Editor’s Note: This post highlights an interview with John Anner of the East Meets West Foundation on how a technology platform and online collaborative network can solve barriers to growth, and scale the impact of their WASH programs. It was authored by Lisa Nash, CEO of Blue Planet Network.
How do you see technology scaling your Clean Water and Sanitation Program to provide more people in impoverished, rural areas with greater access to safe water and improved sanitation?
East Meets West Foundation (EMW) has partnered with Blue Planet Network since 2006 to plan, manage, and track over 40 WASH projects. We needed to find a partner whose technology services could help us scale and be more effective. We have uploaded nearly $1,000,000 worth of WASH projects on Blue Planet Network’s technology platform, increasing the impact of our projects for nearly 60,000 people in Cambodia and Vietnam. Blue Planet Network programs and services allows us to spend less time inputting our project data and more time planning and implementing sustainable projects and learning from other NGOs doing similar work. Through the technology platform, we track our projects to make them even more scalable.
Can you provide an example of one of your WASH projects and how a tracking and management system is helping to scale your work even further?
One project in particular that we piloted in Cambodia was our Safe Water in Soramarith Secondary School project in the Kampong Chhnang Province, located 90 km east of Phnom Penh and one of the poorest provinces in the country. This is the first EMW clean water and sanitation project in Cambodia. We were able to secure funding for this pilot project and to expand our work further in Cambodia. The project enhanced the quality of life for 4,175 people in this area by increasing their access to clean water and improving hygienic and sanitary conditions. Today, we have four Cambodia projects helping approximately 12,000 people gain access to safe drinking water and sanitation. Being able to plan and track this project on an online technology platform that both our head office and our field offices could access improved communication and sped up our expansion plans without increasing cost.
Uploading the majority of our project data on an open-access system allows us to easily share the impact of our work and critical information on how we are improving WASH practices with international agencies, foundations, and state, federal, and local governments.
How do you see the use of technology helping you launch new initiatives?
Recently, we were awarded a $10.9 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This grant will enable us to improve sanitation and hygiene practices among the rural poor in Vietnam and Cambodia. The right technology support is critical to our output-based approach and the success of our program. Since our expertise lies in program design and field work, and we don’t have the capacity, know-how, or resources to build our own WASH technology system, we use Blue Planet Network’s tools and services to help us plan, implement, and monitor our international programs.
How exactly will monitoring and reporting help you achieve your Gates Foundation grant goals?
Using a project tracking and management system will help us increase the effectiveness and impact of our Gates Foundation $10.9 million program. We need to be able to track 1.7 million people in 344,000 households and 290 communes in Vietnam and Cambodia on the platform. We need a technology system that focuses on the full life of a project — from planning to implementation, and post implementation/monitoring — not just the final well or toilet. Other data we plan to track includes: region and time period, project challenges and successes, diversity and quantity of people impacted (women, children, low income), water volume and quality, water and sanitation usage, and more. And, we need to deliver ongoing project progress, data, and long-term monitoring reports online for easy access and full transparency to all our funders. This is invaluable data that we can share with stakeholders, and share with other NGOs so they can learn what worked best for us and the challenges we faced. We can even show funders or other NGOs how the communities are actively involved from the start, and empowered to manage everything from maintenance to financing to ensuring all community members live up to their commitments. The ability to customize the platform to meet all these needs will enable us to achieve greater results.
Going forward, we also want to use Blue Planet Network’s SMS reporting service to enable our cell phone-equipped communities, partners, and personnel to monitor and report on all our safe drinking water and sanitation installations. If a problem arises, we will be able to quickly see the reported texts and to provide immediate advice to remedy a challenge. SMS is a practical technology for us because most of our projects are located in very rural and marginalized communities of Cambodia and Vietnam. This service will scale the sustainability of our programs by reaching thousands of children and families living in some of the most high-need villages and empowering them to monitor and sustain their own community-led WASH systems.
How would collaborating with other NGOs benefit your work and increase accountability?
As a member of Blue Planet Network, we participate actively in a semi-annual peer review process to share best practices with other implementing organizations working on similar programs around the world. We have reviewed 34 WASH applications since we joined the network in 2006. This has been a valuable learning experience for us. Additionally, 11 of our applications have been peer reviewed by other NGO members on the platform. These WASH organizations and leaders have included Dr. Meera Smith of Project Well, Lynn Roberts of Agua Para La Salud, and Carolyn Meub of Pure Water for the World. In order to complete the peer review process, we have to answer very technical and in-depth questions about our projects.
During our 2011 Cambodia project peer review, Lynn Roberts noted, “The Andoung Snay and Andoung Chrey Clean Water Project systems seem dependent on electricity. How reliable is the supply and is the cost included in the maintenance?” That discussion made us think more about contingencies on many levels. We welcome questions from fellow experts who aren't too close to our work. They help us make sure our project plans are designed for sustainability and have the full potential of addressing the WASH challenges in rural communities throughout Cambodia and Vietnam.
