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Published on: 13/06/2017

IRC's vision of action research – leading to results at district level

IRC’s approach is based on a belief that reliable and sustained water supply, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services must be delivered by strong and competent national and local systems. 

Systems are the networks of people, organisations, institutions and resources (the “actors”and “factors”) necessary to deliver services. They include both hardware and software; management and governance. The key sub-systems (often referred to as “building blocks”) necessary for WASH services include: institutional systems; service delivery models; monitoring systems; water resources management systems; financial systems; planning and budgeting systems; regulatory systems; procurement and project delivery systems; learning and knowledge sharing systems; and asset management systems.

IRC’s approach understands that the failure of services is a symptom of the failure of systems: calling for systems change and systems strengthening. It is anchored in both a conceptual understanding of the theory of systems change and the practical business of identifying and strengthening the building blocks for effective service delivery. Many of these building blocks overlap – and which ones are most important to WASH service delivery can change according to time or context. The core element of systems strengthening is that for WASH services to be delivered, all building blocks must be present and working to at least a minimum level.

Driving change in systems requires collective action by key members of the system. This collective action needs to be supported by a change hub: a structure to support learning and evidence-based change in policy and practice. (Moriarty, 2017).


Aguaconsult, IRC, WaterAid & Water for People, 2015. An agenda for change : achieving universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) by 2030 : principles paper. The Hague, The Netherlands: IRC. 6 p.
Four leading international water, sanitation and hygiene organisations IRC, WaterAid, Aguaconsult, and Water For People join hands in the run-up to the new Sustainable Development Goals. This is their set of shared principles to achieve universal access to water and sanitation by 2030.

Casella, D., Van Tongeren, S. & Nikolic, I., 2015. Change in complex adaptive systems : a review of concepts, theory and approaches for tackling ‘wicked’ problems in achieving sustainable rural water services, The Hague, The Netherlands: IRC.  37 p.
The domain of inquiry of this review is the rural water sector in low- and middle-income countries.

Duti, V., Korboe, D. & Ayi-Bonte, V., 2015. Facilitating change in a complex environment : delivering rural water services in Ghana, Accra, Ghana: IRC. 4 p.
Between 2009-2014 IRC through the Triple-S project supported Ghana's rural water agency CWSA to build consensus around a new vision of adequate water services that are sustained over time and to develop an approach to make that vision a reality.

Galli, G., Nothomb, C. & Baetings, E., 2014. Towards systemic change in urban sanitation.  (IRC working paper) The Hague, The Netherlands: IRC. 36 p.
In an increasingly urbanising world, with some 863 million people living in informal urban settlements in 2012 (based on UN estimates), there is a clear need to start tackling one of the more pressing issues of urbanisation: the sanitation problems that arise when large numbers of people populate dense urban environments.

Lockwood, H. & Duti, V., 2015. Whole system change : capturing the change process in the Ghana rural water sub-sector (Working paper / IRC). Accra, Ghana: IRC. 39 p.
The paper seeks to analyse and describe the processes and actions undertaken by IRC and its partners to create large-scale change in Ghana's rural water sub-sector.

Moriarty, P., 2017. IRC strategy framework 2017-30 : building WASH systems to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals, The Hague, The Netherlands: IRC. 33 p.
This document presents IRC's overarching strategic framework and theory of change for the years 2017 to 2030, together with a set of priority actions and objectives for the period 2017-21.

Schouten, T & Moriarty, P, 2013. The Triple-S theory of change (Triple-S working paper 3). The Hague, The Netherlands: IRC. 17 p.
This working paper sets out the theory of change that guides IRC's Triple-S project. At the heart of this approach is a vision of how the rural water sector needs to function to provide sustainable services.

Smits, S. & Lockwood, H., 2015. Reimagining rural water services : the future agenda (Briefing notes series - Building blocks for sustainability). The Hague, The Netherlands: IRC. 8 p.
An introduction to ten building blocks to support sustainable service delivery.

Tillet, W. & Smits, S., 2017. Agenda for change : a roadmap for universal access to sustainable WASH services at district level. The Hague, The Netherlands: IRC, WaterAid, Water for People, Aguaconsult and Osprey Foundation
This document describes how the principles and practice of the global movement, Agenda for Change (A4C), can be applied at district level, following a generic roadmap.


IRC has developed a set of tools for delivering change. These tools support the broad-based processes of experimentation, adaptation and learning necessary to get the entire, complex system of people, organisations and institutions working together effectively to deliver services that last.

