Let’s Connect Sanitation to the Rest of Development

Girls and boys school toilet in Ghana. Photo: Kimberly Worsham

By Kimberly Worsham

To many of us in the WASH world, sanitation is the center of the universe. Without access to sanitation, communities face many other challenges when trying to improve their public health, equity, education, economic development, and climate change resilience. On the other hand, robust sanitation access can yield synergistic benefits to other causes like women’s education and economic development, which see boosted sustainability.

Unfortunately, the current funding environment for WASH has stunted progress for sanitation. Firstly, as many of us are painfully aware, the funding is far too low; only 3.8% of all aid funding goes to WASH-related programs, and less than half of it goes to sanitation. Sanitation projects have drawn very few funders in part because it is considered unglamorous compared to other causes like HIV/AIDS or girl’s education. Secondly, current funding streams don’t reward risk, which is vital for the sector’s ability to experiment with new approaches to tackle sanitation sustainability woes. This makes the WASH sector slow and hesitant to try out new things, beyond the color options we offer communities for bathroom tiles. Lastly, the sanitation sector finds itself isolated, rather than integrating work into different sectors, such as schools, hospitals, housing, etc. Non-integrated projects compete for an incredibly small pool of money, unable to garner interest from other funders because they are not linked with causes those funders care about.

Ultimately, many of us can’t do a lot about the first two problems; some in the WASH world are working hard to address the first two problems with advocacy, though it will likely continue to be a long and frustrating process.

But we can do something more concrete and tangible about the third problem. We can start changing sanitation’s funding environment, but it can’t happen if we don’t pro-actively change how we measure our work and talk about sanitation’s impact on development as a whole to donors and other sectors’ stakeholders. We have a few recommendations for how we can start making these changes.

Change Our Data Approach. Sanitation’s data environment includes big metric inconsistencies and few standards, which means we can’t yet integrate multiple sanitation interventions in one location, let alone with non-sanitation interventions. This also causes confusion across the sector as well as externally. The JMP created something like a starter kit data set for sanitation with the SDG sanitation targets and ladder definitions, and mWater has kept a data library of commonly-used metrics on their database, but we need a larger set of indicators shared across initiatives. Of course, we all need our unique program metrics, but having more standards would help everyone speak the same language and get funders to better understand what we’re talking about and how to measure success.

Data champion NGO Gather talks a lot about improving data standards for sanitation, and thinks that the future of sanitation data standards may be in harnessing geospatial data, such as looking at the number of toilets per capita in a region. We are optimistic about this potential, as well.

Find Better Metrics. Sanitation heavily relies on two metrics with contentious efficacy: “Open-Defecation-Free (ODF) Status” and “Latrine Count”. No one is entirely sure if ODF Status is a useful metric for sustainable sanitation; several articles have asked what is the point of ODF status when we know communities don’t always maintain it. And lots of sanitation professionals moan about how latrine counts mean nothing if toilets are kept locked up after a short period of use. More meaningful metrics that can tie our work to its effects on other community efforts will increase interest and buy-in from non-WASH stakeholders. It may be trickier to measure, at first, and will require a lot of long conversations and potential discomfort, but we anticipate it would be worth it. With better metrics, we can win the ears of external stakeholders and drive measurable change through integration without necessarily placing pressure on already-stretched sanitation workers.

When we worked on mapping out what metrics may be better suited to link sanitation to other sectors, we found a couple that already work. We know organizations like Sanergy share how their sanitation reuse products increase agricultural yield, which speaks to agricultural stakeholders. Some sanitation programs that already collaborate with education share how they link “school enrollment rates” and “increased access to sanitation” – particularly for girl’s attendance. We have only just started this exercise in finding better metrics to speak towards the universe of sanitation’s impact.

Champion Logic Models. When it comes to showing sanitation data that can integrate with other sectors, we have to guarantee it makes sense to the WASH and non-WASH worlds alike. How can we structure data in a way that is easily understood by all? A great starting point could be the good old, tried-and-tested logic model approach. The beauty of using the logic model is that it is known by anyone working in any kind of development work. Also, it is a simple way to level with other sectors about what kinds of metrics we can measure that can show sanitation’s impact on other sectors in terms that funders and practitioners can understand. The trick is to guide funders – regardless of focal cause – to understand and champion this approach for their funded projects.

The good news is that the integration of sectors is already starting to happen. We hope to see more of this in the next decade; in particular, we expect larger INGOs that have WASH departments could lead integration efforts internally, and creating a simple template for other NGOs to follow – particularly with how those multisector programs are measured. Of course, funders can also facilitate this practice faster with some well-placed funds. Government agencies can also be key drivers to collaborate on projects across their different agencies.

This may be, after all, how we could sustainably achieve SDG6.2 by 2030.

Kimberly Worsham is the Founder and principal at Flush LLC.

Special thanks to John Peter Archer from Gather for his review of the post.