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Highlights, questions and take-aways from the Pan Africa review meeting

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I enjoyed this workshop and learnt a lot.  It was great to be a support facilitator and not where the facilitation buck stops. Which was with Sharon Roose and Petra, to whom thanks. Relaxing!  And I may have succumbed to the occasional temptation to doze.  But there was time to meet people, listen and reflect.  This was the fourth workshop of the 5-year Plan/IRC supported project.  It brings together Plan staff engaged with CLTS from eight  countries – Sierra Leone, Ghana, Niger (missing this time), Ethiopia,  Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Zambia, together with the Plan Regional Office for Eastern and Southern Africa, Plan Netherlands, IRC and IDS.  There was a family feel about this – meeting old friends again, and the pleasure of meeting new people, though the number of these, over a third of us I think, reflects the sadly high turnover in Plan staff, something that needs to be addressed.  A highlight was Andy Robinson’s mid-term review of the Plan/IRC project, with its comparisons, numbers, insights, ideas  and recommendations – very useful, and the very fruitful debate and discussion to which his Review  gave rise.  I learnt more than ever before from one of these meetings.

Here are some of my highlights, questions and take-aways.  Most of these have relevance far wider than just for this project:
  • Staff full-time on CLTS  This is a critical variable.  If we take percentage of triggered communities verified ODF as an indicator, the highest performers (who were also those whose monitoring data were more readily available)  were Ethiopia 76 per cent (6 full-time staff) and Uganda 62 per cent (3 full-time staff), while the lowest were Zambia 26 per cent (only one full-time) and Malawi 23 per cent (none full-time).  There are many variables here, and low ‘performance’ against this indicator may reflect more difficult conditions, stringent  verification, and much else.  All the same, the message seems clear.  Countries had the same budgets.  Those that chose to spend more on full-time staff have done better.  It is not too late for others to learn the lesson and beef up their staff.  And the wider CLTS community, take note!
  • School toilets Such a perennial, universal, problem.  I have seen so many school toilets, stinky and dirty, that I would never use when there is space and fresh air outside. So we have questions. What is an ODF school?  Should a community be verified as ODF if it has a non-ODF school in its boundaries?  How can the management and cleanliness of school toilets be improved?  A school toilet on our field visit to ODF communities was filthy.  Is there scope from the approach of positive deviance - find good, clean, well maintained school toilets and ask why?  How can others achieve the same?
  • Perverse incentives  Andy decided to give more weight to numbers of people in ODF communities than the numbers of communities ODF.  This makes sense.  Otherwise, as he pointed out, there is an incentive to go for the classical favourable conditions – small, isolated, homogeneous communities, rather than the larger, more connected, more diverse communities who challenge us more.    I also felt dangers in any scoring system for performance that awarded points for categories.  This would be liable to make people concentrate on achieving targets instead of having maximum impact, which may often be through innovation and doing things that were not planned.  Kenya, for instance, came out not so well on some counts, but Kenya pioneered urban CLTS with massive learning and implications for the whole world!  If they had stuck to notching up good numbers, they would never have done this. 
  • Priorities  When ODF achievement falls short a knee-jerk may be to do more triggering.  This is probably wrong in most cases.  Better by far to restrain new triggering for a time,  and concentrate on communities already triggered, re-triggering if necessary and learning lessons.
  • Monitoring, reporting and field realities  It was easy, almost automatic, for us to think of ‘our’ data needs.  As ever, field staff at the sharp end were not present or represented.  It is so easy to say we need data on handicapped, or gender dimensions – who can disagree with that – but without thinking through and finding out (and monitoring!) what this means for those who have to collect the data.  It may have excellent effects, alerting staff and communities to these priorities.  But there may be data, other data perhaps, which are tiresome to collect, which demotivate, which encourage creativity in inventing statistics, and the collection of which has high opportunity costs in staff and/or community time.  Piloting monitoring systems, and groundtruthing them from a bottom up perspective seem vital.  Even better to start with a participatory process encouraging people in communities and field staff to generate their own indicators.  The old, old questions – whose indicators? Whose priorities?  Whose monitoring? For whom? With costs for whom, and benefits for whom?  Could someone ask these questions, and monitoring the field level?
