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Why we need common indicators for water and sanitation services.
The iconic photograph of an African woman or child with a bucket on her head, fetching water from the river, has helped to raise millions of dollars for over the years for water and sanitation projects and programs. Yet, as more and more data illustrates the high failure rates of these projects and programs, a growing number of donors, NGOs, and governments are questioning the value for money of different approaches.
In the past few years there has been a shift in thinking about water and sanitation as an infrastructure sector, measured by outputs, to that of cultivating continuing service delivery, measured by outcomes: are consumers happy with their service? Is it reliable and affordable? Is it environmentally and financially sustainable? Is it providing water and sanitation services for everyone, forever?
How will we know?
If we accept that water and sanitation are services that require continuous attention to meet consumer needs, then the current framework for measuring success – which considers access to infrastructure as the end point.
In a services framework, access to infrastructure can be considered instead as a useful and necessary input indicator. But it’s a few steps away from the desired outcome of sustainable services for everyone, forever.
In 2011, a group of NGOs, funders, and academics started to ask hard questions about the sustainability of their own programs and others in the sector, and came to a few realizations:
• For local and national governments, including public service providers, the cost of generating data on a per capita basis often exceeds the total water and sanitation budget on a per capita basis. In a financially constrained environment, funds will get channeled to new infrastructure and services, not monitoring.
• For funders and intermediaries, it’s hard to measure value for money in programming when there are few standard definitions or common denominators against which programs can be measured.
• For academics, the limited availability of comparable data sets coupled with the cost of data collection hampers the ability to do cost-effective, rigorous social science that is replicable
Then we decided to take action, and the WASH Monitoring Exchange (WASHME) was born.
WASHME is taking an action-oriented approach to monitoring. Currently, we are running an experiment to answer the following three questions:
• What is the least number of common indicators that are necessary to determine sustainability of WASH services over time?
• What are the least cost / most reliable sources of data?
• What governance models are most cost effective for monitoring WASH services over time?
Along the way, we seek to learn something about whether a diverse group of organizations can adopt a similar set of indicators to measure the sustainability of their work.
Susan Davis from Improve International offered to facilitate the initiative. Global Water Challenge has provided significant support in developing the platform and data entry processes.
One of the greatest difficulties was in getting agreement on the purpose of the initiative. Equally difficult was narrowing down the set of critical indicators that would satisfy the organizations participating. We decided to start with one simple indicator - functionality of water systems - and rather focus on testing the process (will organizations share their data publicly?) and the platform.
We have had limited participation to date; we believe this is because organizations either a) don't have functionality data on water points they have facilitated; b) aren't willing to use resources to collect it; and/or c) if they have the data, they are concerned that any "failures" (i.e., non-functioning systems) will be held against them by potential donors.
We all know that significant challenges continue to plague the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector, with system failure rates of 30-50% for international development projects. For this reason, more and more implementing organizations want better data to understand the results of their work over time, and philanthropists hope to understand the long-term impact of their investments. While many nifty tools for monitoring have been introduced recently, barriers remain that prevent organizations from conducting ongoing post-construction monitoring. Organizations say costs, time, skills, and knowing what to monitor make it difficult. And underlying all of this may be a fear that making the nameless statistics on failure specific to our organizations will affect our fundraising efforts.The WASHME initiative was developed by several leading WASH organizations to remove barriers to post-construction monitoring because we believe that monitoring is critical for the ongoing improvement of implementing organization practice and understanding. Furthermore, sharing this information publicly creates a safe space for us all – including funders – to learn from each other.
There is a simple platform with instructions for how to collect and share data on water point functionality. Any organization is encouraged to submit the data. It will be publicly available. We believe once we can reduce the risk of participating (the more the merrier), and increase the incentives for sharing, we will then be able to incorporate data on more common indicators. This will in turn lead to ability to identify patterns and serve as a rich database for learning.
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