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Published on: 17/09/2013

Delivering Water, Sanitation and Hygiene services is a complex challenge - if it wasn't we'd have already achieved universal coverage.  Ensuring that even the simplest service functions - whether it's water provided by a borehole or a simple family latrine - requires a whole network of individuals and organisations to work effectively together. To achieve our vision of universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene, things need to change. 

How does IRC envisage to bring about that change? What are the challenges the sector faces, which processes are necessary to identify and scale solutions, and what is our role in supporting these processes? The slide deck and text below attempt to answer these questions.

Delivering services

It sounds obvious - water and sanitation are services - yet follow the money in the water and sanitation sector and you would be forgiven for thinking that the work of the sector is primarily about providing hardware.  Yet a handpump or tap that no longer works can't meet people's needs.  No more can a latrine that is full.  Indeed, the reality is that the easy part of providing water and sanitation services is providing the hardware - the pumps, pipes or toilets.   One reason that hardware is easy is that it can be provided through projects allowing messy problems of weak government or lack of demand to be ignored or worked around.  Yet there's a central but often overlooked truth here - there is no such thing as a sustainable piece of hardware.  It all breaks down one day - cars, phones, aeroplanes and yes, toilets and taps.  The point is that the failure of a piece of hardware should never be an excuse for the failure of a service.  

Making hardware work to provide a service, one that works day in day out year after year, is therefore far more difficult - but crucial. This insight is the first and guiding piece of IRC's approach.  

We, all of us in the WASH sector, need to stop thinking in terms of delivering hardware - and start thinking in terms of managing hardware to deliver services.  We need to judge ourselves on, and hold ourselves accountable for service delivery.  Only when this fundamental re-alignment of thinking has been achieved can we start to address the many complex challenges of making investments in water, sanitation and hygiene give results in terms of improved services and lasting behavior change ranging from lack of willingness to pay through capacity gaps, absent data or poorly formulated policy. Without the central understanding that all of our efforts have to be aligned to the task of providing water and sanitation services do we have a chance of achieving our goals.

Serving everyone

Delivering sustainable water and sanitation services to everyone is only possible if we take into account different people's demands and needs, their capacities to maintain the services and their ability to pay. Equity in water and sanitation means that everyone (women and men, rich and poor, social minorities, and majority groups) has voice and choice in decision making, equal access to information. It means that benefits, burdens and responsibilities are shared fairly. It is important to include indicators for measuring these impacts on different groups to inform planning and implementation.  IRC has a strong track record in participatory approaches and tools. The life cycle costs approach provides insights into real costs of different systems for different users. Qualitative Information Systems allows us to monitor participation and behaviour change at scale.

Changing the whole system

Changing the focus of the system (the people, organisations and rules) that provide water and sanitation - from building hardware to delivering services sounds easy - but in practice is difficult and takes time. The skills needed to run a project are not those needed to provide a service and projects are of course part of service delivery - new or rehabilitated hardware will always be provided through projects.  But running a successful water utility - or a latrine emptying business - calls for different skills, as does managing the assets of a whole district - or regulating local service providers.  

If seeing everyone in the world having access to water and sanitation services is IRC's vision - then driving the change from hardware to services is our mission.  Triggering the desire to provide services worthy of the name, working with partners - especially government - to identify what's needed; testing innovations in the field, and helping to role out promising new approaches across a whole country.  

IRC specialises in many specific elements of the overall system that delivers water and sanitation, elements like sector learning and knowledge management, service monitoring and life-cycle costing which you can read more about on our website. But our overarching specialism is our ability to understand and engage with the system as a whole.  In practice and as documented in these pages - this means working within and between a huge range of actors, organisations and institutional levels.  It calls for an ability to move from the national level to the household and back - and to understand the implications of micro level change for macro level policy.  Above all it calls for patience - changing whole systems takes a long time - at least ten years. 

The news, resources and blogs that are curated in this section of our site all relate either to service delivery or to driving change.  We're keen to share our successes, failures and lessons learned.  Equally, we are constantly seeking new experiences to learn from - from inside or outside the WASH sector.  If you'd like to share an experience - a resource, news item of blog - then do please get in touch.  We'd love to hear from you.  

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