people is what makes a difference. Yes, it’s capacity building, but what does that really mean?  It is believing in human beings and their ability to learn, to teach and to change lives. It’s an idea that may take longer to communicate, but which is far more compelling.

Editor's Note: In this post, Susan Davis, Founder of Improve International and Contributing Editor at Engineering for Change, discusses the growing crisis of wastewater treatment.

Lavender Hill Accra by Emory CGSW team

Fecal Plume from Lavender Hill. Photo Credit: The Emory CGSW team

There is a place called Lavender Hill in Accra, Ghana, where trucks dump 250,000 gallons of untreated sewage onto a beach and into the ocean every day. I was recently in Ghana to attend the annual conference of Loughborough University’s Water, Engineering and Development Centre (WEDC), where I heard other examples of the destinations and consequences of untreated wastewater.

The trucks pump fecal sludge from latrines in Accra’s neighborhoods without sewer lines and dump it, creating the brown plume shown in the photo. There is a wastewater treatment plant, but it is closed. The plant was financed by the United Kingdom and designed by a Dutch engineering firm, and it was functional for less than four years. It failed due to inadequate training of local operators and because it was designed for more dilute wastewater.

In another example, Bukom, a neighborhood in Accra, has a sewer line that goes straight to the ocean. Untreated wastewater from communities, laboratories, hospitals, and even morgues is used to irrigate vegetable gardens in Accra, as well.  This is similar to many other cities in developing countries. The water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector has not paid much attention to wastewater in the past, perhaps because the Millennium Development Goals focused on increasing access to improved toilet facilities.

“Far less attention has been paid towards ensuring that waste streams are adequately collected and treated prior to discharge into the environment,” Catarina de Albuquerque, former Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, wrote in framing paper for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Wastewater is defined as “a combination of one or more of:

  • domestic effluent consisting of blackwater (excreta, urine and faecal sludge) and greywater (kitchen and bathing wastewater);
  • water from commercial establishments and institutions, including hospitals;
  • industrial effluent, stormwater and other urban run-off;
  • agricultural, horticultural and aquaculture effluent, either dissolved or as suspended matter.

Untreated wastewater can spread disease to humans and damage key ecosystems such as coral reefs and fisheries. Yet, 80% to 90% of wastewater resulting from human activities is discharged into rivers or oceans untreated. This means that two million tons of sewage, industrial and agricultural waste is discharged into the world’s waterways each year. The combination of increasing wastewater production, increasing population, and rapid urbanization will lead to an ugly situation if we don’t rethink wastewater management.

Beyond treatment, we will also need to devise ways to reuse and recycle water. Wastewater is “simply too valuable to waste,” as Duncan Mara wrote in his book Domestic Wastewater Treatment in Developing Countries. The UN has predicted that by 2030, the world water supply will fall short by at least 40 percent, hitting areas like sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia particularly hard. Reusing wastewater can help to ameliorate this challenge and, even better, it can be a source of nutrients for agricultural use.

The problem has caught global attention. Wastewater is now an integral part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Two of the SDG 6 targets specifically mention wastewater:

  • By 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally
  • By 2030, expand international cooperation and capacity-building support to developing countries in water- and sanitation-related activities and programmes, including water harvesting, desalination, water efficiency, wastewater treatment, recycling and reuse technologies

There are some promising solutions in place now that could be scaled up or replicated in other countries. In Part Two of this series we will look at examples of some of these promising solutions including decentralized wastewater treatment technologies that are being deployed in developing countries.

Editor's Note: In this post, Anh-Thi Le,  Program Coordinator at Blum Center for Developing Economies at the University of California-Berkeley, discusses how mobile technology has been harnessed to improve water access. This post originally appeared on USAID's website, to view the original post click here.


NextDrop’s real-time data and messaging system uses SMS to inform subscribers about when they’ll be receiving water, when there’s a delay, when pipe damage is likely to affect them, and when someone in the community has updates to share. / NextDrop

Although nearly half of the world’s population now has water piped into their homes and there have been significant improvements to water access in recent decades, many people living in urban areas of developing countries still do not have easy access to this most basic resource. And even where pipes do reach the urban poor, water sometimes does not.

“Literally, people wait around their house until the water comes on,” said Anu Sridharan, a founder of a social enterprise called NextDrop. “We’ve met people who’ve missed weddings, funerals and meetings.”

If customers miss a water supply window, then they may have to wait two to 10 days for their next chance. Unreliable water supply is a serious impediment to health and economic development. In India, 250 million people rely on unreliable water systems.