The tools are divided into sections on vision, diagnosis, solutions, aid effectiveness, advocacy & learning.

To view these tools go to:

Presentations, posters and webinars

Duti, V., Korboe, D. & Ayi-Bonte, V., 2015. Facilitating change in a complex environment : delivering rural water services in Ghana. The Hague, The Netherlands: IRC
This poster shares lessons from how IRC in Ghana supported the Community Water and Sanitation Agency, pilot districts and partners to navigate the sector's complex realities.

IRC, 2015. IRC : the goal, the challenge, our solution. The Hague, The Netherlands: IRC. 46 slides.
IRC's approach to fundamentally changing, reforming and strengthening the national systems that deliver WASH services to everyone.

Walter, E. & Lockwood, H., 2017. Monitoring systems change : IRC Webinar, Thursday, 17 August 2017, The Hague, The Netherlands: IRC. video (1 hr : 25 min : 39 sec)
Video recording of a webinar on the findings of a landscaping study on the use of monitoring frameworks for the assessment of WASH systems.


Moriarty, P.B. & Smits, S., 2017. Taking a systems approach in the WASH sector. (WASH Talk ; 1) The Hague, The Netherlands: IRC.
Patrick Moriarty and Stef Smits discuss taking on a systems approach in the WASH sector – including real-life examples from Honduras.


It's about the systems, stupid | Patrick Moriarty | TEDxDenHelder, 2017. TEDx Talks
We live in a society that consists of complex systems like Healthcare, Education and Sanitation. But despite this we are systems blind. We are not willing to invest in long-term solutions and instead focus on quick wins and opportunist leaders. What can we learn from people who are building systems in third world countries? What are the long term costs of quick wins?


Casella, D., 2015a. Twice as long and twice as expensive
Lessons from a 'reorganisation' of the Netherlands's police force: a reality check on what it takes to deliver large-scale systemic change for improved public services.

Casella, D., 2015b. Fostering whole system change – a review of theory and approaches from the complexity sciences
Driving, catalysing, supporting, acting as a backbone to foster sector change is what IRC is all about.

Fonseca, C., 2017. Systems change at district level: where do we start? The case of South Ari, Ethiopia
Asset inventory is essential in Ethiopia to develop more realistic planning to increase functionality as well as coverage.

Huston, A., 2017a. How change within individuals can support institutional performance?
Can leadership development training for public agency staff lead to improved utility performance and community-level service?

Huston, A., 2017b. What matters gets measured and what gets measured ends up mattering
We need evidence that strong WASH systems provide reliable WASH services.

Huston, A., 2016. New Sustainability: a system is more than a sum of its parts
Why has sustained success been limited and which approaches to change might lead to lasting service provision.

Knipschild, F., 2016a Modelling for Change
Can Agent-Based simulation models help us to improve services in complex WASH systems?

Knipschild, F., 2016b. Collaborating for good policies in the water sector
Exploring the effects of different ways in which a policy can evolve through collaboration in a social system.

Knipschild, F., 2016c. Learning in the rural water supply sector – a complexity perspective
How can we conceptualise and model learning in the rural water supply system in Uganda?

Ingeborg Krukkert. 2015. Changing mind sets for city-wide sanitation
Here’s a real life riddle: there is a huge problem that has not been solved yet.

McNicholl, D., 2016 Understanding stakeholder networks in rural water sub-sectors in Malawi
Understanding the dynamics that help stakeholders managing rural water services to improve performance.

Moriarty, P., 2017a. IRC’s new Global Strategy Framework – Long-term commitment to partner districts
Over the coming years, IRC will work to support partner districts to bring sustainable WASH services to everyone: at least one million people.

Moriarty, P., 2017b. The Whole System IS the System
Asking whether building hardware is better than a WASH systems approach is like asking whether building bicycle wheels is better than creating a transport network.

Moriarty, P., 2016. It is all about systems
Providing water, sanitation and hygiene services that last forever for everyone, is all about systems.

Moriarty, P., 2015a. Paying the piper: 3 things donors can do to drive real change
We all know that "he who pays the piper calls the tune" - but what if the tune is the wrong one for the times? Can pipers push for new tunes? IRC's CEO Patrick Moriarty thinks so.

Moriarty, P., 2015b. 15 years to make history, 5 years to make change
IRC's CEO explains why we're counting down five years instead of 15 - five years to get going on meaningful change

Nansi, J., 2016. How can Burkina Faso and Niger achieve SDG 6?
The answer lies in four strategic changes in water sector governance.

Updated: 19 January 2018

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