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How dangerous can WASH information be?

Published on: 25/04/2014

The Sierra Leone WASH sector has asked an IRC-led consortium to set-up a structure for sector learning and to create a common platform for easy access to all sector information.

The technical advisor comes up with the example of a report of the Ministry of Water Resources in which a paragraph claims that water scarcity is threatening Sierra Leone because glaciers are retreating....... With this example the advisor backs his statement that quality assurance is needed when information is made available publicly. Of course you can argue that the above slip of the pen (or more likely the result of copy/paste by the author on a late Friday afternoon) doesn't make the Ministry look very smart. But how important are occasional blunders compared to the advantage of free and easy access to all (true and untrue, high quality and inferior) information?

Since September a consortium of IRC, WaterAid Sierra Leone, WASH-Net Sierra Leone (a network of civil society organisations) and the Resource Centre Network Ghana (sort of a country WASH knowledge hub) are supporting the Ministry of Water Resources of Sierra Leone to set up a structure for sector learning. Since 2012 the government of Sierra Leone and civil society organisations have been working together to make information easier accessible for all and to stimulate learning across organisations and sub-sectors (such as health and water).

An important deliverable of the sector learning project is the Sierra Leone WASH website which has as key function to make WASH information easily accessible (I will share the link on a next occasion when the site is launched). In every meeting the discussion returns on how we are going to avoid that there will be information on the website that is harming the sector and/or organisations in one way or the other. In particular the government is very keen that there will be some kind of control on what will be published and what not. A repeatedly heard argument is that people can't give the same value to the recommendations that come from a case study from a Community Based Organisation to those from an academic article. I argue that I often find the field cases more interesting than many academic papers and that we should trust that the readers will make their own judgement on how they use the information they find on the website. Personally, therefore I am against any censorship of publications on the website. But even if you go along with some kind of censorship, the question remains: what are your criteria? Who will be the censor?

On a more pragmatic note we have agreed that each publication in the library should list an author and the organisation by which it is produced. This makes the information traceable and the author can be held accountable. In addition the website will have a disclaimer that the sector learning network doesn't have direct responsibility for the content of the publications. We also discussed the option to give the users the possibility to rate the publications they have read, but this only works when you have a sufficient number of readers, otherwise the opinion of one or two will determine the rating score.

The question remains what exactly are (at least some) people or organisations actually afraid of? I haven't yet received a very clear answer. The formal argument is that when the information is rubbish, people will lose interest and the website will not serve its purpose. But the information on the site will only be rubbish when rubbish is produced, so..... Another argument is that the website might be (mis)used by making it a platform for ventilating unwelcome opinions. But it is not an open Twitter or Facebook page.

Well, @IRC we are just about to launch our website and during lunch I wondered with a colleague how the publishing process now will be. So, if you haven't read this blog, IRC must have a censor ;-)

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.