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Backspace vs delete

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A few weeks ago..

I sat beside Phalombe’s District Water Supervisor in his office today, my computer fully charged in anticipation to facilitate another computer lesson on Microsoft Excel. He had committed to working on computer lessons twice a week with me in hopes of improving his technical skills on inputting, analyzing, interpreting and making decisions with the district’s water point data.

He pulls up a chair beside mine and we re-cap on the computer functions and techniques we had gone through during our previous lesson. As we start to go through the various ways one can use the sort function to rearrange columns of data, he asks me a question that later prompted some development thoughts that I had been sitting on for a while.

“What’s the difference between backspace and delete?”

A member of the EWB Ottawa Chapter had first sparked my thoughts on this metaphor for development work a few months ago. What is the right way to go when dealing with interventions in the developing world. Is it better to BACKSPACE and go back to the drawing board to change the way we are currently approaching interventions, or is it better to DELETE and simply throw away an approach or method that didn’t seem to work?

The thought that immediately came to mind was the very reason I was stationed in Phalombe in the first place. Engineers Without Borders, in consortium with another NGO InterAide, are working through the Phalombe District Council to implement CLTS. It is a different modality which allows the District Council to be the coordinating body throughout the project’s lifespan, and for the district to eventually take ownership of CLTS activities after the 1 year term is up.

With this new approach, we can say that we’ve hit delete. Often, NGOs come into a district with an intervention they want to implement on their own. However, the NGO will use district personnel, resources and time without actually having the district involved in any planning or decision making activities. One of the major flaws in development today is the lack of district involvement, which can inevitably cause issues of transparency, accountability and sustainability. Without district ownership over an intervention, the prospect of sustainability can be minimal. And before a district can fully take ownership with honest motivation and incentive, the NGO must understand the values, capacities, and needs of the district. Does the coordinating department have the human resources to be able to move the intervention forward? Does inter and intra-departmental coordination exist, and if it doesn’t, can linkages be fostered? Are accountability mechanisms in place for district members to deliver on their duties? How can we build on the strengths of the district instead of their weaknesses? EWB is trying to use a more innovative approach by deleting non-sustainable implementation and moving forward with strategies that ensure long-term sustainability and transformative change.

What about hitting backspace? There are countless interventions that have failed in the past which have paved the way for new designs. The emerging trend of TSSM, Total Sanitation & Sanitation Marketing, is gaining more recognition today. To scale up sanitation in rural communities, TSSM uses existing promising sanitation approaches to improve demand for the supply of sanitation products and services. The new approach has backspaced on the separate implementation of total sanitation (such as CLTS) or sanitation marketing, and has combined the two instead. Once communities have been ignited and their mindsets and attitudes around poor sanitation and hygiene practices have changed, the newly emerged value for sanitation can inherently create a demand to move up the sanitation ladder. This is to say, sanitation marketing can be working hand-in-hand with CLTS post-triggering to promote hygiene and sanitation, research the current needs of the community, assess their capacities to invest in sanitation technologies and the value placed on investment, and create a demand for improved sanitation facilities. The integrated approach takes the benefits of each sanitation intervention for more effective and rapid scale-up of sanitation.

Combining both approaches is seen in many interventions today, even in Phalombe District. EWB is also trying a similar approach by introducing CLTS, and supplementing with a component of sanitation marketing to support laggard communities. Sanitation marketing will assist those communities that require the help of sanitation technologies, and to supply services and products for communities that have the desire to step from basic sanitation to improved sanitation.

But, maybe the question is not around whether we should backspace or delete, but rather, can we “shift” instead — shifting our way of thinking to be flexible, shifting our approach when necessary, and knowing when it’s appropriate to either backspace, delete or do neither. Shifting can be the answer after we fully understand the field realities of communities and have identified initiatives that are sustainable and support communities for the long-run.

(Tessa Roselli, EWB Canada short term staff in Malawi)

Date: 29 November 2011