  • Staff continuity Plan needs to address this. In the 7-month period of the Mid-Term Review, 3 of the 8 contact staff left!  Quite a lot of the learning from this project has been ‘lost’ to Plan, through staff moving on.  Feedback from participants to colleagues on return is only a partial answer to this.  Does this apply also to the workshops of other INGOs and NGOs?
  • Health impact The original project document included an assessment of health impact.  We discussed this, and the serious difficulties of multiple causation, people giving ‘the right answers’, and measurements.  RCTs are utterly out of the question.  Clinic data may be suggestive, but no more than that, and may mislead.  There is so much more than just ‘ODF’ as verified that is significant – children’s faeces, handwashing before preparing food, keeping toilets clean, not backsliding to OD, transient and temporary populations…..Still, one thought is to explore people’s own participatory monitoring.  Has this been done? Have we one-opagers on this?  And what about, for instance, sales of oral rehydration kits over the years (but if they have gone down, may it be because people have learnt to make their own?)?  Could one country perhaps innovate and pilot something here, just to see where it can take us in understanding?
  • What is a rural community?  What urban?  Now there’s a fascinating question.  In Northern Ghana a community of 3-4,000 was a small town.  In India this would have been a medium-sized village.  Other communities are described as ‘peri-urban’?  What does that mean?  What is clear to me, though, is that larger villages, small towns, and urban peripheries and slums, are a big big frontier that we need to tackle more and learn more about, and not just go for the low-hanging fruit of small cohesive hamlets and villages.
  • Field visits  As ever, these were good experiences (and a lot of work to organise!) with much to learn.  We went to ODF communities.  I wonder whether there could be more to learn, another time, from visiting three – one ODF, one triggered but not yet ODF, and one not triggered.  Last time I was in Malawi we went to three wonderfully clean ODF communities, and then one filthy one which had been triggered but without any noticeable effect.  We learnt so much from the contrasts between the filthy village (women frustrated, children with swollen bellies, indolent headman…..) and  the others!
  • Arborloos Someone saw two papaya trees – one on a disused full latrine, and one on ordinary soil, and the contrast was marked.  Elsewhere we saw old latrines that had been covered over and nothing planted. That is a wasted opportunity.  Is planting on old sites (and adding a bit of ash and soil as recommended as they fill up) something that Plan could encourage someone to experiment with in every community where there is space?  the pioneer household planning the sites for (shallower) latrines putting them where mangoes or papaya or other useful trees would fit well?
  • Communication!  There will be quite a bit from this workshop.  Almost everyone wrote one or more one-pagers, or topic notes, most of which will soon be up on the website.  They should be useful for many others.  But we can do better with communication.  We only discovered by chance that there has been urban CLTS in some four sites in Ethiopia!   Great!  Wonderful because this opens up opporunities for sharing, and means that when we have an urban CLTS workshop there can be a richer range of cases.  But we (IDS) didn’t know about this earlier.  Of course you can say we should be more proactive in trying to find out. But Petra does this, and everyone is so busy, or perhaps not fully aware of the significance of what they are doing, that we often get no response.  So I end with an appeal to colleagues.  Let us each ask ourselves, , is what I have been doing likely to be of interest and help to others?  I believe the answer should often be YES but in most cases no one blogs, no one writes a one-pager, business as usual takes precedence.  There is a great book I recommend – you can download it free I believe – Mary Anderson, Dayna Brown…A Time to Listen – what recipients of aid say, their realities – and there is this sentence in it  ‘Every moment of business as usual is a moment lost for change’.  Please, please, don’t let business as usual stop you sharing with the rest of us, the CLTS community.  This blog has taken me about two hours.  It is not a big deal (after a mug of strong tea).

And I so look forward to our next meeting.  Thanks to all who did so much in preparation and whomade this one happen and contributed to it. There ought to be more projects and occasions like this.

Robert Chambers, Research Associate, IDS, UK


Date: 16 March 2013
Pan Africa,
Sierra Leone,