"Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.”
Though change is inevitable, building upon lessons learned is a critical step to shape more effective solutions moving forward. Not only do these conversations about past challenges cultivate better dialogues about innovation, most importantly, they catalyze new approaches to best tackle the world’s most pressing challenges.
Shelter Associates exemplifies this kind of innovation in the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector. Shelter is a non-profit organization that works alongside the urban poor, particularly women, in Maharashtra, India to provide technical support to community-managed slum rehabilitation housing (including security of tenure), and essential services projects. One of the most innovative aspects of Shelter’s work is how geospatial data is integrated into the monitoring and evaluation (M&E) process and verifies sanitation improvements across project sites.
Pratima Joshi, founder of Shelter, spoke to Results for Development (R4D) about a story of a success and of a challenge the organization has experienced since its founding in 1994, and most importantly, how they drew lessons from those experiences to develop their model for greater impact.
Story of a Success
One of the largest challenges facing Shelter, like many water-focused organizations, is the lack of in-country infrastructure and resources to effectively deliver WASH services to everyone. The Rajiv Gandhi Nagar Slum in Sinhagad, Pune, which is home to 87 households and some 329 people, offers a good example of a place where providing WASH services is challenging, due to its location and very poor population. Open defecation rates were particularly high in this slum due to technical challenges to build a sewer system on the rugged steep sloped terrain.
However, Shelter’s staff were undeterred to tackle the problem. When they started their work in the city of Pune, and the Rajiv Gandhi Nagar Slum, two key challenges were immediately obvious:
1) The lack of real time data to assess on-site realities and general knowledge of already existing infrastructures;
2) The city’s lack of proper consultation and collaboration with stakeholders during the process of installing community toilets in urban slums.
In order to overcome these challenges, Shelter Associates identified two key methods to accelerate and uplift local sanitation conditions. Its approach, unlike others, moved beyond providing basic sanitation structures and services, to included inclusive and cross-sectoral strategies to cultivate more innovative solutions.
To better understand on-site realities, Shelter Associates incorporated Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping software to accurately display spatial information across the slum (houses, sanitation facilities, and common defecation locations). Increased awareness of existing infrastructure in the Rajiv Gandhi Nagar Slum was a direct outcome of this addition. The project also increased knowledge of ground realities and the impact Shelter’s water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) and education programs had across households. Greater data availability for the slum also meant more opportunities for the urban poor to participate in larger city planning agendas and decision-making processes.
To strengthen cross-sectoral collaboration, Shelter unified policy makers, local leaders, and regional non-profits (NGO’s) to inform the planning and implementation stages of the city’s urban slum community toilet initiatives. They facilitated community focused gatherings and inclusive workshops, which were well attended by women and children. Although a time intensive process, this enabled Shelter to strengthen personal relationships and trust with community members. This approach was the most successful method to enable community participation and most importantly, inform the urban slum management process.
Since the start of the project in 2013, GIS maps have pointed to improvements in the Rajiv Gandhi Nagar Slum - the prevalence of open defecation has fallen dramatically and now the slum is nearly 95% open defecation free. In a few years alone, Shelter has contributed to the 60% decrease in open defecation and given households the opportunity to live in improved sanitation conditions.
Pratima Joshi explains, “Now since Shelter’s intervention, the slum has been transformed from one of the worst living conditions in Pune, to a clean, more respectful place where people live safely and with dignity. People now feel less marginalized and more valued. They can see how Shelter and the government have undertaken a lot of trouble to help improve their lives.”
The Rajiv Gandhi Nagar Slum highlights an excellent case study of a project ‘win’. Even with immense challenges from the beginning, Shelter Associates identified barriers and overcame challenges in the slum. With determination and persistence, Shelter created innovative strategies and will continue to use these approaches in its future work.
Story of a Challenge
As Pratima Joshi from Shelter reflects upon organizational experiences, she recalls a particular story of a challenge or something that did not go as planned. She described this as a “lesson learned”.
In 2000, Shelter Associates participated in the Pune toilet project led by the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) and local non-profit organizations (NGO’s). The objective of the PMC was to build sustainable community toilets in the urban slums of Pune, however, mistakes were made along the way which Shelter has since learned from and applied into its own work going forward.
Pratima explains, “Various organizations were roped into building toilets within a limited time frame and led to many maintenance challenges in the community.”
The narrow focus of only building toilets in the urban slum led to weak community involvement. The inability to mobilize local leaders and community members created a capacity gap in the toilet program and hindered the implementation and sustainability of the program as planned.
Pratima recalls, “At the time, there wasn’t the capacity or time for us to properly assess existing infrastructure. There was also a lack of consultation and communication between the local councillor, the communities, and other partnering organizations.”
The lack of unification prevented the success of the city’s slum toilet initiative. Shelter took this lesson learned and made mobilization a non-negotiable step in its work. Since then, Shelter has integrated more urban slum community leaders and decision makers into the urban planning process and increased impact for on-site realities.
Though innovation and learning go hand in hand, Shelter Associates has learned that success and challenges never remain static. The ability to adapt and redirect after a challenge, or as Pratima puts it “lesson learned,” is a critical step to cultivate and implement innovative approaches in our ever changing world. Shelter Associates most of all, is an excellent example for other innovators to integrate lessons learned into organizational approaches to reach greater impact.