How can we harness the power of collaboration towards  WASH for all?

5 min read
A soap and shea butter making group in Samabogo, Mali.
Image: WaterAid/Guilhem Alandry

How can water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) actors best work together to achieve sustainable and equitable WASH for all? Mohammed Abdul-Nashiru, Acting Regional Director of WaterAid West Africa, captures the shared perspectives and experiences of the organisations that joined WaterAid West Africa’s 2020 partnership conference.

In March and May 2020, WaterAid West Africa organised a remote partnership conference, bringing together a wide range of stakeholders to explore and maximise the value of collaboration towards achieving WASH access for all by 2030. 

The March session addressed long-standing regional challenges connected to rapid population growth and urbanisation, huge inequalities, limited access to WASH as human rights, and other major bottlenecks. Participants agreed on the urgent need to deepen and broaden partnerships and collaboration to strengthen WASH systems in response to these existing challenges.  

The second webinar in May focused on the additional challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic that have increased that urgency for more efficient collaboration. 

The discussions across the two webinars focused on three critical questions: 

  • How can we make our current collaborations more effective?  
  • What specific partnership practices are working, and how can we continue to improve them?   
  • What new commitments will be critical in harnessing the full potential of collaboration to strengthen WASH systems? 

What is going well in collaboration across the WASH sector?  

  • An international focus on handwashing as a way of preventing COVID-19 transmission has raised awareness of WASH among the public and decision makers, creating an opportunity for more people to understand its critical role in public health - especially around hygiene behaviour change and handwashing facilities. 
  • Government and support agencies have established good mechanisms and platforms for collaboration on national COVID-19 response plans, promoting better coordination between major WASH actors and the sharing of tools and methods.   
  • Of the many individual examples of collaboration between WASH actors, the most successful are based on clearly understood common objectives and mutual accountability.  
  • Partnerships with commitments and strong agreements at senior levels are more likely to succeed. 
Midwife Fostina Sedjoah washes her hands at the Katiu CHPS health centre in Kassena-Nankana West District, Ghana.
Midwife Fostina Sedjoah washes her hands at the Katiu CHPS health centre in Kassena-Nankana West District, Ghana.
Image: WaterAid/Eliza Powell

How can we improve partnerships for WASH in the West Africa region? 

  • Inequalities are embedded in every country and have been exacerbated by governments’ responses to COVID-19. National NGOs and civil society organisations have a crucial role to play in championing the WASH rights of marginalised people affected by these inequalities, and in holding governments to account for realising these rights. However, the low capacity of some local organisations means that governments, and other agencies responsible for WASH at national level, are not hearing the voices of marginalised people. In addition, coalitions in WASH and COVID-19 responses are dominated by international organisations, so national NGOs and civil society organisations (CSOs) need more space and capacity to engage in decisions about WASH. 
  • Shared goals and coordinated advocacy are vital. Both short-term and long-term WASH crises are caused by a serious lack of government investment in sustainable services. To challenge this, INGOs and local partners must advocate in much smarter and more coordinated ways. Influencing for more investment should be coordinated between all stakeholders, harmonised and politically smart; different organisations should target different decision makers. The overall aim of coordinated advocacy is to ensure effective government leadership to increase WASH access while making sure the public voice is heard and responded to in holding governments to account.   
  • We must establish who is missing from the table. Some key WASH organisations and government departments are missing from the current coordination platforms and, to make a difference, we know we need to look for partners outside the WASH sector. WASH actors must collaborate with stakeholders from health, finance and private sectors. Discussions at the conference also revealed that national CSOs with the deepest engagements with marginalised communities were often not involved in creating national COVID-19 response plans, or in strategic WASH planning. This means that many interventions did not take everyone’s needs into account and so were not designed to reach everyone. Meanwhile, conference participants also reported poor engagement between national and those regional organisations that could strengthen WASH advocacy at a national level. 
  • Accountability is weak, and has been further weakened by the pandemic response; a great deal of public spending, accompanied by low levels of scrutiny, has presented opportunities for corruption in all countries. We must ensure that people’s voices are heard and that projects benefit citizens. Accountability should be a common aim of all WASH actors, and a strong civil society is essential for this sustained focus.  
  • Partnerships must be more strategic. We need to shift from transactional to transformational partnerships that are based on mutual respect, and to win-win partnerships that work towards long-term shared aims.

Next steps for WaterAid West Africa and other stakeholders  

  1. Map stakeholders and their COVID-19 responses in the region to improve the coordination and collaboration of delivering WASH services and targeted advocacy. This should identify which stakeholders participate; what contributions they bring to the table; the different roles and levels of participation of local organisations, especially CSOs, and how this can be increased; what platforms and mechanisms for coordination exist; which stakeholders can best influence the different government mechanisms and engage with different donors for collaborative advocacy; and how to collaboratively strengthen governance and accountability. This mapping exercise will help determine future partnerships and next steps to strengthen collaboration at national and regional levels.  
  2. Engage in further partner-led webinars that focus on specific issues, barriers and bottlenecks. The first webinar is proposed to focus on ways to maximise the value of CSO participation and explore what holds them back, what skills they need, and how those gaps can be addressed. 
  3. Strengthen our current collaborations with CSOs to track and hold governments to account on spending on the COVID-19 response, as part of our ongoing work with CSOs to improve accountability in the sector.   
  4. Improve our partnerships. Support the move towards more strategic and transformational relationships. Explore our partnership guides and tools here.   

To accelerate access to sustainable WASH services in all critical spaces – communities, schools and health centres – creative partnerships are more urgent now than ever before. We need to co-create, raise our ambitions and place marginalised people at the centre of our collective efforts. With such partnerships, we will be able to contribute more significantly to global and national commitments to achieving universal access to WASH.  

Participants in the webinars

Francophone institutions

Burkina Faso  
Association les Mains Unies du Sahel (AMUS)   
Direction Générale de l'Eau Potable   

AMASBIF / Pdte Plateforme GHM   
Direction Générale de la Santé et de l’Hygiène Publique    
Direction Génerale de l'Assainissement 
DNH /Point focal SWA  
OMS Bureau Mali   

Dem-E (Développement pour un Mieux Être)    
Ministère de l'Hydraulique et de l'Assainissement    
Réseau des journalistes du Niger   

Direction de l'Assainissement 
OXFAM (Bureau Régional) 
Speak up Africa 

Anglophone institutions

Cote d’Ivoire 

CONIWAS (Coalition of NGOs in Water and Sanitation) 
Intervention FORUM   

National Public Health Institute of Liberia 
Public Health Initiative Liberia    
United Youth (CSO representation)  

Coordinator of government’s national action plan on sanitation 

Oxfam (West Africa Regional Office) 
Plan International (West Africa Regional Office) 
USAID (West Africa Regional Office) 
World Vision (West Africa Regional Office) 

Sierra Leone 

Abdul-Nashiru Mohammed is Acting Regional Director for WaterAid West Africa. Follow him on Twitter @AbdulNashiruMo1 

Top image: A soap and shea butter making group in Samabogo, Mali.