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Measuring what we are managing

Published on: 21/08/2017

Robust monitoring is needed to track progress towards achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goal for water.

Monitoring with a smartphone in Ethiopia. Photo: IRC

Following the publication of the latest report by the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP), the August 2017 edition of Amplify has a focus on monitoring WASH services: globally and locally; the services themselves, but also the WASH systems necessary to deliver them.

I always disliked the Millennium Development Goals. For their lack of ambition (why only reduce by half?) and for the headlong rush they triggered to build hardware – often at the cost of investing in the systems needed to make the hardware work over time. That said, one of the good things that came from the MDGs was ever growing awareness of the need to measure progress, both globally and in country. 

The Sustainable Development Goals are, of course, much better. They contain a clear and ambitious vision of universal access and they put a welcome focus on the quality of the WASH services that are to be delivered. The JMP’s new report, therefore, acts as a baseline for the SDG era. It defines the challenge and reframes the progress we’ve made to date: for example finding that there are 2.1 billion people lacking access to safe water (the SDG’s leading indicator) as opposed to the 844 million who lacked access to a basic supply (the MDG indicator).

Monitoring

Monitoring is at the heart of the systems approach to WASH services that IRC champions. “What you don’t measure you can’t manage” is a cliché, but it is also true – and providing sustainable WASH services is all about management. Whether it’s the global work of the JMP, or the sort of country work that IRC and UNICEF have been supporting in West Africa, putting in place reliable and trustworthy monitoring systems is a critical building block to creating strong WASH systems. Without monitoring we have no way to measure progress, no way to learn, adapt and innovate, no way to prioritise funding decisions.

Monitoring is a critical building block for the WASH system, one that itself needs to be properly funded but often isn’t. There are other building blocks in the WASH system and for the system to work as a whole, all of the building blocks need to work (at least well enough) all of the time. Getting these building blocks of national WASH systems into place is the most urgent work of the next few years if we’re to have any chance of achieving the SDGs and measuring the strength of the building blocks is itself essential to be able to measure progress.

ICT revolution

The JMP data looks (and is) daunting. And realists will (and do) say that the WASH Goals simply can’t be met in every country by 2030. Only time will tell whether they are right or not, certainly, a straight line extrapolation of progress to date says they probably are. That said, IRC will continue to aim for 2030, because it’s the right thing to do, but also because we don’t live in a straight line world any more but in an exponential one.  A world where people think nothing of building elaborate monitoring schemes based on the use of pocket mobile super computers (smartphones) to monitor use of 19th century technology (hand pumps and latrines). It’s hard to remember that less than 10 years ago no one had heard of the iPhone, yet SDG 9.c aims to “strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020”.  How given that could we aim for less than universal access to WASH by 2030? 

The SDGs give us a target to aim for. The JMP gives us a way to measure our achievement of that target globally. What is necessary now is to create national and local monitoring that is equally robust.  Monitoring with which to assess progress, to hold service providers and authorities to account, and for providers to operate and maintain their services. The ongoing ICT revolution is giving us the tools to make such monitoring realistic and affordable. The challenge is to institutionalise these tools in a way that is sustainable.

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