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Equity, the politics of monitoring and smart technology

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The second day of the Monitoring Sustainable WASH Service Delivery Symposium has been really exciting, with a lot of interesting presentations. I want to share here the four ideas that were most appealing to me.

The politics of monitoring

Katharina Welle, PhD candidate from the University of Sussex made a brilliant presentation on her research in Ethiopia in the plenary session. She brought to light two underlying assumptions in most performance monitoring systems. First, the linearity of the cause-effect chain: inputs > activities > outputs > outcomes > impacts. Second, that monitoring will directly feed into and shape decision making. The evidence from her research however shows that it is indeed a more complex and contentious process. Actors’ framings shape what will be monitored and certain perspectives might be excluded; too often those of the users. Also, interest and personal agendas can affect the monitoring process, leading to ‘gaming’ behaviour and inaccurate monitoring; some actors may want to hide problems or to overstate necessities in order to get more resources.

I  especially liked this last point about interests affecting accuracy of monitoring, as it resonated with the evidence of my own research in India (see my post about the monitoring system here) and because I felt it was missing in most of the previous debates in the Symposium. This had made me wonder at some moments whether it makes sense to try to reach high levels of sophistication in terms of indicators used (e.g. behaviours) while we are so often unable to ensure the accuracy of the indicators we already have (e.g. coverage). Probably, we can do both at the same time, but from my point of view, the latter is the priority. Katharina recognised that tackling these political economy issues is complicated, but being aware of them is a good first step which can then be followed by ensuring that all the actors involved in the process (especially the users) have a say in the definition of what is to be monitored.

Applying an equity lens

In the topic group about monitoring sanitation and hygiene, Archana Patkar (WSSCC) made a thought provoking presentation, highlighting that progress in sanitation has been limited to ‘low hanging fruit’ while disparities and inequalities widened. Equality and inclusion are key for sustainability and also have gained momentum with the recognition of the right to sanitation. But if we do not redefine success (illustrated by the Millennium Development Goals, which is ‘blind’ to inclusion) and change our monitoring systems (too focused on aggregated coverage) in order to make them sensitive to inequalities, the same groups will keep being excluded. She suggested applying three universal equity parameters: age, gender and physical ability, which could be complemented with more context-specific parameters. This could for instance be done through disaggregating data by groups. Also, it would be good to use a human life-cycle approach, in order to ensure that sanitation facilities really satisfy the needs of the different stages in life (e.g. childhood, puberty, pregnancy, old age...)

Finally, for having equity-sensitive monitoring systems, we must permanently interrogate ourselves what slips through their cracks.

Heterogeneity in women’s experience?

In a session on community level monitoring, Helen Pankhurst of CARE shared very interesting ideas, among which I wanted to highlight the questioning of the weak ‘gender’ perspective that pervades the sanitation sector. She advocated for trying to understand the perspectives of women and for not treating them as a homogeneous group. In her research, she found that the perception of the benefits of WASH interventions varied according to the profile of the women. For instance, the most valued benefit was higher gender equality, according to disabled women. In contrast, poor women valued the saving of time, while women that were head of their household highlighted dignity. This is closely related with the equality issues mentioned in the previous idea and also raises questions about who to target, whose expectation to address and which women we want to get involved in the village level committees.

The potential of using smartphones in monitoring sanitation

Ajith Kumar, from WSP South Asia, presented a pilot developed in India with the aim to strengthen the sanitation monitoring system, which is very weak. The idea is to use smartphones when surveying villages, which allows adding a photograph of the latrine and a geo-tag to the standard information monitored in each household (latrine use, hand washing...). The pilot showed that this technology reduced data processing errors, allowed for low cost and quick monitoring and also increased accuracy and equality. The two latter are related to the fact that the photograph and the geo-tag allows cross-checking both of the accuracy of indicators such as coverage and the inclusion of households from the different hamlets and sub-villages of a Gram Panchayat.

I think that this system, which will soon be applied at a larger scale, can actually bring these benefits. Its potential is big, for instance, for improving the (third party) verification of ODF villages that apply for the Clean Village Awards (Nirmal Gram Puraskar). I doubt, however, that it brings any significant change to the national monitoring system used by the Indian administration. As mentioned earlier, the political economy dynamics are very strong and we will need more tkhan smartphones to tacle them.

To learn more about the second day of the symposium, you might also like to take a look at Jolly Ann's reflections

Andrés Hueso González ahuesog@upvnet.upv.es 

Date: 11 April 2013