Changing the way we change the world

Failure data: an acquired taste

By Susan Davis, Executive Director

When I first posted on the Improve International website a list of water and sanitation failure statistics, a few people asked, “Aren’t you worried that talking about failures will make people not want to give money for water and sanitation?” I responded that I hoped the information about failure would encourage donors to ask more questions and ultimately drive more funds to what works.

What we have collected to date are mostly just snapshots of functionality at any given time, but together they make a not so pretty picture of the state of water and sanitation services in developing countries. We have started to include the emerging data on service levels, which usually include water quantity, quality, accessibility, and reliability. The good news is we are getting more robust information, like national level water point mapping and monitoring (see the Water Point Data Exchange for examples). The bad news is that, while water point functionality isn’t great, service levels are even worse. For example, the figure below shows that the overall water service levels for eight districts in Uganda were low or substandard (Triple-S, 2014).

Households in Uganda experience poor or very poor water service levels (source: Triple-S, 2014)

Households in Uganda experience poor or very poor water service levels (source: Triple-S, 2014)

The water and sanitation failure pages continue to be the most visited pages on the Improve International website. People from around the world visit. Recently, a post on the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (SuSanA) forum led to SuSanA inviting us to add the sanitation failure information to the Wikipedia WASH page. They are eager for others to contribute data so that we can “fail forward.” They also invited me to speak on these failures at the 20th SuSanA Meeting in Stockholm (see video of the presentation).

Now, when I present failure information, people want more details. They want failure rates for more countries. They want to know why things fail. As a start, we plan to do a more rigorous search for these data with an academic partner. It’s good timing, as development organizations are getting better at admitting and sharing failures. Many reports and presentations I’ve seen recently reference some version of statistics on water point non-functionality. It is encouraging that people are acquiring a taste for this information. I believe it is because of the desire to learn from – and act on – failures. Let’s just hope that the bitter taste of failure data will lead to the sweet smell of success.

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