Solving WASH Problems Through Innovation

What does humanitarian innovation have to do with faecal sludge? A lot, it turns out! In this blog Cecilie Hestbaek explains how we can use innovation approaches to solve some of the biggest problems in emergency WASH, and set out how you can get involved.

By Cecilie Hestbaek

Diarrhoeal and respiratory infections are among the biggest causes of mortality in emergency settings. Agencies involved in emergency responses continue to improve their expertise, but a series of stubborn problems remain. Within WASH, these include lack of handwashing, inadequate menstrual hygiene support and lack of options for safe treatment of faecal sludge in emergencies.

At Elrha’s Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) we are seeking to address these and a range of other issues with an innovation-led approach. Our 2013 Gap Analysis and 2016 Problem Exploration reports have explored seven key areas in the WASH sector that are high priority to solve.

Some of these are more appropriate for an innovation approach than others—and we’ve made this distinction in close collaboration with experts from across the sector and beyond. Innovation can’t be forced—but it can be accelerated and managed in a way that makes it more likely to succeed in helping to solve our problems.

Through our WASH Challenges, the HIF aims to do just that. Our two most recent Challenges are about sanitation and address two big gaps in the sector:

  1. Developing and disseminating guidance on faecal sludge disposal sites, to address the lack of clear guidance for emergency contexts.
  2. User-centred sanitation design through rapid community engagement, to address the lack of good approaches for rapidly understanding affected communities’ physical needs and cultural/religious practices in order to build adequate sanitation that people want and are able to use.

The HIF’s role is not to find the solutions to these—we leave that to the expert practitioners, researchers, organisations and businesses we work with—but to create the most fertile ground for innovative solutions to grow from. We always go through three steps:

Step 1

First, we identify which elements need to be present in a good solution. That could include:

  • Research: Both of our Sanitation Challenges cover areas that need better understanding before we can develop a solution. That’s why we are looking for research partners to support this stage of the challenges.
  • Testing: For example, in our User-centred Sanitation Design Challenge we’re looking for up to 5 projects to develop innovative community engagement approaches that build on evidence and existing knowledge.
  • Dissemination: For most innovation processes, ensuring wide awareness of and uptake of the solution is crucial for the work to have an impact. Therefore, we’re currently looking for dissemination partners for both of our Sanitation Challenges.

Step 2

Next, we shortlist good ideas, facilitate expert feedback to strengthen them further—and then provide the flexible funding needed for innovation processes to succeed. At the HIF, we often run Innovation Workshops for shortlisted teams, engaging experts in everything from design thinking to toilets, and supporting them to develop partnerships and business plans.

Step 3

Then comes the innovation process. This is where we stand back, provide support when needed, and otherwise let the teams do what they do best. We help teams reflect on and disseminate their findings, and also use the learning to improve how we, as a funder, operate.

Accelerated innovation projects sometimes provide the silver bullet to major WASH problems—others may only go some of the way to providing a solution. However successful, we believe they can be impactful in building humanitarian actors’ capacity to address these and find novel solutions to the biggest problems they experience in the field.

Want to get involved?

  1. Check out our two Sanitation Challenges on our website. We have funding from £40,000-£200,000 available for up to 14 partners—maybe one of them is you? Share the challenge: maybe you know someone who fits the description?
  2. If you think you could be our partner in one or more of the challenges, we’d love to get an application from you! We are always available for questions or a chat about the Challenges and your application.
  3. If none of the Challenge Calls are just the right fit for you, have a look at some of our publications to help build your organisation’s innovation capacity, for example ALNAP and the HIF’s ‘More than just luck’ report from 2016. Do also keep an eye out in the late Summer of 2017, when we’ll be publishing a short video guide to running innovation workshops.


Cecilie Hestbaek is Innovation Management Adviser at Elrha’s HIF. She manages the organisation’s WASH work stream.