Changing the way we change the world

Thoughts from the 2015 Colorado WASH Symposium

By Katie Scolari Borden, Strategic Advisor to Improve International

Katie has more than a decade of experience in non-profit fundraising, strategy and board development. A graduate of Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Katie spent almost eight years at the U.S. Fund for UNICEF where she managed some of the largest corporate partnerships including GE Foundation, BD, and Johnson & Johnson. At Water For People, Katie effectively managed the transition from a small grassroots organization to a Skoll Award-winning leader, tripling the organization’s donations over three years. She has worked on board management and development at the regional, national and international levels. She is currently earning her Masters in Public Administration program at the University of Colorado Denver.

Recently I attended the 2015 Colorado WASH Symposium, hosted by Colorado University-Boulder’s Student WASH Club. More than 100 attendees heard from WASH experts about a wide swathe of topics including the post-2015 United Nations WASH agenda, market-based approaches to sanitation, and the data revolution.

A few themes rose to the top during the two days. It was refreshing to hear a number of speakers address the shift towards more dynamic and responsive programming. Reaching universal water and sanitation access will require massive mobilization of government resources. NGO contributions are a relative drop in the bucket, but they do have a role to play. According to Clarissa Brocklehurst, former WASH Chief at UNICEF, NGOs must instead find “catalytic ways to spur governments to be accountable and make progress” rather than focus on building water systems and toilets. Speakers almost universally criticized short-term, hardware-based projects and urged NGOs to focus on demonstrating model approaches and capacity-building efforts that would strengthen governments’ ability to address the WASH crisis at scale.

We are also facing a new era in the WASH crisis, defined in part by the post-2015 agenda. Attendees heard about the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will require much more comprehensive WASH strategies inclusive of accessibility, affordability, and quality – measures all absent in striving to reach the previous Millennium Development Goals, which focused solely on coverage. (See an IRC blog on the proposed SDGs for water and sanitation here.) These new goals, however, will require that WASH programs capture more robust data than existing baseline and monitoring frameworks allow. While a daunting challenge, it is encouraging to see that everyone involved in delivering sustainable WASH services will have to hold themselves accountable to a much more robust and inclusive set of indicators.

Solving the WASH crisis is going to be messy. In a sector that continues to struggle with achieving the promise of sustainability, I wondered if students left the conference a bit more humble and cautious about how to tackle this epic undertaking. For the sake of the nearly 1 billion without safe water and 2 billion without sanitation, let’s hope that answer is “yes”. If all of us are held to more consistent standards of success and data on progress and failure is broadly shared, we have some reason to hope that today’s students and tomorrow’s practitioners will stop repeating common failures and deliver on the promises we’ve made. That, in my humble opinion, is a great thing, and a message I hope the other conference attendees heard loud and clear.

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