Annex: Our approach to the task

“Systems… behave in nonlinear and unpredictable ways. “It isn’t just a case of pulling a lever and ignoring noise and “fluctuations. Instead, the key is to embrace uncertainty, “tension, noise – to work with these factors as givens rather “than as aberrations.” Ben Ramalingam, Aid on the Edge

Our approach to the task: a unique opportunity

Recognising the urgency to understand how best to meet the water and sanitation needs of burgeoning small towns, WaterAid, in partnership with BPD and supported through a planning grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, proposed to synthesise existing knowledge and identify promising approaches that could support sustainable impact in small towns. Combining insights from a multi-disciplinary Expert Advisory Panel (EAP) with the experiences of local communities, governments and development actors, the project then sought to determine action research initiatives that can be implemented and documented in a future phase in a number of WaterAid country programmes.

Specifically, the planning grant sought to address the following initial questions:

  • What is different about the challenges and potential solutions for the delivery of water and sanitation services in small towns as opposed to large urban environments or rural contexts?
  • Are there lessons to be drawn from other sectors that deliver infrastructure or public health services in small towns that could inform the design of ‘business’ models for water and sanitation?
  • In the context of small towns, is it best to address water and sanitation services through a combined approach or are distinctive approaches needed for sanitation?
  • Are there opportunities and entry points for creating impact that are sustainable and scalable in small towns throughout Asia and Africa?
  • Emerging from the above, are there specific targeted questions that can guide further action research to test/pilot development models, technologies, financing mechanisms and/or other promising adaptations?

While this report endeavours to provide some answers to the questions above, it is important to note that these were only intended to guide the enquiry process with scope to expand the enquiry further if warranted.

As a point of departure and to inform the rest of the project, BPD undertook a literature review (as yet unpublished) to assist the research team in clearly defining a research framework and stakeholder consultation plan. The first task was thus to document what is already known about small town water and sanitation service delivery and synthesise the findings that relate specifically to the first and second questions above.

Analysis of primarily the first and second questions (above) sought to unpack the principal causes of both success and challenges for small town service delivery. For example, a small town’s distance from the primary urban centre(s) can result in greater independence for the municipality, but also pose difficulties in attracting qualified staff. Several issues, some within the control of water and sanitation professionals, but many not, became central to our analysis, including:

  • Spatial considerations (as a function of geographic distance or terrain).
  • Relationship (economic, political or otherwise) with major primary cities.
  • Public policy and government investment priorities and approaches.
  • Decentralisation policy and practices.
  • Technical biases from the centre.
  • Governance structures and accountability mechanisms.
  • Issues of social capital within small towns.

Throughout the work, WaterAid and BPD were keen to make (and map) the linkages between these different aspects, more clearly understanding the impacts and implications of certain features of small towns. The ultimate goal of the work was to compare and contrast different small town contexts in order to arrive at an analytical tool or framework that allows for decisions to be made about approaches and ‘investments’ in a more holistic manner. The insights from the EAP were invaluable throughout this process in giving contextual advice. The EAP was made up of seven internationally recognised experts who, though somewhat familiar, with one or two exceptions, would not necessarily consider themselves significantly knowledgeable about the water and sanitation sectors. They brought a range of disciplines to the table including urban planning, decentralisation, appropriate technologies, micro-finance, education and health, and social development expertise. The Terms of Reference of the EAP was to support the critical analysis through peer review and recommendations throughout each phase of the work. In addition, three further specialists more directly familiar with the water and sanitation sector and some solid programming and research experience in small town service delivery were called upon to provide input throughout the process.

To consolidate the learning from the literature review into a research framework, a two and a half day workshop was held with the entire team. Challenged by the non-water and sanitation professionals, the ‘outside the box’ design of the discussions provided a huge amount of material for the team to consider before embarking on six country visits to Bangladesh, Madagascar, Nepal, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda. Literature reviews at country level were drafted as background material for these nine to 12 day visits (carried out between September 2009 and January 2010). Small teams led by a staff member of BPD included colleagues from WaterAid in the UK and the country programmes. A videographer joined the team in each of the six country visits to capture the learning. The research methodology was based around key informant interviews at the national level and in three to four small towns in each country.

The initial frameworks created were based on understanding the service delivery challenges in small towns as juxtaposed against the wider context of a town. The wider context was initially broken down into questions around four themes, as represented in the following table.

Table 6: Initial analytical framework themes

Demographics Function Autonomy Connectedness
Looking at demographic shifts to understand the current/future nature of demand for water and production of wastewater. The function of the town was agreed to be important as, for example, an industrial town’s needs would be different from a tourism-based economy or those of an administrative centre. Reviewing how much freedom or power a town has to determine its own solutions should guide external interventions. Looking at external influences that impact on demand and supply ultimately linked the other three elements.

The process in each town visited was to interview key stakeholders about the water and sanitation context in that town and identify the key challenges facing it and its residents. The interviews attempted to get the respondents to not only identify how these challenges have evolved over the last five to 15 years, but also to suggest key interventions that could have been taken in order to forestall the existing challenges. The interviews were also designed to focus on positive aspects, ie what was done that has proven to be of lasting benefit. The discussions were aimed not just at issues in the water and sanitation sectors but also at deriving lessons from other sectors (such as urban planning, health, education, energy and IT).

The goal of the country visits was not to document all aspects of water and sanitation in small towns in the six countries. Instead, the work in the countries was aimed at cumulatively and iteratively building up a way of understanding the different factors that affect the design and delivery of water and sanitation services in small towns.

The final phase of the planning grant brought together the EAP, the WaterAid country programme and international staff, BPD and the Gates Foundation in a workshop to finalise and confirm the emerging analytical framework and a number of action research hypotheses to be tested in WaterAid’s follow on work in small towns.

Using a ‘slimmed down’ systems approach

Throughout the process, we were mindful that a systems thinking approach would provide a good way to get water and sanitation professionals thinking out of the box. Simply stated, a systems approach forces us to reveal our causal thinking, ie what we believe are the underlying causes and ultimate effects that influence an issue. Without understanding these causes, our solutions will lead to further problems. The intention of using systems thinking in this small towns analysis was to determine a wide range of variables and processes that influence the design and delivery of a water and/or sanitation service. Our goal has been to shift the emphasis away from reactive responses to more adaptive, creative, reflective approaches that more clearly anticipate how things might evolve. In order to understand this evolution, systems approaches attempt to anticipate delays, lag times (where an effect might not be seen until some time later) and feedback loops. In the short term, these can probably be ignored. In the long term though, without an understanding of these elements, a water or sanitation service may very well end up inappropriately and unsustainably structured. It also helps to see two-way or multiple, potentially never ending linkages, rather than purely linear linkages. As a simple ‘chicken and egg’ example, putting in a water system may encourage more migration into a town. More migration into a town will encourage the expansion of a water system.

A systems approach will reveal many elements (as noted in the discussions throughout this document) that are certainly beyond the control of water and sanitation sector professionals. Those using a systems approach will not always agree on the ‘answers’, but the approach is designed to elicit different pieces of information that can be debated. Again, whilst we did not apply a systems thinking approach systematically to the work, the ideas in this document reflect the general spirit in which we engaged in the exercise.