Skip to main content

Published on: 22/06/2018

Propeller postcard image

In February 2017, I gave a TEDx talk where I sought to raise awareness of and demystify the systems that surround us and deliver the services we all take for granted: health, transport, education and especially water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). The heart of the argument? That delivering great services requires strong systems. Systems made up of infrastructure, but also of people, institutions, resources and information. We have launched the Propeller campaign to achieve the same aim even more succinctly: to raise awareness about the vital importance of systems. We're doing this through a series of provocative postcards aimed at different decision makers and influencers.

The objective of the campaign is to challenge what I call 'systems blindness': our ability to accept and rely on services, without giving much thought to the systems that provide them. Our postcard juxtaposes a typical, some might say clichéd, WASH image with an absurdity: a man holding a propeller that purports to be an airline. That the image of a young woman at a gushing, life-giving water pump is superficially both attractive and credible, is at the heart of the challenge. It, and images like it, have graced a thousand NGO fundraising campaigns, and in so doing, sustained a development paradigm that pours money into infrastructure whilst ignoring the systems that are required to keep that infrastructure functioning.

Proof of the fundamental wrongness of this approach is found in the unacceptable amount of water supply and sanitation hardware that doesn't work. The "30%" that is at the heart of our campaign is an expression of the reality that you could face if you were to revisit the pump five years after project inauguration. It's one number that captures the reality of tens of thousands of pumps, pipes and treatment works rusting away – testament to the fact that providing services is orders of magnitude more difficult than building stuff. More difficult, but vital if we are going to achieve universal access to WASH services for all.

At IRC, we know that it is easier to get money to deliver hardware than it is to build WASH systems. However, we also know that it is through building the systems that we will move beyond the need to constantly build and rebuild hardware. Not because any pump (or propeller!) lasts forever, but precisely because they don't. Strong systems are those that can cope with the inevitable failure of individual elements within them – be they pumps, pipes or latrines.

With the Propeller campaign we're asking readers to actively promote a systems approach; to ensure that funders and investors support solutions based on delivering sustainable WASH systems; and, asking that WASH sector organisations (including IRC) are held to account for their ability to achieve lasting change through WASH systems strengthening.

For our part, we are using our expertise to directly deliver systems with WASH colleagues in 6 countries and 21 districts and municipalities. We are working with national governments and international partners across the world and making our knowledge and learning available to everyone.

Sustainable WASH services are provided by strong WASH systems – in which people and money, hardware and institutions work together over time: building, operating, repairing and upgrading. Building those systems is the way to eliminate the shameful "30%". We can start by stopping communications that offer a quick fix yet hide behind a lie, that the propeller is the airline. The way to ensure that a handpump spends a productive and useful life? Build it as part of a water service delivery system.

IRC's latest campaign is highlighting the unacceptable level of failure of the handpumps used for many rural water supply schemes, but where does the figure of 30% come from? Check the facts here


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.

Back to
the top