Tackling systemic inequalities in water and sanitation

This is a guest blog by Juste Nansi, Country Director for IRC Burkina Faso. It is is reposted with thanks from the IRC blog; you can find the original blog post here.

Systematic or systemic inequalities are grounded in our mindsets; in the way, we think, in the way we plan, in the way we see people, and in the way we interpret the rights to water and sanitation.

A lot has changed, practically all events have gone virtual over the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Something positive though is, we have realised the exciting potential, built new skills, reached more audiences, and discovered that virtual is not all bad.  

At this year’s Annual Water and Health Conference: Science, Policy, and Practice hosted by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s (UNC) Water Institute [October 26–30th], more than three thousand participants attended this registration free well-executed virtual conference. The 2020 conference was anchored by major panel conversations covering timely topics such as WASH response during the COVID-19 pandemic and Systemic Inequalities in WASH.   

Systemic Inequalities in water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) 

The plenaries were an opportunity to explore critical themes emerging in 2020. While a lot of information was shared over the week, this reflection stems from one of the most challenging and interesting themes – Systemic Inequalities in WASH – at which I was one of the panellists. This plenary, just like all the others, was used to challenge us, to review the evidence to stimulate critical thinking and to try to look at our work in new ways so that we can learn and do better. Systemic inequalities in WASH gets to the heart of who we are as a sector and why we do what we do. Recognising that it is not all about water and sanitation for some, but for everyone.  

It happens that we are allowing either consciously or unconsciously for systemic inequality to get in the way of our achieving SDG6 and achieving the real impacts that we hope to have for the beneficiaries of our work.  

In his elaborate and eloquent introduction of the theme and discussion, Dr Aaron Salzberg from the 2020 UNC Water and Health Plenary Panel honestly said that he was somewhat afraid of the topic. He touched on several forms and examples of systemic inequalities, ranging from people in the south struggling at odd hours to find a place with good wi-fi to join the conference, the unequal treatment of people of colour within the United States, in particular black indigenous and Latino communities that have been ignored. The deeply rooted systemic practices that have led to the indiscriminate attacks on and the discriminatory treatment of communities of colour, the growing wage and wealth inequalities in the United States and across the globe. It is highly likely that even our children will not see gender parity in our lifetimes. At the current rate, and this was before COVID 19, it will take 257 years according to the World Economic Forum to close the economic gender gap deeply impacting communities of colour and low-income communities around the world. Countless others have had to die before Black Lives Matter, and that one in every 100 indigenous Americans has died…. Aaron’s list of inequalities was not exhaustive but clearly gives a true picture of what the reality has become… 

This is also true for the work that we do on water, by providing water and sanitation services to an informal settlement on the outskirts of a city we are allowing the government to skirt its fundamental responsibilities and continue its oppressive practices of not legally recognising marginalised communities. It may be easier for us to provide the services than to force governments to recognise the rights of these individuals and grant them land tenure access to capital and extend municipal services. Also, realising that we have let the SDGs define success and have invested in vanity metrics the number of people served rather than measures related to capacity and autonomy of communities.  

COVID-19 is a time of reawakening, a lot has changed, and this situation has reminded us of how fragile life is at a global scale and how ill-prepared we are to address the challenges that we will face in the 21st century, challenges like the spread of infectious diseases, climate change, food and water, and security, access to basic services and health care.  

Women fetching water in the Sahel

Now let’s look at the rural situation in Africa, that I am well familiar with as the IRC country director in Burkina Faso, leading the country programme as well as the regional African programme. 

Over the past decades, I have learnt more about who is left behind and who are not enjoying safely managed WASH services, what, how inequalities are shown, what are the root causes and what would be the solution. 

Most of the time many of us as practitioners in the developing world start working on inequalities with the assumption that the victims are a minority of the population. We used to think that when you talked about marginalisation, these were people living with disabilities, or people living in fragile states, but when we look at the figures of the Joint Monitoring Group [JMP] data of 2017, 73% of the population in sub-Saharan countries in Africa did not have access to safely managed water services and 82% did not have access to safely managed sanitation services – this is really the majority that is left behind from enjoying adequate public services. All these figures confirm the need to address this challenge. This is a noticeably big problem, an excessively big need that we need to address.  

Consciously or unconsciously somehow perpetuating this kind of discrimination 

One of the things that we all know is that many of these victims of inequalities in sub-Saharan Africa are living in rural areas. One of the things that I have noticed is that when we think for example about rural water, we all kind of systematically think about hand pumps and boreholes, while when we think as sector technicians about urban water, we instinctively think about tap water household connections. This way we are consciously or unconsciously somehow perpetuating this kind of discrimination while the data from the World Health Organization [WHO] confirms that handpumps can only deliver basic services and basic services are not enough for improving health. So how do we make the decision that rural people only deserve basic services, and improved services are meant only for those who are wealthy? How do we make the decision about blaming people for being poor? This is clearly just one example of how the systematic or systemic inequalities are grounded in our mindset, it drives a lot of what we do and see, in the way we think, in the way we plan, Etc. How we make assumptions about the types of service that rural people either should have or deserve. 

There is also the issue/bias around data collection, data analysis and then the fundamental assumptions that we make often at the very beginning of a scientific process that in many cases can lead to significant biases and outcomes. 

Listening very carefully and regularly to what people want in the WASH sector is not something we do naturally. This is reflected in the way that we design our questionnaires and surveys. It is about the questions we want to ask and the answers that people give. These are rarely open-ended questions that point to what people want, what their priorities are, for example about sanitation. 

A brief notable example of the work in our community in Banfora district in Burkina Faso is when we were doing data collection and surveys for designing the masterplan for WASH-related SDGs. Going back with the results to the community and they said: yeah, we already know our problems, but for once, you’re considering our expectations and vision in terms of service quality and not only how many handpumps we’re missing in our community as we use to hear from other partners. So, listening and creating space for people to share their knowledge and vision and not only to collect their problems from the lens of our predefined solutions.  

There is no single solution to dealing with inequalities 

The issue of any inequality must be tabled in a constructive manner and not be about pointing fingers at anybody. We need to acknowledge our mistakes and say what is going on despite our good intentions, what we are doing wrong so that we can improve. These issues should be discussed with the public authorities in the developing countries and their development partners.   

As organisations/people providing support to the government in developing countries, we also need to recognise the fundamental and critical responsibility that the public authorities have for addressing the issues of inequalities in a sustainable manner. There is no single solution from my experience that bypassed authorities mandated by their people for taking care of their community. 

Another crucial point is that we must rethink or reframe the usage of our performance indicators that help highlight inequalities rather than hiding them. In my experience, it happens a lot that we have good indicators, but the accuracy as compared to the actual percentages can tend to hide a lot of inequalities and finally, we need to be aware of the critical needs for strengthening country sub-national and national government systems. This is all about all the mechanisms in place for policymaking, institutional arrangements, planning, budgeting, financing, monitoring, accountability and learning and adaptation.  

It is the whole complex system that is actually perpetuating the inequalities and that needs to be strengthened, to be transformed in some cases, to make the change we are all pleading for. 

Watch the online plenary session – Addressing Systemic Inequalities in WaSH – It’s Me; Not You –

[https://waterandhealthconference.pathable.co/meetings/virtual/no2PrLySEKDhxTpfC]

Gratitude goes to Vera van der Grift for her support in making this happen, and Tettje van Daalen for proofreading.  Photo credits: IRC Burkina Faso

Author: RWSN Secretariat

RWSN is a global network of rural water supply professionals. Visit https://www.rural-water-supply.net/ to find out more