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Published on: 13/12/2016

From 10-14 October 2016 the Water and Health Conference: where science meets policy took place at the University of North Carolina's (UNC) Water Institute. The Water and Health conference focusses on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in a global context with a strong public health emphasis; this year's theme was domestic WASH in high income countries.

Embracing systems approach

Discussing the partnership approach between government, NGOs and funders in Ghana (source: IRC)According to Patrick Moriarty (IRC CEO) the most exciting takeaway from the conference was that compared to the 2015 edition is the ever growing number of individuals and organisations becoming aware of the necessity of strengthening national WASH systems – and of adopting a systems based approach. The systems approach was embedded in the entire programme. It represents a really important step forward that so many actors in the WASH sector are moving towards strengthening systems rather than just providing hardware.

In line with this, Moriarty was excited by various Agenda for Change sessions – co-hosted by IRC – which were a great success. The Agenda for Change is a collaboration of nongovernmental organisations, governments, and financing organisations (private and government) who have recognized that they can achieve more in WASH services by working together than independently. Together they promote an approach rooted in supporting local governments to work to reach sustainable WASH services for everyone, everywhere, forever. Participants at the sessions shared stories of how the Agenda for Change is being implemented in Uganda and Honduras, and learned more about the current and future plans of the collaboration – including how to become part of it at global or country level.

A vital element in adopting a systems strengthening approach is being able to measure how (or if) the system is becoming more capable of providing services. This ability to measure systems strengthening is critical in attracting more funding for systems strengthening – as financiers understandably want to know if their money is being well spent – especially given that investment in strong systems may take years to yield directly observable results in terms of better WASH services or greater sustainability on the ground. Our partner WaterAid convened an excellent side session on this, bringing together a mix of donors and practitioners keen to understand how to make what can be an esoteric subject real and measurable.

Investments in long-term plans

"Invest more in research to generate the link between evidence and advocacy to increase funding for WASH."

– Dr. Fred Muhumuza (Development Economist and Policy Analyst in Uganda)

Next to the question of "how can we measure systems strengthening?" is the linked one of "how do you do it?" Presentations during Agenda for Change sessions introduced the roadmap and tools being developed by the collaboration to help guide systems building activities – especially at local level. Tools are currently being tested in areas such as: 

  • Building strong finance systems – for example, to make sure hand pump mechanic associations are able to open a bank account and can finance repairs; and
  • Building monitoring and evaluation (M&E) systems - for example, to keep track of the amount of functioning WASH facilities on the ground.

Erma Uytewaal (IRC associate) reported on the Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) session and Elynn Walters (IRC international advocacy expert and lead US partnerships ) on the WASH away from home session during the Water and Health Conference 2016.



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