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Learning to write and writing to learn

Published on: 09/09/2014

Sierra Leone's Ministry of Water Resources and Ministry of Health and Sanitation have spearheaded learning and better coordination in the sector to achieve national water and sanitation targets.Translating high-level commitment into daily practice takes determination, time and skills.

Sierra Leone faces considerable challenges in water, sanitation and hygiene and water resource management. According to the Sector Performance Report 2012 approximately 55% of the population has access to an improved water supply- 87% of the population in urban areas, and only 35% in rural areas. 'Improved' sanitation was estimated at 13%: 23% in urban areas and 6% in rural areas. Country-wide water point mapping showed that only 39 per cent of 29,000 mapped water points are functional year-round.  

The country has set ambitious targets for 2015 in its Water and Sanitation Policy (2011): overall water access at 74% and overall improved sanitation access at 66%. Learning, access to information and knowledge management have been identified as key elements to achieving these targets. In 2012, the [then] Ministry of Energy and Water Resources of Sierra Leone issued a Policy Statement, which identified research and learning as essential for the creation, transfer and mobilisation of knowledge needed for effective policy-making, better service delivery, and development outcomes.  The Ministry committed to defining a framework to systematically capture and share information across the WASH sector and to institutionalise sector learning.

The framework for sector learning sets out platforms and mechanisms to encourage learning throughout the sector. A vision for sector learning encourages active sharing and reflection on success and failures.

In 2013, IRC was approached to guide a pilot initiative for WASH sector learning in Sierra Leone under leadership of the Ministry of Water Resources and the Ministry of Health & Sanitation. This is exciting in itself, but also because it is recognition of IRC's work with partners on conceptualising sector learning and supporting learning and adaptation in our focus countries. With guidance from the Sector Policy Coordination Team IRC elaborated a framework for learning.

The sector learning framework outlines

  • a broad-based Sector Learning Network,
  • a Sector Learning Partnership, with a vision (to which several sector players have already signed up) and
  • a Knowledge Hub /resource centre (yet to be established permanently).
  • a website for sharing documents and lessons learned and templates for capturing lessons learned. 

Building capacity through a 'writeshop' 

Several innovation and learning initiatives on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) and water resource management exist in the country. Writing down and sharing lessons and innovations with a wider audience is important, but doesn't happen in a systematic way. A common barrier is that people cannot find the time or confidence to write, some people struggle to formulate what the most interesting issues are to communicate to different audiences.Some organisations may not see benefits in sharing lessons and possible shortcomings of a project.

As part of the pilot initiative, I designed and facilitated a week-long 'writeshop' organised by the WASH sector learning pilot initiative. A writeshop is a writing workshop that provides time and support for people to write, based on insights and information from their work or others' ongoing initiatives. By the end of the writeshop, participants have produced a range of outputs such as a story, a case study, a 2-pager, a lessons learned document, in (almost) final form.

The ability to document effectively, share good practices and innovations is one step towards supporting the sector to learn and improve.

Through this writeshop, IRC, with local partners WASH-Net and WaterAid aimed to further develop the capacity of organisations in the sector to share knowledge that is generated through the myriad projects and organisations working on water, sanitation and hygiene in Sierra Leone. The writeshop introduced participants to important principles of writing to engage and trigger change. I provided hands-on support in writing and everyone took turns presenting their own work and reviewing that of others. 

The writeshop included representatives from Ministry of Water Resources, Ministry of Health and Sanitation, ActionAid, GOAL Ireland, World Vision, WASH-Net and WASH Media Network. Most of these organisations have already signed up to the Sector Learning Network, which now must move forward on the initial interest and towards real commitments to continuously share information and use lessons learned. I hope that writeshop participants can use their motivation to share their newly gained knowledge with others more effective learning and sharing in the sector.  

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