The Need for Common WASH Indicators

Editors Note: This is the first in a series of briefing notes from the WASH Monitoring Exchange, a collective effort by funders, academics, and NGOs to lay out a common basic framework for monitoring and evaluation. This briefing note describes the genesis of the WASH Monitoring Exchange and its initial work. It is authored by Susan Davis, founder of Improve International, and Rachel Cardone, program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (Views expressed are their own). In the coming months, will provide ongoing updates on the efforts of the WASH Monitoring Exchange.

The Need for Common WASH Indicators

Kisumu, Kenya 2006. Photo credit: Susan Davis

The iconic photograph of an African woman or child carrying a bucket of water on her head, fetching water from the river, has helped raise millions of dollars for water and sanitation projects over the years. Yet, as more and more data (see Figure 1) illustrate the high failure rates of water points and systems built by these projects and programs, a growing number of donors, NGOs, and governments are questioning the value for money of different approaches.

Figure 1

Data source: Rural Water Supply Network (RWSN) 2009 Handpump data, selected countries in sub-Saharan Africa

In the past few years, there has been a shift in thinking about water and sanitation as an infrastructure sector, whose success is measured by outputs, to thinking about water and sanitation as a service delivery sector, whose success is measured by outcomes. Determining success means being able to reliably answer questions over time such as: are consumers happy with their service? Is it reliable and affordable? Is it environmentally and financially sustainable? Is it providing water and sanitation services for everyone, forever?

How will we know?

If we accept that water and sanitation services require continuous attention to meet consumer needs, then the current framework for measuring success — which considers access to infrastructure as the end point — needs to evolve.

In a services framework, access to infrastructure can be considered instead as a useful and necessary input indicator. But it’s a few steps away from the desired outcome of sustainable services for everyone, forever.

Last year, a group of NGOs, funders, and academics started to ask hard questions about the sustainability of their own programs and others in the sector, and came to a few realizations:

  • For local and national governments, including public service providers, the cost of generating data on a per capita basis often exceeds the total water and sanitation budget on a per capita basis. In a financially constrained environment, funds will get channeled to new infrastructure and services, not to monitoring.
  • For funders and intermediaries, it’s hard to measure value for money in programming when there are few standard definitions or common denominators against which programs can be measured.
  • For academics, the limited availability of comparable data sets coupled with the cost of data collection hampers the ability to do cost-effective, rigorous social science that is replicable.

Then the group decided to take action, and the WASH Monitoring Exchange (WASHME) was born.

WASHME is taking an action-oriented approach to monitoring. Currently, the group is running an experiment to answer the following three questions:

  • What is the lowest number of common indicators necessary to determine sustainability of WASH services over time?
  • What are the least costly/most reliable sources of data?
  • What governance models are most cost-effective for monitoring WASH services over time?

Along the way, the group seeks to learn something about whether diverse organizations can adopt a similar set of indicators to measure the sustainability of their work.

Learn more about our experiment here.