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50 years of IRC: interview with Jan-Willem Rosenboom

Published on: 25/03/2019

50 years of IRC: interview with Jan-Willem Rosenboom

Is finance a red herring and what is "Rosenboom's law on pilots"? Learn more from an IRC friend for over 30 years.

Jan-Willem Rosenboom’s connection to IRC spans over 30 years. It started with his work for WaterAid, Oxfam, UNICEF, the World Bank and continues in his current position as Sr. Program Officer Water, Sanitation and Hygiene at the Gates Foundation. We talk to him for the series of IRC 50 interviews.

IRC as a knowledge centre

CD: Do you remember the first time you contacted IRC?

JWR: Actually, yes I do!  It was about 33 years ago. I was working as a public health engineer in Kenya on a water and sanitation programme funded by WaterAid. I was taken to the IRC office in Holland by the WaterAid resident engineer. He had an appointment with James Wilson, who was working at IRC at that point.

IRC's library and 'Blue books" (technical papers). Photo: IRC

IRC library in the 1980s and IRC "blue books" (technical papers). Photo: IRC

While my colleague was having his meeting, someone took me the IRC library. That’s where I became familiar with IRC and in particular its publications: technical papers, occasional papers. All the kind of stuff that was useful in my work – publications about technical choices, evaluation, community engagement – a whole world of useful material. That’s when I became a really heavy user of IRC’s materials. You have to remember, this was pre-Internet, pre-email; going online to find information didn’t exist. I can still see my little home office with all those blue IRC books on the shelf.

Later I saw IRC as an organisation that documented real-life situations in small-scale projects or pilots for planners and WASH professionals. When I studied in Leeds, Prof. Duncan Mara would characterise these situations as those “where we have no money, therefore we must think”.

Years later when I joined the Foundation, IRC helped us early on with our WASH strategy analysis. After that we worked together on the WASHCost and the Triple-S projects. So it’s been a long journey. 

A systems approach

CD: What else have you found useful from IRC?

JWR: Probably two things. First, the Triple-S project, which focused on a systems change approach. It was about recognising that we need to get away from project thinking. If we want to be successful in building sustainable services at scale, then we need to find ways to change the whole system.

But then how do you fund a “project” that recognises that projects aren’t the way to do things well? For me that was really important because my responsibility was to set up an initiative to figure out how to deliver sustainable rural sanitation services at scale. We wanted to answer three questions: how do you get to scale, how do you get sustainability and how do you get impact all at the same time, in the same way. We went about that by focusing on the system.

Later IRC and the Foundation diverged a little bit – IRC continued to focus strongly on systems, we went away. I think we have come full circle and are again thinking more about the whole system.

Agenda for Change

JWR: Secondly, I would like to mention IRC’s Agenda for Change work in the sense of bringing people together around the same table. In some ways that’s related to systems thinking but it also has this clear element of recognising that there’s lots of people in the sandbox. How do we convince people that it is really important to play with all the others in the sandbox and that as long as we stay in our own little vertical organisations we’re never going to see the change we want to see.  I think the way IRC uses its convening power to have those conversations, bring people together and model that approach, is also really important.

Is the focus on finance a red herring?

CD: How do you see the future of the WASH sector?

JWR: Happily enough I’m an optimist. When you look at the sector, it’s easy sometimes to become overwhelmed by the number of things that need sorting out; that we’re not moving fast enough. On the other hand, you can say the glass is half full: we have a clear common goal (SDG 6) we know what we can do jointly to move forward.

What I notice is the strong focus on finance of many organisations including UNICEF, USAID and SWA.  In some ways this is great because it is one of the outstanding issues we need to figure out: bringing the resources required to the table and making them effective. In other ways I think it is a complete red herring or is in danger of becoming one. There are many examples where money is totally not the problem. I won’t name the countries, but some have lots of money available from a development bank loan to focus on improving sanitation but nothing is happening. There is no capacity, it’s not clear what needs to happen and how to do it.

I would love to sit down with a some of the larger sector organisations and ask the question: imagine you think you have all the money you need to reach your SDG 6 targets, to get delivery at scale, how will you spend that money and who is there to help you. I think that provides a lot of insight into what actually needs to happen in the sector.

Capacity development

JWR: For me capacity development, locally and regionally, is an incredibly important part of what needs to be done. If I translate that to some of the work the Foundation is doing, it is really exciting to see that your neighbours in Delft, IHE are doing. In 2018 they started a Masters programme in urban sanitation that we helped finance. The course materials from that programme are going to be available to at least seven other universities in the world. They will be online. That’s a start, but at a very high [academic] level. I think developing the capacities of our technology assistance partners, of local consultant firms, of international organisations, will really help us understand how to unblock systems and help the money flow.

"Rosenboom’s law on pilots"

CD: What could IRC do in the field of capacity development?

JWR: At least keep doing what you are already doing in terms of bringing people together and focusing on systems. You have country offices, you have partners, but how do you tell the story about what capacity is needed and how to address the gaps. Focus a little bit harder on telling this story without becoming too anecdotal. We often talk about experiences we need to replicate and scale up; yet experience is very contextual, within a project or within in a certain environment. How do you extract what is replicable from your experiences? How do you then actually replicate them and tell that story?

I think there is still too much focus, and Patrick [Moriarty] knows this, on pilots. I have dubbed this problem as “Rosenboom’s law on pilots”: pilots never fail and never scale. As long as we get caught in just documenting and trying to learn from pilots without demonstrating how they can reach scale, you are still nowhere. So if there is one word of advice to IRC for the future, it is to focus on documenting how you scale up.

Effective collaboration

JWR: I think it’s really great that IRC is bringing people and organisations together as is happening in Agenda for Change. That’s the way of the future, we need much more of it. However, we may say collaboration is important, but then we need to show how it contributes to individual organisational effectiveness and how it aligns with an organisation’s strategic priorities.

We need to understand how to reward collaboration. That applies to different levels; inside organisations, with funders who want to see very clearly what their dollars are buying; with politicians who need to tell the tax-paying public what they got for their money.

Verticalisation is not conducive to collaboration. I think one of the things IRC can think about in its next 50 years is how do we understand and address the incentives that work against collaboration. How can we demonstrate that when you reward people for collaboration things get better and collaboration happens more. I would love to learn along with you as you focus on that and I’m sure so will the rest of the sector. 

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