How Breaking Down Boundaries Can Solve Sanitation

The piece below originally appears on the WASHfunders blog.


Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much. —Helen Keller

By John Sauer

If we believe leading thinking on collaboration, we know we need to do more of it. But it’s also common sense that bad collaboration could be worse than no collaboration at all. I think it’s fair to say that despite lots of talk and good intentions to collaborate, the sanitation sector – with a few possible exceptions – is still figuring out how to make collaboration translate into results. Following are some ideas for how we can activate collaboration that is relevant and practical, built on existing efforts.

There are several movements underway in the sanitation space that joined together are the ingredients needed to enable significant progress towards achieving sanitation for all. Examining these movements and what they respectively offer also gives insights into how collaboration focused on results might concretely happen and why we need to ultimately merge these for scale to happen. By working collectively on market systems, public finance and developing social enterprises we can unlock the potential to achieve progress.  Operationalizing this within sanitation will also be proof of concept for collective impact within international development and support a needed paradigm shift.

Market Systems

A market development approach steps back to look at the wider market system (public, private, civil society) that keep the poor from participating in the supply and demand of, as well as, accessing, the sanitation goods and services that they desire. A key principle of the approach is that outside entities seeking to intervene in the market must seek to first understand why the market system is not working for the poor. Those entities then act as market facilitators to form partnerships with relevant actors to improve market system performance. These partnerships can take on many shapes and sizes with government, importers, associations, small and medium enterprises, media, etc.

Public Finance

Governments have a mandate to ensure that all its citizens have sanitation goods and services. This will only be possible if governments unlock finance, primarily through the domestic tax system. Public finance approach mandates that key external actors should ensure that international aid is spent to develop well-functioning and accountable public finance systems. The public finance also has to be delivered and spent effectively to support private sector actors, stimulate innovation to lower supply chain constraints, including more affordable and desirable products and services, and to strategically purchase sanitation services like container based system services.

Social Enterprise

In many situations, social enterprises are stepping in with innovations that are creating new value and demonstrating new pathways for providing more desirable and affordable sanitation goods and services to base of the pyramid, poorer customers. These social enterprises are key to generating new and innovative approaches and for testing and modeling these, through constant iteration, into viable business models. Social enterprises in sanitation are pushing the envelope on long ignored issues of product design and user desirability and fecal sludge management, including specifically the issue of reuse.

There are some common themes in these approaches. First, all of them have a specific focus on improving sanitation products and services for the poor and disenfranchised. In that way, these approaches fit well together and with one of the predominant programming models in the rural sanitation sector, community led total sanitation or community approaches to total sanitation, and offer ideas for addressing some of the limitations recent research has raised, especially about quality and targeting. Second, they take the focus away from what organizations do individually and focus on fixing the wider set of issues keeping things from happening sustainably and at scale (contribution vs. attribution). This is also the case for social enterprises, whose innovations are often adopted at a larger scale by governments and private sector, and not always by the original enterprises themselves. Lastly, these approaches put achieving and monitoring collective results at a premium and have unique tools for doing that.

In order to create this movement, business unusual will be needed in particular by UN Agencies and International NGOs, supported and encouraged by our donors:

  • A strategy shift to embrace these approaches and focus less on what we will achieve alone and more on how we will contribute, with local partners, to higher level results like district and city-wide sanitation service delivery. Progress towards achieving these results will need to be monitored and mutual accountability will need to be enforced.
  • A blurring of organizational lines. This could entail opening up organizational annual and regional meetings to include external stakeholders and partners, staff exchanges, sharing office space, sharing tools, engaging those outside our entities as technical advisors and consultants, as well as joint assessments and analysis activities, etc.
  • More sharing and active participation in communities of practice like SuSanA, AfricaSan International Task Force, and Sanitation and Water For All and making those sharing activities less general and directly related to achieving collective results in specific geographies.
  • A budget and fundraising shift to pay for collective impact, research, knowledge sharing, capacity development, joint programming, and blurring of organizational line activities.

Time is ticking on the SDGs for sanitation and getting on track is going to require taking risks the like that many of our institutions have not yet seen. Are you ready?

John Sauer is Senior Technical Advisor for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene at Population Services International. Follow John and PSI on Twitter: @johnsauer @PSIimpact