Reflections from the Colorado WASH Symposium

by Jonathan Annis, WASHplus

I recently attended the Colorado Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Symposium, hosted by the University of Colorado Boulder. The two-day regional gathering, intended primarily for students, faculty and local WASH professionals within greater Denver WASH community, attracted 130 attendees. A closely knit and cross-disciplinary group of graduate students did a fantastic job planning and hosting the event.

For those who aren’t aware – this included me before arriving on campus – the Colorado WASH community is thriving. The Denver area is home to a blend of international NGO’s like Water for People and iDE as well as local non-profit groups with a regional or country focus like El Porvenir. Add to the mix the energy created by a dynamic group of graduate students and academics engaged in the international WASH sector and the stage was set for an engaging discussion.

I had two main takeaways from the event:

The first is the need to capitalize on opportunities that exist for academics and WASH practitioners to collaborate more closely to use project generated data for learning. Few international NGOs undertake systematic evaluations or empirical studies to understand and document their work. We rarely build enough time and resources into the project cycle to study, learn and most importantly adapt activities in response to the findings this type of iterative process would reveal. There are some notable exceptions to this trend, but most implementers – and the donors who fund them – are reluctant to commit resources to conducting formal research when faced with the pressure of maximizing their reach and measuring their progress in terms of numbers of persons served.

What are the implications for projects like mine, WASHplus?

Well, we could start by reemphasizing metrics and a commitment to long-term monitoring. Ned Breslin, the CEO of Water For People, pioneered the “Everyone Forever” slogan coupled with the commitment to monitor service delivery for 10 years in every community they serve. They have set the bar high. Time will tell if they are able to deliver on their promise and galvanize others to follow suit. Some of the participants suggested re-evaluating current incentive structures, for both donors and implementing organizations that stress first time access to services, thereby deemphasizing post-project service delivery monitoring. Indeed, too often a project’s preoccupation is on extending ‘access’ to the woman fetching water from the river, failing to see that she likely walked past at least one abandoned ‘improved’ water point to get to the riverbank.

That leads me to the second reflection from the conference: the role of NGOs in supporting WASH services.

The question has been floated recently if NGOs big and small are doing more harm than good in their traditional role as WASH service providers. The notion is that these organizations crowd-out the private sector or create dependence on transitory service delivery mechanisms rather than supporting government to be the duty bearer. I understand this argument and agree with it in some contexts. Nonetheless, most of the small NGOs represented at CU are clearly filling in a gap where traditional service mechanisms continue to fail.

While collectively the world has reportedly achieved the MDG for water supply a few years early, there remains striking disparities between continents and within countries themselves. Many of the NGOs based in Colorado are supporting projects that engage decentralized government structures in an attempt to connect communities into national policies and legal frameworks. These organizations are providing support in areas where government sponsored outreach is nonexistent or failing to deliver its mandate, a situation that is still common in many countries.

The notable examples of government-driven service delivery models in Uganda and Ghana are still islands of success, and progress in these contexts is due in large part to stable governance and political will not yet commonplace in all nations. NGOs and the bi-lateral donor funding that finance much of their work, while relatively insignificant when compared to public investments in the sector, remain an important lifeline in areas where government led initiatives are stretched thin. NGOs aren’t going away any time soon.

The question is how these organizations can align their mandates to support and concur with national policies until their services are no longer needed. As we turn our attention to the post-2015 targets aiming at universal coverage, we may find that NGOs have a niche role to play after all, especially in countries where the current MDGs remain unmet and there is little political will or public resources to do so.

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