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Published on: 24/05/2023

Written by Muyatwa Sitali, Head of Country and Partner Engagement at Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) partnership and originally published on the SWA website on 23 May, 2023.

Post-its on wall. All Systems Connect  | International Symposium May 2023 @ World Forum, The Hague
All Systems Connect | International Symposium May 2023 @ World Forum, The Hague. Robert Tjalondo (Rockin' Pictures)/IRC

Earlier in May - IRCWASHWater For People and Water for Good hosted a dynamic, inspiring and thought-provoking All Systems Connect 2023 Symposium. They brought together leaders and practitioners from several fields that are crucial to the planning, delivery, financing and sustainability of water, sanitation and hygiene services. The symposium also dedicated some sessions on how we can effectively engage and support political leaders especially presidents who deal with complex and competing needs. Presidents are perfectly placed to see and drive a truly connected agenda.

The symposium was a reminder that we cannot achieve the ambitious SDGs by just focusing on each one of the goals independently, much less when we focus on the individual targets. The SDGs are an interdependent agenda and we must make deliberate efforts to connect across the silos.

We must equally make deliberate efforts to address the systems that have pushed people to the end of the line of service delivery. Most communities on the frontlines of climatic, health and economic catastrophes are also without adequate resources to resiliently recover. They do not find themselves in these circumstances by choice or accident. It is by design, by systematic decision-making fueled by plans, policies and resources that marginalize them and exacerbate the risks they face.

Resolving this will require thinking that goes beyond the silos, combines a lot of data and aims for results across several issues. This was one of my many take-aways on the systems thinking, systems leadership and systems change that we need. No brainer, you may say. I agree. But I asked myself, how often do I truly engage with colleagues across different sectors? Often I find myself speaking to the same people most of the time and sometimes having the same conversations - mutually reinforcing the echo chamber or repeating the same hymn as members of the same choir. I left All Systems Connect 2023 truly looking for new ways to break the silos.

One way I see for doing this is through our work on engaging political leaders - ministers, parliamentarians and now Heads of State. Presidents, for example, have to make decisions that truly embody the complex systems thinking and leadership needed to focus on the sum of all our actions.

The Kingdom of the Netherlands hosted a breakfast focused on how to support Heads of State or Government to develop and implement Presidential Compacts which include water, sanitation and hygiene. The breakfast was attended by ministers and heads of government delegations attending the symposium. It led to a spirited discussion on the ambitions, how to engage Heads of State/Government, adjacent ministries, and the kind of support that partners can provide.

Ministers from Ethiopia, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, and Malawi, and Heads of Delegations from Liberia, Mali. Rwanda, and Uganda joined at the breakfast convened by The Kingdom of the Netherlands

Ministers from Ethiopia, Ghana, Guatemal, Honduras, and Malawi, and Heads of Delegations from Liberia, Mali. Rwanda, and Uganda joined the breakfast convened by The Kingdom of the Netherlands. The breakfast was a follow up to the Heads of State Lunch also convened by The Kingdom of the Netherlands with the support of SWA, UNICEF and IRC during the UN Water Conference in New York in March 2023. Photo credit: Robert Tjalondo (Rockin' Pictures)/IRC

Four pathways for working with Heads of State/Government

As Sanitation and Water for All we were also privileged to work with IRCWASH in co-convening a 7-session design sprint. The sessions focused solely on how we can better support and engage Heads of State and Government to achieve water, sanitation and hygiene needs while making gains in other sectors.

Cartoon - Towards presidential level commitment & action on water & sanitation

With the support of two dynamic facilitators - Thalia Rizou and Nicole Doray, MES - we covered different ideas culminating in four pathways:

  • Working with already supportive presidents: Some Heads of State/Government are already champions for an inclusive agenda and what they need is a team of partners to help them achieve an already stated ambition for water, sanitation and hygiene. The example of India's leadership through Prime Minister Modi's Swachh Bharat program to end open defecation comes to mind. In India, partners were mobilized around an agenda that enjoyed prime support from the Head of Government. There are many countries were Heads of State/Government have made strong commitments through their election manifestos. These leaders need partners and ministers to catapult their vision into a whole-of-sector, whole-of-government approach that sees gains across many targets. A compact developed by partners can elaborate the means for achieving the vision and identify pooled actions and resources needed to get results.
  • Engaging champion ministers: Ministers can play a pivotal role in bringing evidence to the President. They also have the unique skill of converting policy into political language and thereby help bridge a communications chasm. In some countries it took ministers to actively engage their Head of State leading to the development and announcement of a presidential initiative for water, sanitation and hygiene. Nigeria's Executive Order to end open defecation by 2025 was championed by the minister who also provided leadership in its implementation. Ministers can play a crucial role in mobilizing a coalition in cabinet that truly connects the dots across WASH, Health, Economy, Environment, etc. This insight was also reinforced by one of the female ministers who spoke at the design sprint. She shared her own experience of holding bilateral meetings with her counterparts to break the issues down and develop a common understanding of the joint work they need to do. This type of mobilization at a political level helps the President to see the complementarities and not the competition across sectors.
  • Leveraging international mechanisms: Presidents are people of influence and they too look to their colleagues and friends for examples. International mechanisms that offer successful examples can stimulate ideas and make the shortcut from inspiration to action. SWA and partners have started to focus on this as a critical approach to reaching Heads of State and Government. At the UN Water Conference in March 2023, The Kingdom of the Netherlands working with SWA, IRC and UNICEF convened a lunch attended by the President of Botswana, the King of the Netherlands and ministers from 10 countries. Five of the countries committed to working on Presidential compacts in 2023. Such international moments including the regional Heads of States Summit, and other initiatives such as the Africa High-level Panel of the African Union supported by GWP and other partners, are crucial vehicles for generating peer-to-peer engagement among leaders.
  • Bottom-up approaches: efforts inspired by sector stakeholders to reach up to Heads of State/Government can be part of a bottom-up approach. Though the process can take long to navigate the formal and informal pathways, this approach can build a strong coalition of like-minded partners which will be crucial for implementation. This was the approach used by SWA partners in Liberia which led to the first Liberia WASH Compact signed by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2011. Partners including the Civil Society Organisations, UN and donor agencies rallied their support behind the compact, worked with the government until the president signed it, and they supported it's implementation. Among other outcomes, Liberia owes the creation of the WASH Commission largely to the pronouncements in the compact.

Ignore the risks at your own peril

Working with Heads of State/Government to appropriately prioritize water, sanitation and hygiene alongside other topics is neither easy nor a straightforward path. The design sprint helped to see through different scenarios and risks. Some of the risks include changes of political leaders - both the presidents and their cabinets - which can also affect the agenda. Partners underscored the importance of obtaining the support of the technocrats and civil servants at the highest level as a mitigation factor. Senior civil servants can play a key role as the custodians of institutional memory during transitions.

With only seven years to reach the end of the SDGs, reaching the finish line will require partnerships across different institutions, different topics and leadership at the highest levels of decision-making. The symposium was a crucial reminder of the need for every stakeholder to break the silos and build forward better. It helped that it had genuine diversity - I hope I am not the only one who noticed the diversity of speakers, most, if not all panels in plenary had speakers from Africa or Asia. And I do not recall a single manel.

Watch the video summary of the 3-day symposium


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