Sridharan created the phone-based program NextDrop to notify people when water will be available. In 2010, NextDrop won the Big Ideas@Berkeley contest, allowing Sridharan — a University of California-Berkeley civil engineering graduate — and her team of fellow UC Berkeley graduates to begin acting on their vision.

The service has reached 75,000 registered users in Bangalore, India. Now, the Development Impact Lab at Berkeley, with USAID funding from the U.S. Global Development Lab’s Higher Education Solutions Network, is evaluating the effects of the text message-based notification system. The evaluation has reached 1,500 households so far.

This May, Big Ideas celebrates its 10 year anniversary at UC Berkeley. Since its founding in 2006, the year-long contest has provided funding, support and encouragement to interdisciplinary teams of students who have innovative solutions for addressing global challenges.


Emily Kumpel, representing the NextDrop team, accepts an award in 2011 to scale up the team’s pilot study in Hubli-Dharwad. / Big Ideas Contest

Big Ideas is an example of how a university can be a catalyst for high-impact social innovation and research in international development, helping achieve an end to extreme poverty. The story of Big Ideas winner NextDrop demonstrates how a project that began on a college campus is now building evidence to reach scale.

From Classroom Idea to Reality

The seed funding that Sridharan and her team won from the Big Ideas Contest helped them to develop their simple but innovative idea: using text messages and crowd-sourced information to alert residents one hour before water will be heading down municipal pipes and into their homes.

NextDrop’s system involves collecting water flow information from valvemen — the individuals responsible for opening and closing the valves controlling water flow into particular districts — and notifying NextDrop customers.

This allows households not only to have accurate and timely information but also enables water utilities to access real-time information about the status of their systems.

The student team partnered with an NGO in Hubli, India for a pilot study of 200 households. Preliminary results were positive and the group was able to continue and refine their technology.

With funding from the Gates Foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative University, and the Knight Foundation, they began scaling their services beyond Hubli to the Indian cities of Bangalore and Mysore.

Building an Evidence Base for Scale

The evaluation of the rollout of NextDrop’s services will demonstrate whether receiving text message notifications of when water is flowing improves a family’s quality of life, so they don’t have to spend as much time waiting — time that could’ve been spent working or at school.


Each year, a household in India loses an estimated seven days waiting for intermittent water. NextDrop seeks to reduce consumers’ coping costs in developing countries. / NextDrop

The research team is also using survey data from the household impact evaluation to assess the accuracy of valvemen reports to NextDrop. The end goal is to provide NextDrop and the utility with a low-cost system for verifying and adjusting data provided by the valvemen, so that the utility has more accurate information about water flows to be able to manage limited water supplies.  

If NextDrop’s services are shown to be valuable in Bangalore, they will be able to scale their approach across other major cities in developing countries.

From early stage funding and support through the Big Ideas contest to evidence-based decision making and scale-up through the Development Impact Lab, projects like NextDrop have shown how the university has become a powerful space for inspiring, launching, developing and scaling big ideas.

As Phillip Denny, director of Big Ideas shares, “University-based programs like Big Ideas provide the perfect ecosystem for early-stage entrepreneurs by providing the resources, funding and ultimately the validation that allows ideas like NextDrop to thrive.”

Editor's Note: In this post, Agha Ali Akram of Evidence Action, explores why despite the availability of inexpensive and easy-to-use technologies and simple behaviors that can prevent diarrhea, social scientists have found it challenging to get high adoption rates and maintain participation amongst poor households, even when the technology is provided free. Ali Akram conducted this work independently and the following does not reflect the views/opinions of Evidence Action. This post originally appeared on DefeatDD's website, to view the original post click here.   

Despite the availability of inexpensive and easy-to-use technologies and simple behaviors that can prevent diarrhea, it was an unpleasant surprise for me to learn that it kills more than half a million children a year, predominantly in the developing world. More troubling still, social scientists have found it challenging to get high adoption rates and maintain participation amongst poor households, even when the technology is provided free. This got me curious: why is this the case?

What I Did: The Experiment

In a randomized controlled trial in Karachi, Pakistan, I test the hypothesis that perhaps families need tools that clearly demonstrate the impact of health interventions – in this case, chlorine tablets for water purification.


Figure 1
Info-Tool required weekly recording of diarrheal incidence and monthly comparison to a reference level.

