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On context, data and decisions: reflections from the UNC Conference 2017

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Monday morning and the UNC Water and Health conference begins…there’s plenty of coffee to overcome the jetlag and joy in reconnecting with friends, colleagues and associates from around the world. Conferences in the WASH sector tend to be an incredible mix of academics, government officials, global decision-makers, donors and this one is no different. Some of us come with detailed knowledge of a specific context – a village, district or region. Others bring global and nationally representative data and show trends over decades. There’s a vast wealth of knowledge and experience and plenty of opportunities to make new connections and broaden horizons in our work and research, with the shared goal of achieving water, sanitation and hygiene for all.

Fast forward to Thursday afternoon (first opportunity to take a breath) and here are some reflections on the week so far. I’ve attended sessions as diverse as biogeochemical controls in composting of faeces, climate resilient sanitation infrastructure, concepts of hygiene in the Islamic faith and reducing arsenic exposure to Native American communities in the USA. But there have been some themes that have persistently popped up through this diversity.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a conference with the strapline “where science meets policy”, the importance of data and evidence for decision-makers has been at the heart of many discussions. I was impressed by the efforts of the WHO/UNICEF JMP team not just to produce valuable data on progress towards the SDGs, but to share this face to face with Ministers around the world, influencing top decision-makers. Similarly, the WASH and emergencies session included a call from OFDA for more operational research to provide evidence on the effectiveness of emergency interventions. Daniele Lantagne (Tufts University) highlighted several under-researched, commonly implemented WASH interventions in disease outbreaks such as household spraying, latrine building and environmental clean-up for further work. Luis Andres from the World Bank presented extensive research into poverty and WASH services in 18 countries, again with the results being shared with political leaders to influence decisions. The Nigerian report, “A wake-up call” is available here.

We are also seeing a welcome recognition of the importance of political will and top level leadership in driving change. While sharing data in bilateral discussions is one way of influencing leaders, other efforts to bring about this top-level political leadership include the Sanitation and Water for All “movement” which brings together finance and water ministers, development partners and donors for high-level meetings, encouraging mutual accountability and commitment to achieving progress.

The question of how to influence those at the top is not an easy one, and depends as much on personality, political influence and power as data and evidence. However, the very real impacts of top-level country leadership in the WASH sector are clear. The Secretary for the Indian Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Parameshwaran Iyar’s presentation on the Swatchh Bharat Mission to end open defecation in India is one current example, with the Prime Minister of India personally driving the agenda and committing vast resources to this challenge, with 50 million toilets constructed since 2014. The Minister from Ethiopia, Wro Frenesh Mekuria pointed out the significant achievements towards universal access in her country of the OneWASH strategy, coordinating and channelling efforts from multiple stakeholders. The motivation for and implementation of these initiatives may not be perfect, but let’s acknowledge that top level political leadership and the commitment of resources are achieving positive change at scale. This is the key to bringing real and lasting sustainable change.

The final session I attended was “Knowledge Management and Translating Evidence to Action: A Case for Context Specificity”, run by WaterSHED and WaterAid. What drew me were the phrases “Evidence to Action” (another way of saying Policy meets Science) and context specificity (I often ponder on whether we can ever apply concepts or solutions across the huge differences in culture, political economies and geographies around the world) . WaterAid staff had travelled from several countries to Cambodia to learn from WaterSHED’s success in sanitation marketing. As Ada from WaterAid pointed out, culture plays a major role in how we learn. The participants had previously had access to webinars, online courses, manuals etc. but what they preferred and appreciated from the trip was learning through practical experience and discussion, which impacted their own sanitation marketing programmes on their return.

There’s a lesson here for all of us engaged in using evidence to bring about action. We need to do the hard work of presenting and sharing results and data in ways that are meaningful to our audiences, the decision-makers, and invest time into working out what those ways are. I have to confess that too many times I’ve presented results using powerpoint presentations to local government officials, with the resulting questions giving me a sneaking suspicion that we may both have missed each other’s points. We need to listen to what the underlying research questions are for the context, before superimposing our own assumptions if we really want to bring our evidence to bear.

A quick mention of two other commonly heard words from this week – systems and districts. Systems in WASH are complex beasts, hard to nail down, and even harder to change. But great efforts are being made to consider the challenges and solutions at District level (practical for seeing real change), while building capacity and collaborations. The Agenda for Change is an exciting initiative, seeking to tackle these questions of context, scale and government leadership.

So, after an exciting week, this humble research associate will head back to the day job…analysing survey data, reading papers, asking questions, formulating methodologies, but hopefully with a broader framework in mind and a different slant on the questions. Thanks UNC!

Susie Goodall is a Research Associate at WEDC, Loughborough University.

Date: 24 October 2017