11th Sanitation Community of Practice (SanCop) Meeting: Learning from Failure in Sanitation

Editors 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.

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

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).