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Published on: 22/07/2015

Patrick Moriarty, Jo Smet, Luuk van Kempen, Maarten Onneweer and Madeleen Wegelin

Why is it so difficult for the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector to adopt a more sustainable and cost-effective service delivery approach? What is stopping the scaling-up of promising approaches and good practices? Some experts believe the answer lies in a better understanding of the culture, attitudes and values of both communities and WASH sector staff. IRC invited four of these experts on 18 June 2015 to the Humanity House in The Hague for a seminar on 'The human factor in WASH change processes: Drivers for change among staff of WASH sector organisations'.

Of brokers and translators

Maarten Onneweer from RAIN explained how local NGO staff struggle to translate concepts, mostly developed in the North or in the capital city, into practice. Onneweer found that water projects were often developed without taking similar, previous interventions and experiences into consideration. Also, local WASH professionals tend to work in an environment in which their projects offer opportunities for people to earn some money "on the side", like the school director who resells the cement meant for toilet construction. This has an effect on how local professionals engage with the communities. The full presentation is available in the resources section below. 

Success factors in learning and change

Luuk van Kempen (post-doc researcher and lecturer at Radboud University) discussed what causes resistance to change or the failure to scale-up promising approaches:

  • Risk aversion: local NGO staff need to maintain a good relationship with communities. Trying something new, can be a risk.
  • Naive view on communities: development practitioners often have a romanticised (or naïve) view of local communities: they assume that social capital is present, lying dormant and only needs to be mobilised; that people are well-informed and that social approval is granted to people who try to get ahead in life. This is not always the case. Being aware of this naive view on communities can pay off.
  • Weak incentives in the NGO culture to invest in getting "under the skin" of communities and find out what really drives communities to participate or change behaviour.

The full presentation is available in the resources section below.

Whose reality counts? 

Vida Duti, director of IRC Ghana, participated virtually. She shared three stories with the audience. Her first story highlighted the importance of knowing the culture and beliefs before moving into co-creating solutions with a community. Appreciating and knowing what is already in place, was also the main lesson she shared in her other two stories. 'For us the lesson that we learned, was that, when you enter into a sector, from an appreciative enquiry point, appreciating that people have done things, and that you are there to add on and work together with them to improve on what is already there, people become more receptive and are ready to work with us. People also become more receptive when there is clarity from the beginning on the end state. And together with them you co-create the solutions'

As development practitioners we go into support people with the objective to move them from one situation to an improved end. But in doing so, do we really take into account the people's pasts? Why they live the way they do? Their attitudes? Their culture?...and do we really respect these and ensure that they are factored into whatever solutions we jointly create with them?


Looking back in amazement

Jo Smet closed the seminar by looking back to his 36 years working in development. A Dutch missionary, who visited his village and showed movies, inspired Jo to work in the development sector in Africa. In his presentation, Jo highlights the cultural barriers that prevent people to change behaviour. In the eighties and the early nineties development programmes were still very much focused on output, but Jo always tried to incorporate cultural aspects in his work.

Jo concluded with four main take away lessons:

  • Technology-oriented education lacks adequate socio-economic and cultural dimensions, which are important for effective technology application anywhere in the world;
  • Cultural elements in organisations and communities in the South are often not visible for outsiders, but greatly influence the effectiveness and sustainability of the WASH services;
  • Although there is gradual improvement, the obvious element of culture as a factor for success is often under-emphasised in WASH-sector approaches and methodologies as developed by knowledge institutes and NGOs;
  • The policies and strategies of western financing agencies are largely based on their own political and cultural paradigms;
  • Learning-for-effectiveness within organisations and individuals, both in the North and the South, is difficult as space for developing new concepts is defined by rather conventional polcies of national governments and financing agencies.

See Jo's full presentation in the resources section below.

The way forward

Madeleen Wegelin, seminar facilitator, concluded the event with a round of questions and a debate. She identified four common themes from the presentations:  

  • The need to understand context specific incentives, not only of aid recipients and communities, but also of sector staff; 
  • The need for a common understanding of concepts and assumptions;
  • To need to identify priorities and serve the real needs of communities;
  • The need for both upward and downward accountability of NGO and local government staff.


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