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Published on: 18/03/2020

Siem Reap, Cambodia, faecal sludge management

Siem Reap, Cambodia. Photo: IRC/Erick Baetings, 2017

We used to have a saying, when I was growing up, that you spend ages waiting for a bus – and then two arrive at the same time.  This was a long time ago in the days before apps and bus stops with real time information about arrival times …

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: A public service approach

And so it is that you wait for ages for a paper on adopting a systems approach in urban sanitation – and then two papers on Citywide inclusive sanitation (CWIS) are published within a week of each other in the same journal! One, by authors from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation seems particularly significant. The full title of the paper is ‘Citywide inclusive sanitation: a public service approach for reaching the urban sanitation SDGs’, and it is the public service part that caught my eye. Well actually the lead author, Alyse Schrencongost, alerted me to it during the recent AFWA Congress in Kampala.

The paper says that “CWIS is based on the fundamental understanding that urban human waste management is characterized by inherent market failures, and therefore must be organized as a public service – including ensuring safe containment [….]. This requires government engagement in market structuring; it does not preclude or diminish the role of the private sector.” 

Framing the challenge so clearly as one of public service provision and therefore recognising the crucial role of government leadership and of subsidy to reach the poorest, is welcome. That it comes from an organisation that has such a big voice in sanitation and that has traditionally been more associated with technological and ‘market based’ solutions is doubly so.

World Bank: business as unusual

The second CWIS paper is from a World Bank team, 'Citywide inclusive sanitation: business as unusual'. While sharing the same overarching concept, it has less focus on the public service aspects and more on the need for a pragmatic mix of technologies and approaches to reach the poor. To be fair, this may be because the World Bank sees government as their natural partner and client, and hence does not see the need to emphasise the point of government leadership. And it is welcome to see the Bank also promoting a mix of traditional and more innovative approaches to providing sanitation.

Coming on the back of a growing body of pioneering work by the authors of these papers and others (and particularly in this space I would say WSUP), I’m excited by both these papers, as I am by any sign of major development players taking a more ‘systems’ based approach. Particularly where, as in the case of the BMGF paper, there is such explicit acknowledgement of the need for a strong government ‘authority’ to oversee citywide integration and coordination. In this it falls clearly into the 'area based' and government led approach championed by IRC and our Agenda for Change partners.


As I write this, working from home in the first of what looks like many weeks of social distancing, it is hard not to be distracted by the growing fear surrounding the coronavirus. Frightening as this is for those of us living in wealthy countries, the impact in poorer countries is likely to be many times more severe. The virus is already causing economic damage and putting even strong health systems under intolerable strain.  Even while the strongest and most data driven give us hope that it may  be contained. At this point, and as IRC works out how to deal with both the short and longer-term implications of the pandemic, I am convinced that it is crucial that all organisations working in this space continue to champion the need for international solidarity. This is doubly necessary as borders close and countries turn in on themselves.

It is only by continuing to invest in building strong national and local systems (for health, for WASH, for education ...) that we will make the world resilient in the face of the challenges to come, be they pandemics, climate change or simply population growth.


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.

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