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Decolonisation of WASH knowledge: addressing institutional bias

Published on: 22/07/2020

COVID-19 and #BlackLivesMatter are a wake-up call for leaders to take a closer look at WASH knowledge generation.

 Woman sitting in front of computer screen in Ganjam district, Odisha, India

Ganjam District, Odisha, India. Credit: IRC

From a technology-driven water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) agenda in the 1960-80s (handpumps, deep bore wells and toilets) to emphasis on behaviour change in current thinking, very few WASH knowledge agendas are coming from southern developing countries (CLTS - Community-led total sanitation - being an exception).

In India, the 1980s marked the emergence of professional NGOs which were leading the agenda setting in environment and rural development. The first professional NGOs (not the Gandhian NGOs) in India – Professional Action for Development Action (PRADAN), Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), MYRADA, AKRSPI – were all registered in the mid 1980s. However, this changed quickly from the late 1990s when more and more donor-driven agenda setting started to emerge, including in the WASH sector. This was perhaps part of the larger trend of privatisation and market-led approaches that were gaining dominance through agencies such as USAID and DFID.

Today, we see marketing concepts dominating WASH thinking, for example behaviour change, 24x7 water supply, cost recovery and operations and maintenance.  Functional tools and frameworks such as KAP (knowledge, attitude and practices) studies and assumptions (bad habits can be changed by using promotional messages) go unchallenged. The famous F-Diagram remains a poorly understood framework that hangs on many village walls.

Deeper barriers to WASH behaviour change of a caste divided society are neither understood nor a focus of WASH knowledge. The very act of wearing clean clothes may challenge a reaction from the upper caste. In tribal habitation contexts, there is often a lack of aspiration (a deeply engrained self perception of who you are). This was borne out from two field research studies by this author – in mixed caste village studies (Kapur and Kumar, 2012, p. 9) as well as tribal habitations (Ramisetty & Barot, 2016, p. 26).

Incorrect cause and effect medical conclusions (Cumming et al., 2019) were drawn around open defecation and stunting and around open defecation and high mortality in India. These are some of the examples of serious bias.

This is not to say that all the WASH knowledge priorities are wrong and western dominance is to be blamed for everything. No. Defining shared toilets as neither a safely managed nor a basic sanitation facilities is a case in point. The WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene (JMP) rightly captured this WASH challenge, as in the COVID-19 outbreak community toilets are seen as hot spots of infection.

WASH knowledge generation priorities are usually the narrowly defined programmatic priorities of WASH development agencies, to deliver on their objectives and activities. WASH knowledge generated by practitioners or local NGOs or supported from open ended research grants, are few, and often not recognised. Not only knowledge and research budgets are small, they are closely tied to programme objectives. New knowledge generation or exploring contrarian issues is seldom done. One reason for this is that WASH knowledge leadership today, is increasingly divorced from social context, from larger movements and issues, and has become managerial in its focus. 

If you take a look at WASH knowledge generation in recent years – e.g. handwashing, faecal sludge management, menstrual hygiene management, citywide inclusive sanitation, 24x7 water supply - priorities are identified from a formalistic understanding of:

  1. Behaviour change as a programme-managed activity;
  2. Technology fix as a social and health engineering solution, e.g. for 24x7 water supply promotion and Tippy Taps for handwashing.

WASH knowledge generation as an inter-disciplinary approach covering technology, inequity, power, gender, institutions etc. seems nowhere a priority. There is a blind spot here that the western WASH research institutions and donors, not having proximity and not understanding the local context, cannot fathom.

What is required is an inclusive process for setting a WASH knowledge research agenda and a listing of priorities in collaboration with actors from the South. Each international WASH agency is competing with the other on coming up with new concepts. Collaboration is completely missing with southern NGOs or experts. Where it does take place, it is restricted to a small group of southern NGOs and experts who have the clout to be heard and get a seat at the table. The same challenge applies to national institutes and experts, for not recognising the knowledge and issues residing in sub-regions, towns and districts. 

Decolonisation of WASH knowledge at all levels and decolonisation of the Institutional WASH knowledge Agenda Setting are priorities. COVID-19 has exposed the critical gaps in WASH knowledge generation in terms of who sets the agenda, who gets to sit at the table, and whose voice is heard.

 

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