A year in sanitation: 2017 highlights

19 December 2017
Completed Improved latrines at Nachoona Primary School WaterAid/Chileshe Chanda - Completed improved latrines at a primary school in Monze District, Zambia.

The end of a year invites reviews, highlights, bests and worsts and similar reflections. So, why not one for sanitation? Andrés Hueso of WaterAid, Jan Willem Rosenboom of The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Michael Gnilo of UNICEF share their thoughts.

In 2015 world leaders agreed on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including a target on sanitation for all by 2030. In 2016 the indicators for tracking progress towards the goals were decided, and their implications on our ways of working considered. The end of 2017 therefore seems like a good time to take stock of how much (and how well) we are shifting gears as a sector, stepping up to the greater ambitions of the universal access we are aiming to deliver.

The GLAAS report and the JMP SDG baseline report were two of the year’s highlights, presenting data about our starting point. The reports show that, although the use of basic sanitation services is growing and there has been some progress in allocation of resources, both usage rates and fund allocations need to accelerate a lot more.

Positive developments in 2017 that contribute to accelerating progress

First, political will at national level, widely recognised as critical for progress in sanitation, has gradually increased. In addition to the sustained priority given to the Swachh Bharat Mission (Clean India Mission) in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s agenda, we have witnessed Ghana creating a Sanitation and Water Resource Ministry, Nepal reaping the fruits of a long-term sanitation social movement, and China’s leader Xi Jinping pressing forward with a ‘sanitation revolution’.

Also, we have seen improvements in at least three key sector challenges: adaptability of rural sanitation programmes; learning; and collaboration.

In rural sanitation programmes, planners and practitioners tend to adhere to one or another approach without much consideration of the context or evidence of effectiveness, sometimes even in a dogmatic way. However, some initiatives developed in 2017 point to a gradual shift towards more nuanced, adaptive and context-sensitive programmes. Although numerous innovative programmes are underway in several countries (the Phased Approach in the Philippines and a targeted subsidies pilot in Cambodia, to name two), what is more novel is the current efforts to share and consolidate available experiences and evidence about what works where and what the gaps are.

One example is Plan International, UNICEF and WaterAid carrying out a joint review of rural sanitation approaches. We are trying to break the boundaries of the approaches, looking into the tools and activities they propose, and the commonalities and contradictions, in order to develop more nuanced guidance on how to design, cost and implement programmes.

Another example, supported by researchers, staff and an expert global advisory board, is the WaSHPaLS project funded by USAID. This involves in-depth desk reviews of community-led total sanitation (CLTS), sanitation marketing and hygienic play spaces, and will invest in some of the knowledge gaps identified so far.

A third example is the collaboration of the Institute of Development Studies’ CLTS Knowledge Hub with UNICEF in a workshop that brought together practitioners using a variety of approaches, and led to the learning paper ‘Reaching the poorest and most vulnerable populations’.

These efforts were notable in themselves but also as a symptom of the increasing appetite for learning and for using evidence to inform programme design and implementation. The sector trend towards becoming less anecdotal and more evidence-driven is something we should all encourage beyond 2017.

Another added value of the efforts highlighted is that they were very collaborative, crossing organisational boundaries. Similar collaborative efforts are also happening in the urban sanitation domain, where more and more institutions are coalescing around the city-wide inclusive sanitation initiative, which sets out some key principles for the delivery of urban sanitation and tries to debunk seven common myths.

At national level, we have also seen faecal sludge management alliances and networks emerge in countries such as India and Bangladesh. And, at the global level, the Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) partners continue to converge around the four collaborative behaviours in order to improve cooperation – and, for the first time ever, in 2017 SWA monitored the performance of governments and development partners against these behaviours. There are many more examples showcasing great collaboration, and we hope that this is a trend that will grow bigger and stronger in the future.

Our to-do list for 2018 and beyond

Overall, 2017 has been an encouraging year, with some steps that will help us gear up for progressing towards universal services. Our ‘to-do’ list for the years ahead remains large and can seem daunting. But we can all take small steps and play our parts, perhaps starting by focusing on programming, learning and collaboration ourselves and ensuring we reflect these improvements in our day-to-day sector practice. On top of that, we would suggest focusing on these three to-dos for 2018:

1) Improving finance. We need more finance. We need it to come from a variety of sources, to be predictable, sustained and targeted to where the need is greatest.

2) Improving practice. We need to use existing evidence and experience to shape our policy and programme efforts, improving scale, quality and impact.

3) Strengthening the sector. We need to systematically build local capacity, making the sector more effective and better able to learn and adapt on the way.

Together, we can ensure these resolutions don’t go down the toilet!

Andrés Hueso tweets as @andreshuesoWA, Jan Willem Rosenboom as @Rozewater60 and Michael Gnilo as @DrMichaelGnilo