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Learnings from the 41st WEDC Conference

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I had the opportunity to attend the 41st WEDC Conference held at Nakuru, Kenya 9 – 13th July 2018 . The theme of the five-day event was, 'Transformation towards sustainable and resilient WASH services'. The power-packed week saw more than 160 presentations, 29 side events, 21 capacity building workshops, exhibitions and posters - there was something for everyone! I was thrilled to interact with participants who were working on diverse themes, but with one common objective. As we all eagerly await next year's conference, here are my reflections on some of my conference highlights.

Shit happens! Learning from failures
'Blunders, Bloopers and Foul Ups: A WASH game show' was one of the most fun-filled yet thought-provoking side-events held during the conference. The session emphasised that a WASH programme can have a number of outcomes and consequences - not limited to the one planned; and that documenting and sharing failures can help the WASH community to learn from these and avoid similar mistakes. Following are some key learnings from the event:

  • Implementing projects in a research mode implies acknowledging the possibility of more than one outcome - this would help in being honest and transparent about the project and admitting failures.
  • A systems approach would help in understanding how various project components/processes work in relation to the context; this in turn can enable one in identifying the root cause of failures and successes.
  • Stakeholders can anticipate failures in a project through a 'pre-mortem', and work backwards to address these, which can help in improving project outcomes. It is important to involve donors as well as beneficiaries in this process.
  • A number of failures result from pressure on implementers to deliver project targets as per the conditions laid down by donors. To avoid such failures, it is very important to ensure in the early stages itself, that the programme 'language' and other design elements allow for flexibility in implementation.
  • Documentation, publication and dissemination of failures needs to be incentivised.

MHM for perimenopausal women: a blind spot uncovered
Amita Bhakta from WEDC did a wonderful job in bringing up this important but often-ignored subject. In fact, except for one, none of the other audience members had previously come across this issue in policy or practice. The presentation highlighted that traditional techniques for menstrual hygiene management are ineffective in meeting perimenopausal women's needs. Her research findings brought forward the need for different hardware (for example, 24-hour access to toilets and water, effective wastewater disposal, covered drainage, gender-sensitive toilet design) and software approaches (hygiene education, professional health advice) to bridge the existing gaps.

Equity, inclusion and non-discrimination in WASH
Although this theme was touched upon by a number of presentations and events during the course of the conference, the two capacity building workshops on 'Inclusive approaches to WASH' and 'Integrating equality and non-discrimination strategies in WASH behaviour change programming' interested me the most. Here are some of my takeaways on this subject:

  • Barrier analysis tool can be used to identify the environmental, institutional and attitudinal barriers to achieving inclusion in a WASH programme.
  • Inclusion should be incorporated right from the beginning of programme planning, rather than being an afterthought. It must take into account the lifecycle and changing requirements of stakeholders.
  • As a WASH practitioner, one should be ready to unlearn previous assumptions and biases, and always start with scratching the surface  to understand the context.
  • It is important to engage and collaborate with persons from marginalized groups, and institutions working with/for them, in all stages of programming.
  • Learning from stakeholders and understanding the relation between their current behaviours and the context is essential when designing a behaviour change programme. Remember that one is not starting from zero, rather supplementing the existing knowledge of the target audience.

Role play to understand barriers to equality and non-discrimination in WASH behaviour change programming

On research and action
Being a researcher myself, I was excited to witness a number of sessions related to research and evidence-based policy making. The presentation on 'using Immersive Research to understand rural sanitation in India' gave insights as to how this method helped in understanding the hidden local dynamics at play.

Another interesting session was the side event on 'From Research to Policy and Practice' that brought forward some useful learnings, on how a research can be effectively used for designing programmes and policies:

  • Planning for 'putting research into use' is as important as the research itself. One must allocate separate time and resources, identify stakeholders and enable clear communication among them right from the beginning of a project- at the same time leaving adequate scope for flexibility
  • Creating platforms for stakeholders with common interests can help in active stakeholders engagement and enable exchange of learnings among them. Some examples are community cafés- comprising of community members, extension workers, local leaders and researchers; research advisory groups- comprising of donors, government, academia, NGOs; and technical working groups of academia and NGOs.
  • While doing participatory action research for a programme targeting a particular community, it is important to understand the community's context and expectations, be transparent with them about research objectives, share research findings with them and incorporate their feedback. This would help in building confidence regarding the programme among the community members.



Date: 30 August 2018