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Published on: 16/05/2013

After all, more than 400 came to the IRC Symposium on Monitoring Sustainable WASH Service Delivery in Addis Ababa. Is it that they wish to share data? Is it a new method they want to present? Or a specific analysis technique?

Data analysis not just data collection

I hope the reason is not just to share a new report. For her PhD, Rachel Norman researched some 640,000 documents, discovering that there were 79 different methods used for monitoring in the documents that were relevant for the WASH sector. So with a proliferation of data and methods, it probably should be the analytic tools that people are interested in. Apparently that is the weaker area, as we tend to forget the 'why' and the 'use' of monitoring while we continue to launch new initiatives to gather data and monitor. Like the Nation Wide Initiative in Ethiopia that used 65,000 enumerators to survey 12,000,000 households. The survey cost 100,000,000 Birr (5.4 million US$), which is about half a dollar per household surveyed, with outcomes that were not very different from those of the long-established (and long critiqued) Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP). Despite this, it seems that both outcomes are questioned, contested or even disputed!

So yes, I guess that it should have been to support the analysis of data that so many people came to Addis. But the session on 'the history of monitoring', co-presented by UNICEF and IRC, made me realize that our insights are not new, our problem statements are recurrent and we have merely been refurbishing our terminology during the past 50 years. A similar symposium on monitoring for sustainable WASH service delivery could have been held during the 'watsan decade' of the 1980s or even, during the seventies. The slide that showed the exponential growth of monitoring reports produced during the past 50 years was brilliant. Initially, global monitoring reports were produced every five years. Then came the biennial reports, followed by an explosion of annual reports that were published for a more specific readership. For all we know, there is a wonderful summary of all this work printed on recycled paper, disintegrating in the archives of the WHO.

More data, fewer reports

From Katharina Welle, another PhD student, we learned that it is not uncommon for two different monitoring exercises in the same context to produce different results. One may reach different conclusions from similar data, depending on your objectives. I am not a regular participant in conferences, but have crossed paths with them during the past 15 years or so. It seems to me that it is obligatory in our conclusions to include recommendations on more coordination, harmonization and resources. And more research of course, so that we can produce more reports!

There is though a painful difference between the huge expansion of reports by NGOs and researchers, versus the rather weak reporting of regularly collected national data from a country monitoring system. The tsunami of reports that we currently face are created by initiatives, big and small, that are typically not linked to national monitoring frameworks. To put it simply, we need more country data and fewer (but more meaningful) reports.

Monitoring in the WASH sector is like the functioning of a radar; the bulk of what we see on the screen is noise and only a few significant beeps appear. There is a proliferation of methods and too many reports are being produced. We tend to forget that it is the end user that should be key in our efforts while our recommendations often include the need to clarify responsibilities, increase capacity and undertake more research. At the same time, we are all human beings and our own actions may not necessarily be best practice or in accordance to what we encourage others to do.

The son of the dentist has bad teeth

I also listened to presentations related to a Hygiene Cost Effectiveness Study, carried out in four countries in the context of the WASHCost project. To fill the data gap on hygiene, household surveys were carried out. The presentation elaborated on the methodology and the respective country results. The results were very interesting, but I must confess I got a little lost in the data and my mind wandered off to the household survey itself. I pictured myself opening the door of my house(hold), being introduced to the hygiene cost effectiveness study. I imagined myself answering questions about my age (43), the size of my household (3) and my income level (not poor). I confirmed I possess a flush toilet that I clean myself, but I was reluctant to show the enumerator the privacy of my smallest room. He continued with asking me about the piped water scheme servicing my apartment (100% reliable) and my household water storage (absent, apart from a water bottle in the fridge). The imaginary survey finished with questions on anal cleansing (none of his business) and if I always washed my hands with soap. I confirmed the hand washing, even though it is a lie. I know I should use soap, but somehow I wash my hands rather irregularly.

The Hygiene Cost Effectiveness Study, I hear, has revealed that in a Ghanaian village with 1,870 inhabitants the hygiene services improved with 1% over a one year period. I am not surprised to see such a low figure. After all we are all humans. Or... we suffer from the same syndrome as the dentist whose son has bad teeth. I have been a WASH engineer for about 20 years and if anyone should know about washing hands it is me. I am the living example that proper hygiene pays off. I was admitted in St. Gabriel's Hospital in Addis Ababa on the very first day of the symposium, diagnosed with bacillary dysentery. I had not washed my hands before starting on the food provided in the plane nor did I wash them in the Frankfurt airport where I had some snacks. And of course, I should have washed my hands before eating injerrahat lunch. My hygiene awareness is high: my hygiene practice is not good enough. I was most grateful that there was nobody with a clipboard in St Gabriel's Hospital asking me about my knowledge, attitudes and practice. Sometimes you have to be your own best monitor.

Let us monitor less and engage more!

Let the end users of our services find a role in monitoring their services and let us keep it simple and transparent. And above all, let us not forget that the aim of our monitoring – or the beeps on our radar – is to contribute to sustainable WASH service delivery. Our monitoring should be directly linked to that. Everything else will be noise.

Rutger Verkerk is a Senior Programme Manager at IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre in The Netherlands, having a background in International Land and Water Management. After working for more than ten years in the humanitarian aid context, he joined IRC in 2006. He developed a first Monitoring Protocol for IRC, became project manager for WASHCost and – more recently – started to coordinate acquisition.


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