How Does Systems Change Really Happen? Four Key Insights

By Sam Drabble, Head of Research & Learning at Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP)

In the context of the global push to meet the SDGs, sanitation continues to lag dramatically behind. The challenge goes far beyond a lack of, or unsuitable, infrastructure: underlying systemic issues hold the sector back and block millions of people from their basic human right to sanitation.

“Systemic” is the operative word here. Thanks to a wide range of actors, systems thinking – defined by IRC as “seeing and understanding systems as wholes, paying attention to the complex and dynamic interactions and interdependencies of its parts” – has gained increasing attention as a tool for engaging with the intractable challenges of water and sanitation.

WASH practitioners are now engaging with system thinking principles much more methodically, as part of a shift beyond providing taps and toilets and towards a self-sustaining sector that can respond to need as required.

This progress notwithstanding, there is now a need for more practical examples of how systems thinking principles can be applied. In the context of complex urban service delivery landscapes, such examples are few and far between.

This deficit provides the backdrop to our new report, Systems Reboot: Sanitation Systems Change in Maputo and Lusaka.

We wanted to use systems thinking principles to better understand how the sanitation sector has evolved over a 10-year period in two cities – including key enablers that have driven progress to date, constraints which have prevented further progress, and interdependencies between different actors and elements of these systems – and to derive insights that could inform the way forward in these cities and elsewhere.

To do this we chose Maputo (Mozambique) and Lusaka (Zambia) as our test cases: two cities where significant progress has been made towards strengthening the enabling environment for sanitation, but which are still only at the beginning of their journey towards citywide coverage.

In both locations, we brought together the key institutional actors with first-hand knowledge and insight into their city’s recent history of on-site sanitation, to understand what has happened and why, and to assess how we might unlock further progress.

So what did we learn? We boiled down the analysis into four key insights:

Begin by optimising one part of the system

The size and complexity of urban sanitation systems can be overwhelming. Faced with this reality, actors should not feel compelled to address the system in its totality. Optimising one small part of the system can benefit the whole, by helping to overcome institutional inertia and catalysing movement in other parts of the system.

This effect can be seen clearly in Maputo for example, where the provision of inclusive shared sanitation, beginning in 2009, increased municipality engagement with on-site sanitation; and where the piloting of faecal sludge management (FSM) services promoted dialogue and revealed sectoral constraints which needed to be addressed. Initial, localised interventions of this type can highlight counterintuitive connections to other parts of the system; and provide actors with the flexibility to act, monitor and adapt in response to system feedback.

Embrace the power of process

The Lusaka and Maputo experiences have in common a regulator committed to driving improvements in sanitation service delivery. Although the regulatory instruments created are still to be fully implemented, the very process of their creation has been pivotal to advancing stakeholder coordination.

In Maputo, the planned introduction of a sanitation tariff necessitated a process of reflection which laid bare the overlapping mandates between the regulator and municipality; in Lusaka, the publication of a regulatory framework for urban on-site sanitation and FSM in 2018 is a highly significant development, resulting from a process of detailed sector consultation.

In a complicated system, each actor will have their own understanding of how the system functions, and sustained effort is required to prevent divergence. Stakeholder forums can sometimes be dismissed as a poor substitute for action, but in the context of effecting long-term systems change, the process of convening stakeholders to develop dialogue, enhance coordination and strengthen information flows is fundamental.

Design investments to address genuine systems constraints

Inadequate financing is routinely cited as a core sector constraint. Large-scale development finance can be an immensely powerful driver of change: investments of this magnitude will unquestionably have a huge impact on the system, for better or worse, and must be leveraged to achieve positive change.

Our systems analyses demonstrate that for this to happen, investments must i) be sustained over time; ii) respond to diverse and deep-lying system constraints, including weak absorptive capacity of institutions, and weak human resources; and iii) be designed with the end goal of improved services in mind, and with a clear causal chain to the end-customer.

Anticipate and factor in delays

Delays are critical determinants of systems behaviour, and in the context of sanitation sector change, they must be accounted for. Failure to do so can result in abortive projects with the potential to set the sector back. The challenge faced by institutions in absorbing fundamental change should not be underestimated.

An instinct to rush through reforms is understandable, given the very urgent need for sanitation improvements, but is ultimately counterproductive; sustainable systems change begins with acceptance that citywide transformation is a long-term process.