I provided households with a simple visual tool (called Info-Tool) to help them assess the efficacy of using tablets. Info-Tool allowed households to record incidences of diarrhea using simple bar charts. Additionally, at the end of each month, I provided them a bar chart of the normal rates of diarrhea they could expect for that month. Diarrhea varies with season, so the norm I provided was a moving monthly reference (related to the number of children under five in the household) and Info-Tool allowed households to visually compare their bar charts to the reference level.

blog figure 2

Figure 2
Form of the experiment: control group in blue and treatment in green.

The experiment had a control group and treatment group, and rolled out in three phases. In Phase 1, which lasted three months, the treatment group used Info-Tool and built up a pre-tablet record of diarrhea prevalence. Info-Tool allowed them to understand where their levels tracked in comparison to the provided reference. In Phase 2, which also lasted three months, the treatment group continued to use Info-Tool but both groups were offered the option of accepting free chlorine tablets. In Phase 3, I discontinued the treatment group’s use of Info-Tool but both groups continued to receive freely provided chlorine tablets.

What I Found: Remarkable Results

Chlorine tablet use was significantly and persistently higher in the treatment group. At 74 weeks from the start of tablet delivery (beginning of Phase 2), the treatment group was almost twice as likely as the control group to accept the tablets, with the control group acceptance rate at 26% and the treatment group at almost 60% (see Figure 3).

Two results really struck me. First, my data show that as we enter the subsequent summer season (near the 46 week mark), both groups demonstrated higher tablet acceptance. Significantly, the treatment group’s summer increase in uptake was higher than the control group. To me, this suggests an impact of Info-Tool on households’ fundamental understanding of disease seasonality i.e. households seemingly better understood the “dynamics” of diarrhea.

A more striking result to me, however, was the fact that children in treatment households tended to measure significantly better than control households on health outcomes such as weight (22% gain), height (6% gain), and mid-upper arm circumference (3.5% gain). This suggests that the use of tablets had real measurable health impacts.

blog figure 3

Figure 3
Predicted probability of accepting offered chlorine tablets by treatment arm. The x-axis has time (weeks) while the y-axis shows predicted probability of uptake in a given week. The control group is shown in blue while the treatment group is shown in red. Dotted vertical lines indicate specific dates and phases of the experiment.

The results suggest that allowing households to track and reference their disease prevalence increased their ability to detect the efficacy of chlorine tablets, thus making the intervention far more successful. More specifically, I believe that households were able to better learn about the effectiveness of tablets because Info-Tool provided a more precise signal about tablet effectiveness. It is also apparent that households possess a general sense of the seasonality of the problem but with the augmented learning from the Info-Tool, treatment households show a higher likelihood to accept offered tablets as the “danger” (summer) season started.

What this Means: Policy Recommendations

I believe this study points the way forward in two important ways. First, it demonstrates a powerful new way to address a major global health challenge i.e. under-five diarrhea with its associated health costs. I found that the intervention had strong and persistent effects a year after it began, inducing people to adopt chlorine tablets when they otherwise would not have.

Second, it confirmed to me that people can and do make beneficial health decisions – we’ve just got to help them “see” that those decisions have real benefits. Giving people clearer signals on how they benefit from their use of supposedly beneficial technology sparks greater participation. Moreover, I can imagine analogues to this technique being applied to other domains where health technology adoption is critical such as adoption of anti-malarial bed-nets and drug regimens for diseases like TB and HIV. 

Editor's Note: In this post, Kylie Bates, Director of GameChangers, an organization that uses partnerships to make sport and communities stronger, discusses how sports organizations and organizations that solve water, sanitation and hygiene issues can join forces for change.

I am in sitting under a mango tree in Munda in the western province of the Solomon Islands, exchanging banter and observations with a group of teenage girls as they pull on their shoes and adjust their shin pads. The coach blows a whistle in the distance and within seconds the group is on the field, contracting and expanding again to run through kaleidoscopic drills. Three girls are left sitting under the tree and when I ask them why, they explain they each have their period. It is an awkward conversation and a common issue. Each member of this training squad misses one in four weeks of training due to menstruation.


WaterAid and Netball PNG’s support means girls in villages can participate fully in all aspects of life. Photo credit: WaterAid Australia

Taking part in this soccer program also means the girls will probably be among the 20% to 35% of Solomon Islands teenagers who get to finish high school. One father boasts his daughter is the hero of their village when she teaches the boys new drills and tricks. He says she is starting to change people’s minds about what girls are capable of doing. The girls don’t know it yet, but they will eventually be the backbone of the national soccer team. Being on the field, not under the mango tree, sends their life on a new trajectory.

The other main thing holding these girls back from playing and performing in their sport is surprising due its abundance on this tropical Pacific Island: water. 

