WASH systems strengthening: old wine in new bottles?

An account of personal reflections on the shift to a systems approach.

Lukas Kwezi at the IRC symposium

A few weeks ago I was in the Netherlands. This was 8 years after I graduated from IHE Delft. It was great to be there and to connect with old friends, professionals, the Dutch culture and of course the Dutch weather. However, this was an add-on to the bigger mission: to participate and contribute to the three-day IRC WASH systems symposium All Systems Go!, which brought together over 400 WASH experts and practitioners from governments, donor community, private sector and civil society organizations to talk about systems. Something we rarely talk about! As part of my contribution to the symposium, I shared our experience on how we are using a results based financing and adaptive programming approach to build local and national government systems.

Overall, I left after the three days convinced that talking about systems in the WASH sector is the right thing to do, especially now we are facing the arduous task of reaching the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on water and sanitation.  It has come at a time when sector practitioners agree that delivering sustainable WASH services is a complex undertaking, and that the dependency on the simplified reductionist approaches historically adopted by the WASH sector since the 1980s, are no longer effective, as demands for improved services remain high and expectations for universal service take hold. The questions, however, are what is new in the systems approach and what does it mean in practice?

Changing our mindset and ways of working

The discussions over the three days made me realize that the shift to a systems approach is not necessarily a new thing. Many people and agencies I talked to, are already addressing some components of the WASH system, for example: configuring a sustainable supply chain to enable effective maintenance of rural water points, helping local governments to plan better or building the capacity of central government to attract different forms of financing to the WASH sector. Nevertheless, most of these initiatives have a narrow focus on WASH without necessarily recognizing the wider political economy and interactions that the WASH sector has with other sectors. There is also a tendency to think that the problems we face in the sector can be fixed by applying one particular solution.

The shift to a systems approach requires a change in mindset, and more importantly being open minded to understand how different components of our work or solutions fit and interact with the whole system.  For instance, it is unrealistic to assume that sustainability of services can be achieved by simply installing prepaid meter systems at rural water points. Prepaid water meters help to improve revenue collection, and for it to work effectively, a well built and functioning water system needs to be in place, a reliable water source, cost recovery tariffs and willingness to pay. Even when revenues are collected, a good management structure needs to be in place to ensure funds collected are reinvested back into the system to guarantee and improve service levels. In fact, no individual components can lead into sustainable services. Mindset change will be a critical step to overcoming the “blind spots” which often occur when sector experts implement solutions to solve problems — but ignore the pertinent system dynamics.

Moreover, the shift to a systems approach calls for sector experts and practitioners to move out of their comfort zone and to start engaging with people we rarely work with. For example, if we are serious about financing, we need to develop strong economic cases and talk more to ministers of finance, prime ministers and presidents in countries we work, as these are the ones who make most of decisions about financing.

Changing our perception about working with governments

Building strong national and local government systems requires us to work more closely with government officials and where feasible to use government systems to deliver services. However, for that to work effectively, we need to change the way we view and perceive governments.

First, we need to recognize that working with government goes beyond signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to fund a particular project, or participating in sector technical working groups. It’s about our staff dedicating time to engage in building long-term relationships which are based on trust and respect. Unfortunately, building these types of relationships take time beyond the projects we fund or the time that our international staffs stay in a particular country. We learnt in one session that it took 10 years for IRC to build a trusted partnership in Ghana before the local government asked for support to develop and implement a district WASH master plan.

Second, it is important to understand that working with government is an art, as it requires a combination of leadership skills, understanding of local politics and sometimes personal relationships and connections that staffs develop with government counterparts. Local staffs can help to bridge the gap between local politics and national government, but they can only get there if they are fully supported.

Third, we need to change the way we assess and perceive government capacity. In my experience, when governments fail to deliver, we normally jump to the conclusion that the government officials lack capacity and need to be trained. What usually follows is more training workshops and hiring of technical assistance to fill the gap and finalise the work for our projects, which usually doesn’t result in building better systems. In fact, in many cases government officials don’t act on issues due to lack of incentives. In Tanzania for example, we learnt that government officials don’t use data for planning and budgeting not because they don’t know about the data. Rather, it is the lack of culture of using data for decision making in the public service. In fact, the budgeting process and outcome are very political. Why then should government officials spend time to collect and use data for budgeting while they know the use of accurate data has limited influence in the budgeting process?

Realigning incentives around the systems approach

The WASH sector has so many players who are involved in one way or another to ensure water flows at the tap and toilets do not leak to contaminate the environment. They range from donors who fund projects, to politicians who make decisions on how much and where funds should go. The biggest problem is that the incentives of these players are misaligned and do not necessarily ensure that the meagre resources in the sector are spent on building strong local and national systems critical to providing sustainable services to everyone.

In many countries, the WASH sector is highly dependent on aid which usually comes from donors who fund specific outputs in 3-5-year project cycles. Similarly, politicians who make most of the decisions on where the investments go are also bound by electoral cycles which usually happen every 4-5 years. In Tanzania for example, there is evidence that the changes in the electoral cycle not only influence the number but also the types of water points being built. Civil society organizations get the bulk of their funding from the donors, and so often design and implement projects that respond to what the donors want rather than what is needed to achieve systemic change in the countries they work in.

The shift to the systems approach would therefore require realignment of incentives for all players across the delivery chain to focus on building strong WASH systems. For donors, it means revisiting their systems to ensure they are fit for purpose and designing their funding to reward outcomes over a longer timespan than is currently the case. For civil society, it means reorienting their organizations and the way they work, from a focus on meeting the immediate needs to being facilitators with ability to influence beyond the water sector. Addressing these issues, is critical if we are serious about the systems approach.

Disclaimer: Lukas Kwezi currently works for the UK Department for International Development (DFID) as Water and Sanitation Adviser, based in Dar es SalaamHe writes blog posts in his spare time. Though he may talk about the work he does in the sector, this is neither a corporate nor a political blog and the opinions and ideas expressed here are solely his own, not those of his employers.