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A systemic intervention in Malawi’s WASH sector

Published on: 16/06/2013

Rather than installing more pumps or building more latrines, NGO Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Canada aims to build a more effective sector. A new case study examines their strategy and the results.

When Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Canada began working in Malawi in 2005, they focused on partnering with implementing organisations and working to build their capacity. In 2008, they shifted to a strategy based on the goal of enhancing the sector’s overall effectiveness at providing sustainable rural water and sanitation services.

EWB staff saw a sector that had the requisite funding and administrative structures but could not put the pieces together. Around 100 NGOs and 10 donors were injecting some $50 million annually into the sector through various WASH projects, but with little impact on the sector’s overall ability to deliver sustainable services at scale.

Rather than implement more projects, EWB began focusing on strengthening coordination and learning—gaps that were holding the sector back. Field staff work alongside local officials in devising appropriate, low-resource solutions, and team leaders use local experiences to inform the strategies of national and international stakeholders.

Key Findings

  • Donor or NGO-driven projects can distort incentives and discourage district-led solutions.
  • Solutions developed with project money and resources are only sustainable and scalable if they reflect the low-resource reality of districts post-project.
  • Sector learning mechanisms can be invaluable for bringing district realities to the attention of policy makers, but only if sector policy forums are designed around learning from district experience.
  • Developing relationships with actors and understanding their constraints and incentives are fundamental to being a successful change agent.
  • NGOs and donors can contribute to developing a stronger sector—a sector capable of delivering sustainable services at scale—if they take a systemic approach that builds on the sector’s strengths and help address its weaknesses. This kind of systemic change takes time and sustained investment.

To learn more about EWB's theory of change, download the Think Piece by Mike Kang and Megan Campbell from the link below.