People who play and organise games of sport need to be free from diseases that stop them in their tracks for days or weeks. They need to be free from bacteria spread by unclean water, poor hygiene behaviour, and open defecation. Adolescent girls and young women need convenient and effective ways to manage menstruation so they can confidently take part in all activities. They need the option of using hours usually absorbed walking long distances to water sources, or looking after young brothers and sisters who have infectious diseases, to train and play. In some countries buying water is expensive, leaving no discretionary income left for sport participation. More parents would support their daughters to play a sport if there was a toilet close to the playing field that was both clean and safe.

Reaching universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene will require US$24 billion, plus more to ensure sustainable water management. The effort pays off. For every $1 invested in water and sanitation, an average of at least $4 is returned in increased productivity.  Hygiene promotion is the most cost-effective health intervention according to the World Bank.

Perhaps as important as monetary value, reaching water, sanitation and hygiene targets requires the mobilisation of more diverse organisations that have a vested interest in the well being of their associates.

There are over 700 national sports federations in the Pacific region that have the capacity to regularly convene players, organize events, and support representative teams. Over 30 regional confederations support the national federations. Many more organisations fund, provide services to, and partner with these federations. If the more than 700 organisations that look after games of sport in the Pacific region want to flourish, then they have a vested interest in the water, sanitation, and hygiene experiences of their players both at home and on the field. 

Just as organisations that are interested in water, sanitation and hygiene are valuable to games of sport, sports have unique attributes to help progress community development objectives. Sports offer three platforms: 

1. Platform for change

Sports bring people together regularly in situations where they are with their peer groups and usually a coach or mentor. For example, when girls and young women play games of sport they develop a greater ownership and understanding of their bodies. They gain access to a safe space to grow and explore and connect with peers for social support, and learn to challenge norms and stereotypes. This creates an ideal environment for behaviour change in other areas that matter to adolescent girls, including menstrual hygiene management. As a result of Women Win’s Building Young Women’s Leadership Through Sport program in seven countries, 84% of girls had improved menstrual hygiene management compared with 49% previously.

2. Platform for advocacy and influence    

2.1 People


Captain of the PNG’s national netball team Mrs Lua Rikis encourages a new community to be healthy and active. When she is not on the court, Mrs Rikis is WaterAid PNG’s community development officer and work closely with the PNG Netball Federation to implement sport based hygiene behaviour change practices and policy. Photo credit: WaterAid Australia

The people who govern and lead games of sport often govern and lead in other parts of the community. Mobilising local resources is a key component of achieving the sustainable development goals. While there are varying reports on the degree to which they are effective in changing behaviour, they do play a role in raising awareness and contributing to highly visible conversations. In some cases there is the opportunity to train high profile athletes to play key roles in water, sanitation and hygiene activities. For example, Mrs. Lua Rikis, the captain of Papua New Guinea’s national netball team has joined the WaterAid office in Papua New Guinea. Part of her role is to engage and support Netball PNG in incorporating hygiene behaviour change and water and sanitation initiatives that are equally relevant to netball’s own mission and strategic priorities.

2.2 Policy 

The organisations that govern games of sport care about the well being of people who play their sport. Many sports have child protection policies, gender inclusion policies, and disability inclusion policies. If protecting participants’ health and safety is seen as part of the sport federation’s role, then the case can be made for sports to have water policy that describe the standards of water, sanitation, hygiene required as a prerequisite for sport participation and, importantly, help sports achieve these standards. This is especially significant for events where travelling teams rely on organisers to provide satisfactory facilities.

3. Platform to raise funds

The work of both sport and water organizations is enhanced and enlarged when there is more money available. Together, the two make a strong proposition for a funder.

For sports, partnerships with development organisations provide the design, monitoring, and evaluation rigor needed to set up an effective program. For development organizations, sports provide the profile, reach, and accessibility needed to make an impact. All of these elements are attractive to donors that are also interested in diplomatic outcomes via sport. WaterAid’s sport-based program funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Papua New Guinea is blazing trails for new forms of sport and development organisation partnerships. It is also piloting new ways to engage netball players in Australia in advocacy and fundraising via connections with netball players in Papua New Guinea.

Major sport events are also effective major fundraisers. UNICEF’s fundraising initiatives at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games raised almost AUD10 million. Tackle Hunger, a partnership between the World Food Program and the Rugby World Cup, raised almost AUD3 million. The potential of these relationships has not been thoroughly explored nor consistently applied. There is an opportunity for sports sponsorship to connect to sport event fundraising, that goes on to fund sports based programming that contribute to water, sanitation, and hygiene outcomes.

