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Last week, The Water Institute at the University of North Carolina held their annual Water and Health Conference: Where Science Meets Policy. Hundreds of water professionals from around the world attended including myself and two Water For People colleagues—Sherina Munyana, Communications Manager with Sanitation as a Business, Uganda, and Claudio Cossio, Project Manager, Bolivia.
As first-time attendees, the conference was sort of “speed-dating” for water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) practitioners and researchers as part of a grand “marriage” bringing together research with policy, practice and networking events. But as we went from one session to another, listening to expert after expert, an interesting, and somewhat depressing, trend began to emerge.
Experts armed with their PhDs and years of experience were saying things that were not, well, “expertly.”
- Some authorities seemed hell-bent to slaughter some of the sector’s “sacred cows,” e.g. Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS), by making statements like “CLTS is not a universal approach” or by arguing that CLTS hadn’t contributed to achieving the Millennium Development Goal targets for sanitation.
- Other professionals questioned the entire paradigm of development, suggesting that “failure is part of development” and social enterprises needed “patient capital” of up to 10 years before realizing any progress.
- Grant-making organizations were challenged to stop “counting heads” and shift the conversation to how they could measure the level of impact that development approaches had on health outcomes.
- Academic research was viewed as being irrelevant to field practice and field practitioners were blamed for not using behavior change theories to inform their work.
- Sanitation market enthusiasts argued that markets take time, even decades, to achieve scale and that the overwhelming expectation for relatively infantile sanitation marketing approaches to deliver huge numbers within a standard three to five year project-cycle is unrealistic. Development practitioners retorted with an emotional plea that the several billion people without sanitation couldn’t wait for decades to have toilets.
- Engineers received an anticipated bashing from social scientists, who blamed them for the over-emphasis on hardware and numbers. And, as expected, engineers questioned the validity of measurement methods touted by social scientists that are highly qualitative and not empirical enough to be taken seriously.
In one of the many one-on-one conversations we had, one person believed that having 30 year’s of working experience in the WASH sector is not an achievement but rather a failure. Why? Well, what three decades of experience actually infers is that after all that time working in the WASH sector nothing has changed!
All this intellectual sumo-wrestling made us feel like the WASH sector was going through some kind of an identity crisis, as if it didn’t know what it was about or even why it was about or who it was about anymore. The sector seemed to be learning, re-learning, un-learning, and dis-learning everything all at once. To borrow from Arno Rosemarin, one of the conference presenters, “Will we ever finish off the world’s WASH problems or will they finish us off?”
After close to 120 sessions, this unassuming little leaflet posted in the restroom helped us to frame the experience of attending this year’s conference.
As we reflected on the amazing learning—and un-learning—we underwent at the conference, we realized that the WASH sector isn’t going through an identity crisis but rather through a process of self-criticism.
If we are in the business of “changing the world,” we must self-evaluate, or in Gandhi-speak, change our own world view. We must understand the kind of WASH world we want to create and determine whether we have the right frameworks, tools, and strategies to get there. This, of course, has implications on the practical steps of how to get to this vision—and that is where we can all disagree, and hopefully agree more in the future. But the mistake would be not listening to others. The mistake would be not questioning practice, even the “sacred cows” of development. The mistake would be not constantly asking what we can do better.
Muthi Nhlema is the Grants Manager for Water For People–Malawi. He is a contributor to Africa Agenda and a blogger for the Malawian Voice and The Nation newspapers and is based in Blantyre, Malawi.