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Published on: 20/03/2024

Participants at the National Coordination workshop held in Akosombo, Ghana on 13-14 February 2024. Credit: NDPC

Caption: Participants at the National Coordination workshop held in Akosombo, Ghana from 13-14 February 2024. Credit: NDPC

In this blog post, we delve into the importance of systems leadership and intersectoral coordination in Ghana. The narrative underscores how IRC and Government partners' thought leadership efforts are reshaping sectoral discourse and accelerating progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

This blog was co-written by IRC Ghana Country Director, Vida Duti and Sára Bori.

Shifting perspectives: the evolution of systems language and thinking in Ghana

Reflecting on my journey within the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector, I've witnessed a significant evolution in our approach, moving from a focus on infrastructure to services and now towards embracing systems leadership. Since I joined IRC in 2009, initiatives like the Sustainable Services at Scale (Triple-S) and WASHCost projects have played a pivotal role in catalysing this shift. We've transitioned from simply counting facilities to prioritising the holistic delivery of water services, introducing concepts such as sustainability and life cycle costing along the way.

In recent years, our discourse has expanded to encompass the underlying principles of systems thinking. This paradigm shift highlights the importance of addressing the undermining factors of systems ineffectiveness focussing on WASH system building blocks.

With IRC, we used comprehensive master planning as a key entry point to sector systems strengthening in Ghana. A prime example of this is the master planning work we’ve been supporting in Asutifi North District and which is now achieving regional and national scale through replication in five other districts and inclusion into the National WASH Planning guidelines.

And now we have evolved to advocate for systems leadership. By doing so, we emphasise the need for proactive management and coordination across various building blocks of the system but also between different sectors and their systems. All this to achieve systems effectiveness across sectors, to see systems perform and as a result, experience people’s lives flourishing in harmony with nature, while respecting the Earth's capacities.

The last few months have seen some of these concepts being taken up in Ghana at national policy making level, in intersectoral coordination and global advocacy. I’m sharing a couple of highlights in this blog.

All systems connect in Ghana

Connecting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is crucial as none of the goals can be achieved in isolation. We joined Ghana government delegations at two UN events last year, the UN High Level Political Forum and the SDG Summit. At the events, countries were encouraged to prioritise areas where they were making the most progress to show tangible results. Additionally, there was a call for intentional efforts to work across sectors rather than adopting a siloed approach, recognising the interconnected nature of the SDGs. This message resonated with our All Systems Connect symposium held in May 2023, where discussions mirrored those at the UN level.

Ghana and IRC delegation at the UN summit 2023 side event

Caption: NDPC, Office of the Head of Local Government Service, and IRC delegation at the UN summit 2023 side event on Accelerator Actions and Innovative Financing to deliver the SDGs by 2030 held on 19th September 2023. Credit: NDPC

Building on insights from these events, Ghana conducted its own assessment of the SDGs to identify synergies and trade-offs. Ghana prioritised areas such as sanitation, education, energy, employment, and institutional development. Led by the National Development Planning Commission (NDPC), an analysis revealed that sanitation had the most synergistic effect with other sectors, highlighting the importance of interconnectedness. The SDG technical report was prepared to indicate Ghana’s renewed commitment, solidarity and transformative actions to achieve the SDGs.

Enhancing intersectoral coordination  

Following its advisory role to the Presidency and Parliament, the NDPC has embraced the role of addressing coordination issues that impact the WASH sector’s work. A key milestone in this process was a National Coordination Workshop, that NDPC organised together with the Ministry of Sanitation and Water Resources and IRC in Akosombo from 13-14 February 2024. The aim was to diagnose the underlying factors of the state of WASH coordination; build consensus among key actors and institutions towards enhancing coordination within and across sectors and to solicit for inputs from the workshop to prepare a WASH coordination advice paper.

The intersectoral coordination for SDG 6 event brought in people from MSWR, Ministry of Local Government, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Environment, Science, Technology & Innovation, Water Resources Commission, NGOs, District Assemblies, Development Partners etc.

A big area of discussion was harnessing the coordination and collaboration to synergetic relationships with allied institutions; effect of pollution and its threat to water resources and Ghana’s industrialisation drive; coordination and collaboration to achieve outcomes for a circular economy strategy implementation; multistakeholder approach to coordinating WASH interventions and standardising WASH policy formation, planning and reporting.

Systems leadership: a key thread emerging at the Workshop 

There was a consensus on the complexity of the challenge and the need to enhance coordination beyond mere collaboration. There is a multiplicity of actors (state, private sector, NGOs, Development Partners, communities, etc.) and they are not always acting in harmony. Interlinkages with other sectors in agriculture, fisheries, education, energy, environment, health, industry, tourism, security are apparent and need strengthening.

However, doing so is challenging as the WASH sector is dynamic and can be confusing with new actors routinely joining and exiting; new sector plans, strategies and reforms continue to be churned out.

So, improving connection of sectors will require a mapping of actors and interconnections (incl. extra-sector stakeholders, cross-country actors) and other systems elements and (policies, plans, regulations and standards, financing, platforms and processes) to identify misaligned elements, conflicts and other factors undermining systems effectiveness. A systems lens will enable accounting for the functionality of the whole while analysing the constituent elements and identifying which parts are failing and most impeding the results we expect. It will also help to prioritise the leverage points and begin with those with the biggest potential.

But this cannot be achieved without systems leadership that provides the backbone for the co-creation of the vision and connect the different parts towards the common agenda.

So, during the workshop, I chose the angle of systems leadership and introduced some new language about systems effectiveness for reflection, which resonated well with participants. 

Vida Duti presenting at the National Coordination workshop held in Akosombo, Ghana from 13-14 February 2024. Credit: NDPC

Caption: Vida Duti presenting at the National Coordination workshop held in Akosombo, Ghana from 13-14 February 2024. Credit: NDPC

First and foremost, it is crucial to understand the undermining factors that make the existing systems ineffective. If we really want to connect sectors, if we truly aim to work from a systems perspective, in an inclusive way, actors need to see themselves in the frame and co-own the vision and impact. They need to be able to embrace complexity and break down and simplify the whole to avoid siloed and linear thinking.

We need to behave like an orchestra. We need to learn that achieving harmony among various stakeholders requires understanding of who is involved and their roles, such as identifying who is playing the drums, the piano, and other instruments, what they play, when and how other musicians can respond to what they do.

For example, for a circular economy model to work, we need sectors to stop competing for resources, as one sector’s input might become another sector’s output and vice versa, forming a continuous cycle. Waste from industries and markets needs to be collected and sorted for recycling or conversion into compost, which must then be utilised for its intended purpose to avoid it being considered waste again. Similarly, waste can be converted into energy, but for this to be effective, there must be infrastructure and willingness to utilise this energy within the national grid. Understanding the flow of inputs and outputs between sectors is crucial for effective resource utilisation and cannot be assumed to occur naturally without deliberate mapping and planning.

Focusing on the bigger picture and relinquishing the need for individual attribution is also crucial, as it often hampers our ability to collaborate effectively towards a shared vision and objectives. Understanding and driving this requires systems leaders.

Harnessing tested innovations and ideas, along with cultivating systems leadership to inform sector direction, is crucial to prevent reinventing the wheel and ensure that brilliant ideas are nurtured and implemented effectively.

NDPC's initiative to explore sector connections set a positive precedent for embracing systems leadership, signalling a shift towards a more holistic and collaborative approach to sustainable development in Ghana.


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.

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