When I talk to colleagues in both the water and sport businesses, I hear that the hardest thing is knowing where to start. It is also the most simple. Ask for a meeting, figure out what you want, take the first step.

Keen to know more? If you like this article subscribe to my personal blog or say hello on twitter.

Editor's Note: In this post, Jonathan Evans, Mariana Gallo, and Alivia Knol of the Centre for Community Organisation and Development (CCODE), discusses how the EcoSan toilet system has helped to combat Malawi's sanitation crisis. 

With implications in areas as diverse as nutrition, education, and health, the lack of proper sanitation and hygiene is considered one of the greatest barriers to global development. In Southern Africa, Malawi is all too familiar with these far-reaching consequences. Diarrheal disease is currently the fifth cause of death in Malawi and it is estimated that poor sanitation costs the country approximately US$57 million each year.

Malawi’s sanitation crisis is perhaps most evident in the nation’s capital city of Lilongwe, and the industrial center of Blantyre. A combination of factors including a lack of a sewage treatment system, poor access to water, and a lack of space result in a complex sanitation challenge for the cities’ slums.

Currently, the most widespread model of sanitation toilet in these informal settlements is the pit latrine. Pit latrines are often smelly, fragile structures that are unsafe for children and are subject to overflow during the rainy season. Once a pit latrine becomes full, it is common for a completely new pit to be dug, making the system unsustainable. Open defecation is also commonly practiced in urban Malawian slums, with terrible health consequences.

Ecosan toilets1

The Centre for Community Organisation and Development (CCODE), in partnership with the Federation of the Rural and Urban Poor of Malawi, has been installing an alternative system called the Ecological Sanitation (EcoSan) toilet in Malawi since 2005. EcoSan toilets are dry-composting latrines, where the human waste is mixed with soil or sawdust to decompose in anaerobic conditions, producing as a result a compost that is odorless and safe to handle. Though there is a reasonable investment of training, and money required at the installation of an EcoSan toilet, the numerous long-term benefits of this system result in overall savings. This is in sharp contrast to pit latrines, which are quite cheap in the short run, but very costly in the long run. When maintained properly, EcoSan toilets can function with minimal water supply, and will produce a dry compost final product that is not unpleasant or difficult to empty.

When dirt and soot are periodically added to the collection chamber, the EcoSan toilet can turn human waste into manure that is used as fertilizer in gardens and farms. This fertilizer can be used by EcoSan owners in their own fields, or can be sold to other farmers. This capability is not only environmentally friendly, but is a source of great monetary savings (sometimes even earnings) for the EcoSan owner.

One unforeseen benefit that has emerged in the implementation is that the EcoSan toilet has become a status symbol in the community. The sturdy, odor-free design is something that EcoSan owners take great pride in, which in turn motivates their neighbors to seek out a similar toilet for their house.

The primary drawback of the EcoSan system is the cost. The current cost of a unit is around of US $215, which includes materials and labor. This is a significant sum of money for most households in the slum areas of Lilongwe and Blantyre. To overcome this obstacle, CCODE and the Federation work to provide loans to access them, and support village savings and loan groups as a way to increase investment capacity. Other solutions have come from the beneficiaries themselves: some groups have agreed to pool their money together to pay for a toilet to be installed in one house with the understanding that everyone who contributed money will be able to use the toilet. Once they’ve saved enough money, they will pay for a toilet to be installed for the next family, and so on. This solution is not ideal, but it’s nevertheless a way to increase access for a population that would normally never be able to afford such a toilet.

Another challenge with EcoSan toilets is that they are not maintenance-free. When the toilets are not properly taken care of, they can start to smell, get clogged up, or attract flies. These issues are all completely avoidable, but the owner must be committed to the necessary upkeep.  CCODE and the Federation ensure that each and every household that gets an EcoSan toilet also receive the necessary information and training to use and maintain it properly.

Despite these challenges, the EcoSan toilet is proving to be the most adequate solution to the sanitation and hygiene crisis in Malawi. Not only does it save space and money in the long term, but it also contributes to the achievement of one of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals of Ensuring Environmental Sustainability. However, without adequate financing for impoverished households to install EcoSan toilets, they wouldn’t be accessible to the people that need them the most.

With the help of local savings and loans programs like the Federation of the Rural and Urban Poor, and the work of numerous NGOs throughout Malawi, access to improved sanitation will continue to expand, if not as quickly as perhaps it could. Nevertheless, every single toilet that is installed means less danger for children, less exposure to disease, and less damage to the environment. There is certainly a long way to go, but progress is being made every day.

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