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How do the neighbours manage their water?

Published on: 15/04/2016

Learning and sharing between WASH sectors in West and Central Africa 

Knowledge is the currency of the 21st century. With this starting point IRC and Unicef started a partnership in March 2015 to enhance and stimulate knowledge management and sector learning in West and Central Africa.

Sector learning Burkina Faso. Photo: IRC

Despite political support for universal access, less than one quarter of the 94 countries have national plans in sanitation that are being fully implemented, funded and regularly reviewed. Fewer than one third of countries have universal access targets for drinking-water. These where the shocking conclusions of the UN-Water Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-Water (GLAAS 2014).  It indicated a large gap between aspirations and reality in countries in the West and Central African region, and emphasised the lack of capacity of country sectors to respond to problems.

Water, sanitation and hygiene sector professionals in the West and Central Africa region expressed they wanted to use and share WASH knowledge from neighbouring countries to improve the quality, equity and sustainability of services, but how to structurally organise that?

Working together between countries

To address this challenge, IRC and UNICEF started a partnership in March 2015 to enhance knowledge management and sector learning across West and Central Africa. UNICEF implements a programme in the region with support from DGIS and DFID aimed at creating access to safe water and sanitation for previously unserved people in more than 10 countries in West and Central Africa. The IRC-UNICEF partnership for knowledge management and sector learning covers Benin, Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

Knowledge management and sector learning are critical for achieving this. It is needed to improve sector performance in the different countries, and with its long track-record in this area IRC was approached to lead the assessment of what is needed for and support to strengthen learning and sharing across countries in the region.

Looking at what is currently happening

"The partnership concretely started with an assessment in the region to look at the current level of sector learning. What are the capacities? What are the demands and priorities at national level? And in the region? It starts with these questions," says René van Lieshout, teamleader of this project and senior WASH advisor with extensive experience in leading knowledge management and learning programmes and projects.

"The idea is to bring together the experiences and perspectives of government, service providers, NGO's and organisations, the private sector and users in a structured and joint reflection process. The crux of sector learning is that it leads you to better approaches and solutions, which are based on the experiences with current practices."

In emergency situations like Ebola, a toolkit can help WASH professionals to share information quickly and respond uniformly and effectively.

IRC counted sixty organisations, platforms or organised sector events in the region that have some kind of learning purpose in the region. Ministries, organisations, universities across the sector were approached to assess the level of knowledge sharing and learning in every country. "We found that organisations do invest in knowledge management, and develop products but the efforts are very scattered so far," says van Lieshout. "The products (website pages, newsletters) are usually very supply instead of demand driven. Furthermore, we found that a missing link in many countries is the connection between the WASH sector and academia."

Ambitions to improve the sector in West and Central Africa

After the assessment, seven of the eleven involved countries expressed their ambition and capability to improve sector learning. They agreed that there was a need to have more access to information; to organise platforms to meet and exchange ideas and practises; to strengthen capacity to create knowledge (documentation); and to transform experience into useful toolkits. The latter is important in emergency situations that some of the countries experienced recently. With the outbreak of Ebola, a toolkit could help WASH professionals to share information quickly and respond together quickly and effectively.  

"Knowledge sharing in the sector and across countries in a region is very effective and necessary," says van Lieshout. "In Uganda for example, all people in the WASH sector come together on a regular basis to take decisions, to plan, prioritise and budget. NGO's in the field also align to the plan that comes out of the meeting. This is working very well and it helps to achieve access to basic water and sanitation services for everyone."

Continuing to learn

As seven countries in the West and Central African region support improving sector learning and knowledge sharing, Unicef and IRC are building national plans for each country individually and a regional plan to strengthen sharing and learning in the WASH sector.

On behalf of the Africa learning initiative, IRC will hold a session on 19 July 2016 at the Africa Water Week in Tanzania to agree with all organisations and people available from the region how to coordinate sector learning at the regional level. This is a good start, and will hopefully bring learning and sharing and therewith access to water and sanitation in every country in West and Central Africa a step closer.