Elynn Walter, Sustainability Director at WASH Advocates, talks to R4D about innovation in the sector, the importance of local advocacy, and the divide between development and disaster relief.
What prompted you to start working in WASH?
I first became interested in WASH when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Turkmenistan working on community health issues. Even though we were on the Caspian Sea, water access and quality were a problem. During some parts of the year water was diverted for cotton farming and production. There was also a high prevalence of open defecation and very little understanding of the linkages between sanitation and health. Later while studying for my Masters in Public Health at George Washington University, I discovered the extensive links between WASH and diseases beyond diarrhea. I’d lived with terrible WASH conditions in Turkmenistan and while trying to immerse myself in Turkmen culture and behaviors thought it was normal. I knew at the time no one should have to live those conditions but had no idea what to do about it. With a passion for WASH, when I left school I started working at what was then Water Advocates (now WASH Advocates) and I’ve been there ever since.
What do you think of as innovative in WASH?
I think there’s quite a bit of innovation around national government engagement and advocacy with civil society in developing countries. It’s not that this is new, people have been “working” with governments for a long time but slowly this interaction is turning from informing the government to engaging them and encouraging their leadership. Work with governments around WASH seems to be more coordinated now than in the past.
We’ve been hearing about conversations between government officials and civil society which are guiding how governments are implementing, budgeting and prioritizing certain issues and geographies. We are now seeing different stakeholders – government, civil society, and the private sector – starting to think about how they can work together and clearly define their specific roles instead of working in siloes as they used to. So the real innovation is how the conversation is changing between all the different stakeholder groups.
Devolution is playing a big part in this at the sub-national level and we are starting to see a slow trickle down of advocacy work and stakeholder engagement being diffused to the district level. Where decision making used to be very top-down, through devolution governments are shifting prioritization and decision making for WASH to the local level. This means the information (although still fed up the chain for reporting) can be collected and used to make decisions locally. In WASH this can lead to better targeted services in the areas which need it most.
Do you have an example of this innovative multi-stakeholder advocacy in practice?
In Kenya, they have national Inter-Agency Coordination Committees (ICCs) which bring together representatives from government, national, and international NGOs to form working groups on specific topics within WASH. With such a strong civil society voice in Kenya that continues to grow, we are seeing attempts at the devolved county level to recreate these ICCs by convening multi-stakeholder groups at the county level. Obviously, it’s going to be a large learning curve but that is the direction it seems to be going in Kenya.
What are people working in WASH sector getting wrong?
A lot of implementing organizations are failing to engage with government and instead work in siloes, and donors are feeding into that. Although it is not nearly as common as it used to be, to me this is still a huge missed opportunity since government is necessary for sustained WASH services, but many groups often are not even close. A lot of implementing organizations talk about working with government but in reality it’s more a case of informing government – there’s a difference between informing and providing support for government leadership and engaging officials in partnership This is a key mistake - eventually we are going to get there and it’s just a matter of time, but we should be doing all we can to try and shrink the timeline to government ownership, not lengthen it.
The other interesting missed opportunity relates to the ongoing divide between people who work for development agencies, and the people doing humanitarian work. At a time when we are seeing an increasing number of emergencies, be it cholera in Haiti, cyclones, earthquakes or war, the two teams are not talking to each other. In practice this means little planning or collaboration for the transition from humanitarian assistance to development aid.
The resilience work of USAID and some implementing organizations is a start. But, if we don’t start bridging that gap then we will be in perpetual crisis mode, constantly responding to new emergencies instead of helping communities build resilience to withstand shocks and disasters.
Any closing thoughts on how we address these challenges?
We as international development professionals, especially in the WASH sector, often think about failure. But I prefer to think about the progress which has been made and when there has been a failure, what we can do about it. How can we resolve issues we identify from the massive amounts of data we are collecting, is a question we should all be asking.
Currently there is not enough cross-sectoral knowledge sharing, so we often end up reinventing the wheel time and time again. If we can all think about the progress we’ve made so far and share it with others, we will at least be planting seeds and starting to approach development and our work differently.