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Reporting from the Brisbane WASH Futures Conference

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The theme for the 2016 WASH Futures Conference was pathways to universal and sustained water, sanitation and hygiene. Over 90 papers, 65 posters and 3 plenaries as well as 18 training workshops; in the opening plenary a few big themes were introduced (repeatability, stories, partnerships, and equity) that echoed through the conference. 

In the opening plenary Don Blackmore from IWMI introduced the idea that repeatability is important for success: ‘science isn’t the problem, the problem is repeatable institutions’. We heard how repeatability is key to the stability of institutions, strong management and roadmaps for the sector. Moreover, Catarina de Albuqueque (from the SWA) highlighted how certain collaborative (and repeatable) behaviours – like government leadership - are critical to ensuring progress towards the SDG targets.  In sessions throughout the week we heard how repeatability frequently determines scalability and sustainability: pilots do not often translate into scaled-up programmes: ‘pilots do not fail, pilots do not scale’. And at individual level data (or repeatable facts) is needed to ensure repeatable practices be it handwashing with soap, MHM or child faeces management. We heard reports of how formative research has been used in different settings to inform the design of interventions through understanding the motives or emotional drivers of behaviour, in this way data is intended to ensure consistent behaviour change as well as repeatability for scaling up of promising practices, integration within other sectors and mobilising stakeholders including the private sector. Allied to the perceived need for repeatability is the idea of ‘a path’ or ‘pathway’ to achieving the global agenda, some talked about ‘default trajectories’ or ‘grappling with last mile service delivery’. To some extent this evolutionist thinking gives the impression of a ‘fait accompli’ that assumes a unilinear path towards universal access that requires certain types of institutional change. However, the on-going struggle between alternatives forms of implementation approach and questions about ‘what works’ for WASH programme interventions were also evident through the week.

Story telling
‘(S)He who tells the stories holds the power’. As well as the stories of success narrated (which hold the potential for repeatability) through the presentations and posters we also heard about the persistent gaps in service delivery: the weak institutional arrangements (local governance, planning, budgeting, and responsibilities), financial gaps as well as technical difficulties in reaching the poorest people in remote or challenging areas, and the constraints on the ability of front line workers for scalable delivery. We heard how we need rigorous data to tell a ‘compelling’ story, provided the data is collected and communicated in a way that creates a sense of social collaboration. In the session on monitoring we heard that the data isn’t an end in itself, whether it is data from water point mapping or JMP data on inequalities in access in the Pacific or use of JMP data to provide global estimates on MHM. Rather it’s the narration, interaction, collaboration and use of the data that is important. A striking example was presented by SNV on the use of innovative technologies for water point mapping combined with citizens score cards. The data has been shared to tell a story that links social accountability and mapping functionality.

Partnerships was another key theme for the conference: The WASH Future Conference is an opportunity for communication and collaboration with networks of colleagues from around the world, building relationships between and across the sector; questions and conversations can help build collective intelligence within the sector through information sharing and problem solving.  In doing so it is refreshing for the way we work. Partnerships are also important for what we do, for scaled-up programmes and supporting the enabling environment for services. The sessions highlighted how a variety of partnerships between institutions, sectors and organisations function to accelerate access, these include CSO, private sector, local as well as central governments. For instance in the workshop on ‘Emerging priorities in MHM’ we talked about integration and collaborations between implementing agencies and academics on formative research as well as with other sectors including education and sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR). These kinds of new and creative approaches are needed to drive change through coordination and collaboration.

Globally, WASH was described as a 1 in 3 problem (1 in 3 schools have access to basic WASH; 1 in 3 people have access to improved sanitation and 1 in 3 health care facilities have access to basic WASH). In the region, Pacific Island Countries have lower levels of improved sanitation coverage, face increasing water insecurity as well as limited human and financial resources to ensure sustainable WASH access. We heard from Catarina de Albuqueque (from the SWA) that some people (such as asylum seekers, homeless, indigenous populations) can be excluded from adequate services. And that structural discrimination is the root causes of poverty and exclusion. Targets and approaches can compound disadvantage; however, human rights principles in the SDGs hold the potential to remove specific discriminatory practices and reduce the stigmatisation of specific people. Sessions in the week provided guidance on how to factor equity into service delivery in a systematic way in terms of the tools and strategies for appropriate and affordable and sustainable services in rural and urban settings, as well as for identifying and implementing and monitoring inclusive activities for women and people with disabilities.

In common with all 4 themes is the importance of relationships (for story-telling between narrator and listener; for partnerships between professionals within and allied to the WASH sector; for equity between people; as well as patterns for repeatability or path-dependent development). Above all it is the relationship between service and people, as exemplified in the Institute of Sustainable Futures’ poster (Services for poo or people?), that will be critical to achieve universal and sustained water, sanitation and hygiene.

Sue Cavill is an independent WASH Consultant.

Date: 31 May 2016