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Published on: 17/02/2022

Driving Change publication cover and change process figure

Drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services are provided by networks: networks not only of infrastructure, but also of institutions and individuals. The term WASH system describes all the actors (people and institutions) and factors (infrastructure, finances, policies, environmental conditions, etc.) that are vital to the quality and sustainability of WASH services. Changing WASH systems for the better requires vision, champions, and continuous adaptation while making lots of mistakes.

A new publication by IRC, Tetra Tech, LINC, Environmental Incentives and University of Colorado Boulder offers insights, tips, and advice to improve public services like water and sanitation through multi-stakeholder collective action and action research. It builds on 5 years of local systems change processes in Ethiopia and Uganda under the USAID Sustainable WASH Systems Learning Partnership (SWS), as well as the authors' decades of experience around the world. The aim of the guide is to equip the reader with some of the tools and knowledge needed to become a champion and "systems leader" for radical improvements in public services. This is achieved through a series of case studies, including reflections and wisdom from systems change facilitators in each context.

The case studies in this guide were written to demonstrate three main pillars of local systems change: (1) understanding systems, (2) using learning alliances to convene stakeholders and develop a vision and change agenda, and (3) using action research for developing and testing innovations and making direct changes to the system.

The final section presents cross-cutting analysis of the lessons learned through the case studies. It presents some general principles to adhere to, as well as common pitfalls to avoid, when taking this approach. In particular, contextual considerations and funding and project setup must be considered before choosing to embark on a local systems change journey.

A legitimate and locally respected (and present) team is critical for fostering a genuine learning environment that is conducive to triggering transformative change. Furthermore, the way in which the process is set up — with patience, through trust building, and through iterative and genuine engagement of diverse stakeholders — is critical. Government is an especially important stakeholder to engage properly; as duty-bearers and authorities for public services, their buy-in, participation, and approval of the approach is fundamental to its legitimacy. Besides technical prowess, the soft skills of the facilitation team are essential to success. Ultimately, learning alliances and action research are seen as critical accelerators and catalysts for local change, but they must be complemented with continuous investment and the right mix of government leadership, public demand, and long-term multi-stakeholder commitment to change.

Check out the resources [left] to read our SWS flagship publication "Driving change : strengthening local systems in the water and sanitation sectors, and links to visit the SWS legacy page.

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