Narrowing the WASH Capacity Gap

Editors Note: This guest blog post was authored by Shauna Curry, CEO of the Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology (CAWST). In her post, Shauna highlights the capacity gap that exists in the WASH sector due to a shortage in skills and the scarcity of local water and sanitation professionals. She describes the central focus that CAWST has placed on human resources and capacity building for WASH and suggests a number of ways in which funders in the sector can work to narrow this gap.

Shauna Curry

Two recent reports by the International Water Association and UN-Water draw attention to a WASH capacity gap crisis.

These reports mark a major step forward to illustrate what many in the WASH sector have experienced first-hand: a shortage in the skills and number of local WASH sector workers undermines the success and sustainability of WASH interventions and stands in the way of universal access to safe drinking water and sanitation.

The first of the two reports was released in late September by the International Water Association, "An Avoidable Crisis: WASH Human Resource Capacity Gaps in 15 Developing Economies". More recently, the UN-Water Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-Water (GLAAS) report was released.

Millions of WASH practitioners are needed

The IWA report notes that the Millennium Development Goals sparked spending on WASH infrastructure, technological innovation and institutional reform. But human knowledge and skills have been left behind.

"This investment has not been accompanied by the necessary focus on the size, competencies and enabling environment for the human resource base needed to design, construct, operate and maintain such services" the report says.

The IWA study found that 787,200 trained water and sanitation professionals are needed, in 10 of the countries studied, to reach universal coverage. That sampling suggests that across the developing world, there is a shortage of skilled WASH practitioners that numbers well into the millions.

Beneath the capacity gap is a funding gap
Meanwhile, the latest GLAAS report illuminates the funding shortfall in addressing the WASH capacity gap, with less than one per cent of WASH aid commitments in 2012 directed at education and training.

Graph: Breakdown of sanitation and water aid commitments by purpose type, 2012

(Source: Page 49, GLAAS Report)

We cannot expect to narrow the WASH capacity gap unless we address the funding gap. The lack of in-country expertise is a direct outcome of the chronic under-funding of WASH skills training.

Capacity-focused interventions drive action and innovation

Over the past 13 years, CAWST has exclusively focused on building the capacity of the WASH sector. We have seen first-hand the direct and immediate impact of providing WASH capacity-building services to over 800 WASH organizations in 68 countries. We have also seen a wide-spread multiplier effect of this strategy, as 3.3 million people have been trained by other organizations using our education and training materials.

Capacity development is a powerful tool to enable entrepreneurship – in the sense of taking initiative to respond to local needs and conditions. Providing practical knowledge and skills that project implementers and decision-makers can apply immediately increases WASH project quality and sustainability by developing the ability, confidence and motivation of practitioners to start, strengthen and grow projects. Such practical knowledge and skills can range from basic technical skills in point-of-use water treatment approaches and technologies, to hand pump repair, as well as softer skills such as building effective facilitation skills and WASH education program development. 

When knowledge and skills reside locally, people take action in innovative ways, and train and mentor others.

Photo of sanitation training materials workshop, Cambodia, May 2014

CAWST launched its new sanitation training materials during a workshop, seen here, in Cambodia in May 2014. Focusing on skills and knowledge is crucial if WASH interventions are to be successful and sustained. Credit: CAWST

Training isn’t enough

Training activities are often seen as secondary, rather than being a core strategy to achieve results. Complicating the matter, the limited ability to evaluate the quality and impact of training has obscured the ineffectiveness of many WASH training efforts.

Over the past decade we have learnt that combining training with ongoing technical and implementation support, along with subsidies for organizations that can’t afford it, provides an "on-the-job" practical approach to capacity building. Ongoing technical support can be anything from a phone call, Skype conversation or email to discuss technology options and implementation hurdles, to a multi-day onsite visit to improve project monitoring, among other forms of support.

Providing ongoing coaching, mentoring and professional development supports implementers as needed at each stage of their development and helps them overcome challenges.

Photo of CAWST teaching model

CAWST’s unique approach to building local capacity empowers people to address their own water and sanitation needs, and then CAWST supports them in their actions through ongoing consulting support. Credit: CAWST

Capacity development must be measured at the outcome level, consistently year after year
Designing effective training and education programs is difficult. Evaluating their impact is even harder, which may be one of the reasons funders shy away from supporting this much needed arena. CAWST suggests measuring what people do with the training, not how many people are trained.

In recent studies undertaken by CAWST, Cambridge and Cranfield of over 100 WASH capacity building organizations, only 1/3 reported capacity building results. For those who report, the majority of the results are at the output level, rather than at the outcome level. CAWST’s key performance metric is "number of people with safe water" (vs "number of people trained"). This metric keeps CAWST focused on ensuring that knowledge and skills reside locally, and that our capacity development activities result in action.

We must also recognize that the impact of building capacity often goes well beyond short term outcomes as people are empowered, take their skills to the next project and pass on their knowledge to others.

Funders can lead the way

WASH funders have the potential to be game-changers in narrowing the capacity gap. As we’ve seen with the sanitation sector, which has received renewed focus and increased funding in recent years, WASH funders can build similar momentum to take on the capacity gap.

What can funders do to close the gap?

  • Digest and understand the data. The "capacity gap" can seem harder to define and address than infrastructure, but the growing body of evidence is showing that the WASH capacity gap will continue to hamper WASH progress until we tackle it head-on.
  • Focus on skills and knowledge, alongside infrastructure, that will increase local capability to identify, implement and sustain WASH solutions that are appropriate to the local context.
  • See the WASH capacity gap as an area where funders can lead, and do so proudly.
  • Look for and replicate capacity development approaches that create enabling environments for entrepreneurship, innovation and sustained impact at the scale needed.

The IWA and GLAAS reports draw attention to the large capacity gap and are a call to action to address the need. They illustrate the crisis, but also provide strategic recommendations for our sector. Without a focus on knowledge and skills, WASH infrastructure and service delivery will fail.