To accelerate progress in rural sanitation, governments need to be in the driving seat

4 min read
WaterAid/ Behailu Shiferaw

As part of a multi-organisation blog series on key lessons for rural sanitation practice, Andrés Hueso González outlines how partners can ensure governments are motivated and equipped to fulfil their duty to realise the human right to sanitation.

Accelerating progress in rural sanitation towards Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 is possible. India’s Swachh Bharat and Nepal's Sanitation and Hygiene Master Plan are examples of how a politically prioritised and well-funded effort can achieve it. A significant body of research provides lessons on how to maximise the impact of rural sanitation programmes. But are we embedding these lessons in new sanitation programmes? Not yet.  

The Sanitation Learning Hub, SNV, UNICEF, USAID, WaterAid and the World Bank, with the support of USAID/WASHPaLS, came together in November 2021 to start to address this. Building on the principles of the 2019 Rural Sanitation Call to Action, we organised an online workshop to discuss the latest evidence and experiences of area-wide rural sanitation and related hygiene programming. We tried to capture key lessons that, if embedded in mainstream rural sanitation practice, will help accelerate progress. The lessons are structured around six themes, and presented in this blog series.

There were also five overarching messages, which speak to what needs to change more broadly in how we fund, design and implement rural sanitation:

  1. Rural sanitation is in desperate need of attention and funding.
  2. There is no silver bullet for safely managed sanitation.
  3. The sanitation puzzle has many parts that need to work together.
  4. Programmes need longer timeframes.
  5. Rapid learning that supports course correction is critical.

Check out the workshop report to get all the details and case study examples.

Government-led rural sanitation programming

On government-led programming, there was consensus in the workshop that governments are the duty bearers, with ultimate responsibility for the progressive realisation of the human right to sanitation. As policy makers, allocators of resources and regulators, governments are responsible for enabling, overseeing and coordinating sanitation service delivery. They should make sure sanitation is sufficiently prioritised in planning, target setting and resource allocation, at all levels.

What can we learn from recent experiences of trying to encourage government-led rural sanitation at local level, which is where responsibility for rural sanitation typically lies?

  1. Gathering and presenting data on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), health and economic benefits, in concise and compelling formats, can help influence decision makers and trigger commitments among local governments.
  2. Engaging stakeholders at different levels in dialogues around approaches, tools and standards can strengthen government leadership. Alignment and consolidation of stakeholders’ work, through jointly agreed district or area sanitation plans linked to the broader formal planning system, can create further momentum.
  3. Identifying and strengthening specific capacities of local governments can help foster effective leadership. Key skills include knowledge of national regulations and standards, understanding data, developing sanitation messaging, leadership and facilitation. Coaching and peer-to-peer learning among officials are ways to strengthen these capacities.
  4. Social accountability mechanisms can be a powerful incentive for leaders – from local to sub-national levels – to deliver. For example, pledges and tracking efforts, combined with communication, can raise awareness, enhance participation, provide recognition and generate healthy competition.

These lessons resonate with some of our work at WaterAid. For instance, as part of the SusWASH programme, WaterAid Cambodia has been encouraging and supporting local authorities to achieve district-wide open defecation free (ODF) status, and deliver equitable and sustainable sanitation services at scale. This has been done through a mix of stakeholder dialogues and capacity-strengthening efforts for local government champions, as shown in the below film. This has already resulted in district-level ODF status official recognitions.


The lessons also resonate with WaterAid's 2022–32 Global Strategy. One of our aims is to “achieve universal, sustainable and safe access in focused geographic areas to influence wider change”. We have also committed to increasing our focus on sanitation and hygiene. Accordingly, we are enhancing our efforts to mainstream the systems strengthening approach in our rural sanitation work. The idea of government-led programming, along with the other lessons and messages that came out of our workshop, are central to that push, with which we are hoping to escalate our contribution to accelerated progress towards achieving SDG 6.

Andrés Hueso Gonzalez is Senior Policy Analyst for Sanitation at WaterAid. Follow him on Twitter at @andreshuesoWA. This blog is part of a series by The Sanitation Learning Hub, SNV, UNICEF, USAID, WaterAid and the World Bank.

Top image: A new toilet block under construction at Edget Behibret Elementary School in West Gojjam, Amhara, Ethiopia.