Our former Water, Sanitation, & Environment Specialist with over 25 years of experience in planning, managing, and evaluating rural development projects, Rick McGowan believes that, “People who have more experience in the water development business have an obligation to help tutor and encourage those who have less experience...” And we couldn't agree more! We know that together — as one network, made up of many minds and sharing one purpose — we can collaborate and share learning to better plan, implement, and monitor sustainable water programs globally.
Editor’s Note: This post highlights Blue Planet Network’s long-standing peer review and crowd-sourcing platform, along with examples of collaboration and knowledge sharing among BPN’s members. It was authored by Lisa Nash, CEO of Blue Planet Network.
What if there was a way for the WASH sector to unlock the hidden knowledge of sustainable safe drinking water and sanitation programs?
Blue Planet Network (BPN), an online global platform and network of 90+ WASH funders and implementing organizations, is designed to encourage collaboration, increase impact, and promote a cross-sector focus on project results and lessons learned. This is complemented by an expert crowd-sourcing process — the heart of BPN. Members “peer review” other organizations seeking feedback on their project implementation plans. Utilized collaboratively in a safe space, the peer review process is aimed at unlocking the tremendous knowledge of the global WASH sector. After five years of peer reviewing and crowd-sourcing, we have seen an increase in member standards, discussion, and accountability.
BPN’s WASH community began in 2006 when five WASH NGOs — recognized for their innovation and impact — came together to build a collaborative online forum to improve each other’s programs. Introducing the peer review concept was a new challenge; we knew it would take time to build a large community of NGOs and funders committed to sharing their valuable project knowledge for the good of the sector. Over time, however, these efforts paid off. Our members have shown us so many ways to use our platform.
The BPN member stories below show how the WASH sector — empowered by technology — can collaborate, share learning lessons, and continually help improve WASH sector program impact.
Community Water Center (CWC) and BPN are developing a program in San Joaquin Valley, CA, to help 2,600 people living with nitrate and arsenic-contaminated drinking water. The groundwater has been contaminated with nitrates from the heavy agricultural pesticides used, and from naturally occurring arsenic. Project Well, a BPN member working on arsenic-free wells in West Bengal, India, will support CWC’s efforts by sharing their experience.
- Aguayuda, from Colombia, changed their local staffing plans after applying for membership and discussing staffing options with BPN members Agua Para La Vida, El Porvenir (Nicaragua), and Agua Para La Salud (Guatemala).
- East Meets West (Vietnam, Cambodia) suggested improvements to hygiene practices of a project by Indian BPN member, Ekoventure, that reduced overall costs and improved project sustainability.
- The Chagrin Valley, Ohio Rotary Club, a BPN funding member, facilitated the independent monitoring of projects implemented by member Aqua Clara International in Kenya by local Kenyan Rotarians.
- “Peer visits” in 2011 were launched to empower members from a common region to connect with others in the field, suggest improvements, and train together. The Samburu Project hosted fellow members, Tanzania Mission to the Poor and Disabled (PADI), Aqua Clara International, Sabore Oyie in Kenya and Rajesh Shah of BPN to review their work in northern Kenya, suggest ways to improve sustainability, and share field experiences.
- Gram Vikas and WOTR, Indian BPN members — and the first two recipients of the Kyoto World Water Grand Prize — have advised members on their MANTRA and participatory watershed development programs. The 2012 Kyoto World Water Grand Prize winner, Katosi Women Development Trust (Uganda), is connected to BPN through a long-time member, Global Women’s Water Initiative, and we hope to promote collaboration among these grassroots leaders.
We have seen a significant increase of funder interest in WASH projects because BPN directly connects funders to NGOs and project communities. Although funders may be continents away, they still have an up-close look and hands-on tool to monitor and track project planning, implementation, and impact through our platform. This transparent process increases funder engagement and builds confidence in future funding and investment.
Funding ongoing monitoring efforts is also a cost-effective way to ensure investment dollars continue to have the impact funders seek. Currently, approximately 30 funders, WASH experts and observers, and over 60 international agencies track WASH projects on BPN’s online platform.
Through our close work with WASH funders, NGOs, and communities, we have come to understand that there is no “one size fits all” solution to address the global WASH crisis. Each community and culture is unique, reinforcing the need for an innovative community-owned strategy. By bringing people together to transfer and share knowledge, we enable them to learn what’s been tried, what works, and what doesn't, and then to apply that knowledge to their own unique context. Establishing a culture of learning within and among organizations is vital to improve project outcomes, lower costs, and increase accountability.
Building upon experience and member input, BPN is launching its next generation online platform, “BPN 2.0,” in late 2012. With the growing demand for BPN’s WASH platform, there also comes the need for expanded reporting and analytics, more funder-focused services, project post-implementation tracking, and simplified user experience. BPN will be sharing its work in the coming months with members and other interested organizations in the WASH sector. We look forward to learning from the experience of others to make our offering as valuable as it can be in our common effort to enable sustainable safe drinking water and sanitation for all.