Last week I had the opportunity to be part of the panel for a live web chat* organised by the Guardian newspaper's Global Health Innovation Hub. The subject was sustainable sanitation. This was one of a host of activities that gear up at this time of year as we look forward to World Water Day* on 22nd March. For a WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) programme person in Plan, this is a busy time.
The surprise for me during the web chat was not the degree of consensus around common challenges in the WASH sector. Familiar issues like policy impasses; lack of effective, rooted advocacy; institutional coordination; technology fixation; and perverse outcomes arising from financial subsidy were all discussed. The surprise was the relatively underwhelming response to the question posed to the panel about sustainability.
A reoccurring issue
This may be because we know this to be an old problem that has the habit of redefining itself. While it's not exclusive to the WASH sector, sustainability remains a constant question for a WASH adviser. Our sector has transited in recent years from approaches that prioritised hardware and supply of technology to ones in which we now seek to trigger the community in developing and sustaining demand for their own sanitation systems and solutions.
Plan Australia's recent, excellent study on Open Defecation Free Sustainability* highlighted the factors that enabled or constrained communities staying faeces-free, or reverting to earlier practices. It's an illuminating and at times difficult read, especially in what it tells us about effectiveness. But one of the aspects of working for Plan that I like most is the organisation's willingness to invest in evaluation and learn from what research tells us, so as to sharpen our practice.
The biggest thing I've taken from this and similar studies is that, while our sanitation approaches are getting us to widespread community behaviour change in relatively short periods of time, we've yet to break through into changing social norms in those communities. This seems to be the next frontier and key to sustaining those changed behaviours over the longer term.
we will fail to eliminate world poverty, because we will have failed to fix sanitation
Unless we crack that nut, we'll continue with our on-off aversion with reversion, and – as friend and colleague Eddy Perez from the World Bank said during last week's web chat, – '… we will fail to eliminate world poverty, because we will have failed to fix sanitation'.
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