How relevant is water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) governance to the real world?

I’ve often found that the term ‘WASH governance’ is perceived by others as being out of touch, overly academic, and just not relevant to the real world water, sanitation, and hygiene interventions. Although I am admittedly biased because I finished extensive doctoral research and fieldwork in the topic more than a decade ago, I’ve often argued that it is quite relevant, and can easily be boiled down to understandable and actionable concepts such as affordability and accountability. In my decade plus of experience in sector research and knowledge management and proposal writing, I’ve become even more convinced that WASH project failure will persist and possibly worsen unless the systems that determine the public administrative capacity, the enabling environment for the private sector, the management models of the water and sanitation systems and markets, and the economic growth that supports household economic wherewithal are healthy and functional. Thankfully, over the past few years, donors and non-profits have aligned much of their programming towards a ‘systems approach’, which essentially acknowledges the critical nature of the enabling environment in which water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) service delivery occurs. USAID’s Sustainable Water Systems (SWS) and IRC’s “WASH Systems Building Blocks” are great examples of this.

What does this mean in terms of design and implementation for a typical 5-year project? Fundamentally, this often means that a large proportion of effort and funding should be spent on improving the institutions, planning, regulation, and private sector enabling environment in the host country. Additionally, fundamental rethinking of the management models of current and future water and sanitation infrastructure is often also required. In a context of limited funding, there certainly is a tension between using time, funds, and efforts into capacity building and systems improvement and providing new hardware, but sacrificing systemic improvements all but condemns most hardware-centered interventions to failure in the long term.

Most proposal development efforts start with basic questions such as:

Which donors and NGOs are doing what in this country?

I would argue that a WASH sector proposal writer must also ask the following questions:

What has been done and why have certain things failed?

What can be done differently to avoid repeating failure?

In most cases, you find that there are fundamental and systemic reasons behind failure. It could be anything from a lack of an economically viable management model for certain scales of water systems or persistent problems that sanitation sector entrepreneurs are having in building their businesses. Whatever the case may be, those problems will persist until and unless they are addressed.

Are you looking to put together a winning water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) proposal? Feel free to send me a note.

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