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In the first of three blog posts, IRC CEO Patrick Moriarty addresses the next big challenge: the critical role of public finance and government leadership.

I’ve hugely enjoyed meeting friends, old and new, at the 2014 WASH Sustainability Forum. This is the fifth sustainability Forum, the fourth that I’ve attended. With a nice manageable group of committed and passionate people from the full range of sector actors, it’s a nice barometer of how we’re doing on sustainability. Which I’d have to say is rather well.

In this series of three blogs, I’ll share some thoughts and insights from and triggered by the Forum. 

Why do I think we’re doing well? In part because our message about the central, vital need for sustainability in provision of services is not just getting through, but being actively picked up. 

We see this in the sector’s language: being pushed through the post-MDG process in the UN. We see it in the increasingly effective Sanitation and Water for All partnership, and we (IRC) see it more and more in the countries where we work: in the adoption of a service delivery approach by the Government of Ghana; in the commitment to universal access to services in India and Uganda. We see it in the DGIS sustainability clauses, and in UNICEF’s sustainability compacts. And I see it in the commitments of the group of people who attended the Forum; especially those signed up to the WASH sustainability charter.

..people are getting it. They're getting that hardware is only the first step – that to get to universal access we need to manage that hardware. To monitor it, to maintain it – to invest in it not just when it's first built – but for its design life and beyond.

In short, people are getting it. They’re getting that hardware is only the first step – that to get to universal access we need to manage that hardware. To monitor it, to maintain it – to invest in it not just when it's first built – but for its design life and beyond. They get that we need to treat water and sanitation service provision as businesses – while maintaining our focus on equity. We get the need to professionalise our approaches and to tap into the energy and agility of the private sector to build viable businesses around service provision.

Discussing tools for sanitation at the 2014 WASH Sustainability Forum. Photo by Felix KalkmanThe progress this represents was brilliantly demonstrated by the many useful tools being developed and on show at the 2014 WASH Sustainability Forum. If there’s one area in tool development that is particularly exciting it’s the potential of new technology to massively reduce the costs of monitoring. It’s an old, but nevertheless true, cliché that you can’t manage what you can’t measure.

You cannot deliver services based on samples taken every three or four years (which is what happens currently). We have to move towards true monitoring – of every single pump, of all waste treatment. And that monitoring has to be in real-time – or close to it – and has to be tied to reporting and accountability systems that don’t just make pretty maps – but that lead to action when things stop working. 

We’ve been active in this field as IRC. Working with Akvo and others to design a national monitoring system for Ghana. Currently aiming to cover half the country – with close to real time monitoring that talks to service delivery in terms of nationally agreed norms and standards. I’m particularly proud and excited by this work – in part because the monitoring of service levels was work that I started when I was based in Ghana and its great now – five years later – to see it being taken to scale.

In the past, expense has killed many monitoring efforts, and the reality has been that it happens sporadically if at all. The explosion of mobile technology and cloud based data storage – is, therefore, absolutely disruptive in the positive sense. Offering for the first time ever a realistic and affordable way to know what is working – and what is not – in real time. The big question is of course: how do we pay for all of this and how do we make the monitoring sustainable?

Another rapidly growing body of exciting new tools are those that directly address sustainability. Exciting because it shows that sustainability is finally being taken seriously. Yet no forward looking tool to “assess the likelihood of sustainability” can come close to direct monitoring of service delivery. Services that are maintained over time are sustainable. 

So, when we use our tools to assess sustainability, let's pair them with tools for achieving, costing and investing in sustainability.

So, when we use our tools to assess sustainability, let’s pair them with tools for achieving, costing and investing in sustainability. Let’s ban words like “capacity building” if they are not spelled out in detail and properly costed. And let’s not speak only of the cost of capacity building – but also the cost of capacity maintenance. Let’s stop talking loosely of the need for ‘local government capacity for post-construction support’ but rather in plain, accurate and specific language. In terms of engineers per thousand people served; of vehicles and fuel required; of ICT needs. And of what all of this will cost.

Group work at the 2014 WASH Sustainability Forum. Photo by Felix Kalkman

Which, of course, is where I think that the WASHCost tools that IRC has been developing can help here – providing a platform for describing and more importantly sharing lessons that we – as WASH community – are learning about costs. The more we start to use tools like this to talk to each other about costs – and to benchmark our work against that of others – the more we will anchor loose talk about sustainability as a concept into the nuts and bolts of a truly professional sector.

So, we’ve moved from language (talking about sustainability; talking about service delivery) to action.  Developing a necessary toolkit to start to address the provision of sustainable service delivery. In my next blog, I’ll talk about what I think wasn’t so present in the Forum (other than in my own keynote) – the sector’s own elephant in the room – the lack of government leadership and money.

 

Want to know more? Follow the links below to Patrick's second blog "The elephant in the room" or his third blog in this series "No more fairy tales".

Disclaimer

At IRC we have strong opinions and we value honest and frank discussion, so you won't be surprised to hear that not all the opinions on this site represent our official policy.