Changing the way we change the world

The Sustainable Development Goals are here, and “business as usual” won’t work!

By Susan Davis, Executive Director

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were approved by the UN last week. A tweet last week about the SDGs caught my eye: “Business as usual does not work. We need to move beyond the traditional mode of development, says @IrinaBokova. ##ICSD2015 #SDGs”

I totally agree with this, and that’s part of why I founded Improve International.  But is this phrase spurring the action it intends?

As part of some research, I’ve been reading some older documents about water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). I keep coming across the phrase “business as usual.” I’m not sure the WASH sector is grasping the concept, because people have been saying this since at least 1998. Some highlights (italics are mine):

1998: Safe water supply and adequate sanitation to protect health are among the basic human rights. Ensuring their availability would contribute immeasurably to health and productivity for development. “Business as usual” is no longer an option. …Poor people can take charge of their own destinies and improve their lives by applying some of these measures. But they need to know what works and how such interventions can be exploited. WHO World Water Day Report

2000: “Business as usual’ cannot provide services for the poor; the rapid rate of urbanisation poses particular problems of squalor, human indignity, and threat of epidemic.  ‘Business as usual’ is not sustainable even in the industrialised world; sewerage and drainage systems are over-extended and the use of water of drinking quality to transport human excreta is extravagant, wasteful, and the wastes thereby flushed add to the pollution of the environment.”
SANDEC Summary Report of Bellagio Expert Consultation on Environmental Sanitation in the 21st Century

2005: “Nevertheless, meeting this target by 2015 will need a dramatic scaling-up of efforts—dramatic in terms of both the extent of action necessary and the speed with which they must be undertaken. The financial, governance, and capacity constraints faced by low-income countries will make this a complex challenge. Scaling-up service delivery in the poorest countries will need unprecedented short-term action as well as focus on building the management systems necessary to implement large-scale programmes over the medium-term and sustain the gains made over the long-term. It will also need a departure from business as usual on the part of all key actors, and new approaches that focus on decentralisation, transparency in budgetary allocations, and capacity-building efforts right down to the community level.” Focusing on improved water and sanitation for health

2006: “Starting from the premise that ‘business as usual’ no longer is the way forward within the sanitation sector, this section outlines how some of the major characteristics and thinking within the sector need to change in order to accelerate sanitation coverage.” Rethinking Sanitation: Lessons and Innovation for Sustainability and Success in the New Millennium

2009: At this conference, we agree that, to achieve the scaling up required for sustainable provision of these basic services and hygiene behaviour changes, we require paradigm shifts, inter-sectoral action, consistent support over time to help reformers to reform, encouragement of innovation, and overall, major advances on ‘business as usual’Meeting the Sanitation and Water Challenge in South-East Asia and the Pacific: Synthesis Report on the Sanitation & Water Conference

A major issue observed by the report’s authors is that access to basic water-related services (safe drinking water, sanitation and food production) remains inadequate in much of the developing world. The “business as usual” scenario means an estimated 5 billion people (67% of the world population) may still be without improved sanitation in 2030. New report highlights crucial role of water in development

2010: “The premature failure of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) interventions has been a challenge to the sector for many years. There is a growing concern – and emerging consensus – that a re-appraisal of approaches is required and that simply carrying on with ‘business as usual’ is not good enough.” Sustainable Water & Sanitation Services at Scale: Changing the Business as Usual Approach

2012: “Eradication of NTDs requires focused responses in affected localities, to promote hygiene or control disease vectors such as flies and mosquitoes, but also broader attention to infrastructure basics, such as latrines. This requires political will, coordination, and innovative partnerships to challenge business as usual.
Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Help Fight Disease Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Help Fight Disease

2013: “DEPARTING FROM BUSINESS AS USUAL: “LIGHT” TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE FOR SANITATION SERVICES AT SCALE The TSSM approach departs from typical modes of delivering sanitation services by recognizing that sanitation is a multi-sectoral issue that has long-term impacts on health, education and the economy and next, that improvements in sanitation infrastructure alone will not solve the myriad of sanitation problems.” Results, Impacts, and Learning from Improving Sanitation at Scale in East Java, Indonesia

“As 2015 approaches, and as nations and international organizations develop goals and targets to succeed the Millennium Development Goals, it is worth pausing to reflect on how we ‘do’ WASH, and how we could do it better in future. It is becoming increasingly apparent that ‘business as usual’ simply will not achieve sustainable services for all.” Business as usual will not do – but there are alternatives.

2014: “This publication is a record of efforts to achieve equity and inclusion in WASH programming around the world. It includes one keynote paper and 16 case studies from 13 countries. Within its pages there is a clear message that ‘business as usual’ is not sufficient to meet the water and sanitation rights of traditionally excluded or marginalised groups.” Inclusive WASH: Building skills towards inclusive water, sanitation and hygiene

2015: “Financing for a sustainable future: business as usual won’t work.
Ambitions for water, sanitation and hygiene are high. The sustainable development goals will require governments’ leadership and money.” Financing for a sustainable future: business as usual won’t work

So is it business as usual to say “no more business as usual”? In response, I’ll quote Elvis: “A little less conversation, a little more action please.”  Do you have successful examples of business not as usual in WASH? Please share in the comments section.

2 Responses

  1. Marla

    I’m going through my inbox and finally reading this. I love it! If Jon Stewart were reporting, this is the report he would have written on the SDGs. We need people to actually mean what they say in order to help poor people.

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