Skip to main content

Published on: 26/09/2014

By Deirdre Casella and Carmen da Silva Wells

As Moriarty and Lockwood point out in their blog ‘Cautiously optimistic’, it is not possible to ‘fix’ the sector once and for all. Going back a bit further in time, the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 500 BC) is commonly cited as the source of the aphorism ‘the only constant in life is change’. Wise words, but apparently he was not all that popular among his fellow philosophers and statesmen of the time – in part due to the obscurity of this kind of assertion.

Nonetheless, Heraclitus did have a point. The dynamics of change mean that we need to be prepared to continuously learn and adapt in order to respond to ever evolving circumstances. Learning and adaptive capacities throughout the sector are central to the cycle of action, reflection and resolution.

Understanding the parts

At the heart of IRC’s approach to change  is a vision of how the sector needs to function if sustainable water services are to be provided to everyone, and a set of guiding messages intended to inspire stakeholders to create change in their own context. This approach is informed by our understanding of the water and sanitation sectors as complex adaptive systems: consisting of multiple actors and relationships, all of which need to work together effectively for services to be delivered. The figure below shows what a complicated picture you get when you chart out the multiple levels, connections and interactions involved in rural water service delivery in Uganda. 


Since its inception in 1968, IRC has worked on different aspects of this system, together with partners across the world. In our early years, we did not speak of service delivery or systems change. Initially, we focused on improving community management.

Through the 1990s it became increasingly apparent that even with technical and managerial skills, communities could not manage entirely on their own.

In the early 2000’s elements of systems thinking started to feature in IRC’s work, for example in the Community Management of Rural Water Supplies in Developing Countries project, through which the interconnections among the actors involved in community water supply started to crystallise.

The difficulty of getting ‘best’ practices to work at scale in different settings also became increasingly apparent. Resources were being wasted in trying to get pilots to scale without really understanding what made them successful in the first instance. Rarely was the technological, or even the management solution the key success factor. There was something more, but what? Governance? Participation? Information flows? Capacity Building? Finance? Increasingly we realised that the answer was: all of the above!

A gradual shift towards ‘whole systems change’

From the early 2000s, IRC’s emerging insights about the complexity and links between water sanitation and other sectors led to the development of work on learning alliances as an approach that shifted the focus from single solutions towards engaging all stakeholders in shared search for solutions through joint diagnosis and visioning of the future, followed by identifying, testing and institutionalising solutions.

In 2006, IRC did a landscaping study for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We worked with a range of international experts to identify the sector’s biggest challenges, promising innovations and opportunities for investments to have a transformational impact. This allowed IRC to critically investigate how the sector operates as a system, how change at scale can be understood and catalysed.

Our roundtable on complexity and WASH governance in 2008, led to the publication of a Thematic paper entitled Evaluating and improving the WASH sector: strengthening WASH governance, learning about complexity, assessing change (Garandeau et al, 2009). This set the frame for outcomes-based monitoring which we applied in WASHCost and Triple-S (see for example the Triple-S Monitoring Dashboard) and has stimulated learning for improvement in these programmes.  

Improved ‘governance’ became an umbrella term for addressing a range of challenges with service provision. Gradually we identified the building blocks to sustainable services, such as local leadership, support to service providers, life cycle financing, service monitoring, learning and adaptive capacities. Working through learning alliances became one of the important elements of our approach to improve governance of water and sanitation services.  

Over the last decade we have tested and refined our thinking and practice on learning alliances. Learning alliance thinking has been applied in IRC projects such as EMPOWERS, RiPPLE and more recently in WASHCost, WASHTech and Triple-S. Our understanding of what a learning alliance is has evolved from a ‘thing’ to an ‘approach’ towards catalysing collective change.

These experiences have shown the importance of active involvement of a range of different stakeholders throughout the process of problem definition, analysis, and visioning.  But above all, they have highlighted the importance of doing: of experimenting with the alliance partners in the messy real world – and in bringing the experiences gained back to the policy table. A recent external review shows that IRC’s learning alliance approach in Ghana has been instrumental in shaping the sector agenda, influencing policy and practice.

Through our work on WASHCost and Triple-S projects, IRC better articulated the service delivery approach – a more focussed articulation of the objective of ‘better WASH governance’. At the same time, service delivery became a way to talk about better alignment and coordination of development aid to support national governments in taking charge of their own agenda.

Through this journey, we arrived at a whole system approach to change. This approach requires two things: engaging with the whole system to catalyse change by collectively identifying, learning about and working on areas of ‘stuck-ness’ at different levels in the system; and a rigorous focus on results – the quality and sustainability of services.


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