Changing the way we change the world

What WASH can learn from the Game of Thrones

By Susan Davis, Executive Director

[This blog is based on a talk Susan gave at FailFest DC on December 10, 2015.  If you haven’t seen “Game of Thrones”, check out this summary. If you have seen it, but haven’t caught up on all the episodes, warning: there might be spoilers. ]

I like this show on HBO called Game of Thrones, but it’s hard to watch – not just because of the violence, but also because it reminds me of my mistakes in my career in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH).

First of all, I’ve realized that, like Jon Snow, “I know nothing.”  My biggest mistake has been not taking time (until recent years) to learn from the past.  I thought I was well-educated.  In the “Game of Thrones”, Jon Snow also knows nothing, which his girlfriend reminds him of

But Jon and I are not alone. When I’m not watching “Game of Thrones”, I’m reading WASH studies or going to conferences. I’ve noticed that studies and presentations throughout the decades say a lot of the same things.  For example, this summary of problems in 1983 will sound very familiar to anyone working in WASH today.


From “Watering White Elephants” by Ole Therkildsen

I’ve definitely made several of these mistakes.  For example, I have fundraised or helped to design projects that focus simply on access to toilets. In the “Game of Thrones”, people fight to get on (something like) the throne shown below. But you have to admit it looks like a pretty poor user experience. Ouch!


The WASH world is slowly figuring out that sanitation needs to be about the user experience as well.  A recent huge survey in Northern India showed that people prefer open defecation: Over 40% of households with a working latrine have at least one family member who still poops outside. You can understand why pooping outside is preferable when you see filthy latrines like I’ve seen on project visits.

I helped raise funds for a big WASH in schools project in Kenya. A study of that project showed 90% of the students’ hands were contaminated after latrines were built at schools. Which emphasizes that toilets that aren’t kept clean, or can’t be cleaned because they are made of rough wood or concrete, can be worse for health than no toilet at all.

In the Game of Thrones, using the toilet can be dangerous too. If he hadn’t been killed by a crossbow, Tywin probably would have gotten sick from not washing his hands after pooping.


It’s hard to clean a toilet or wash hands without reliable access to water. Because of limited monitoring, we don’t really know how many water systems fail, but one estimate is that at any given time 35% are not working.  To address this, I spent a lot of time a few years back promoting a mobile tool to do post-implementation monitoring of water points.  But I had no idea how to answer the question “What will you do when you find failed water systems?”  [I do now; click here]

The characters in Game of Thrones are a lot like water projects – spread all over the map and dying suddenly.  Also, the characters who are still alive don’t seem to be learning from the mistakes of others.  They just move on to the next episode.


Instead of moving on to the next project, we in the WASH world should hold ourselves responsible for bringing those “dead projects” back to life and making sure we at least make new mistakes moving forward.

Speaking of lessons not learned, let’s talk about conferences.  I bet I’ve spent more time going to conferences than I have on visiting any of my old WASH projects, or helping to fix any problems that arise.  Haven’t we all?  In the Game of Thrones, they have some pretty memorable get-togethers, like the Red Wedding. It was fun at first . . . until 22 people died. If there were 100 people there, that would be a typical failure rate for water projects.


Every time I go to a conference, it feels like 22% of my brain cells die. Is it because I keep hearing (and saying) the same old things?  Or all the networking over drinks?  I conclude that more research is necessary (wink).

 “A bruise is a lesson learned; and each lesson makes us better” – Arya Stark

I have to admit; I haven’t really been bruised.  I’ve done a pretty good job of talking about failures of other projects, but honestly I have no idea of the status of my own projects (those that I’ve managed or help fundraise for).  In particular, there was an expensive WASH in schools project in East Asia that I managed a few years ago. But I don’t know whether those schools still have safe water and clean toilets.  Given the odds, they probably don’t.  So the people who are being bruised by my failed projects were actually the so-called beneficiaries. In the Game of Thrones, a lot of people get killed because someone else made a mistake.

But there are a couple of good things that I have learned from Game of Thrones.

“A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone if it is to keep its edge” – Tyrion Lannister

I used to cut and paste from old proposals to save time.  What better way to perpetuate mistakes?!  Now before I draft any plan of action, I do spend a lot of time reading old and current studies. We should all learn – not just from own work, but those who came before us. I started with an ancient text, “Watering White Elephants” from 1988.

In the Game of Thrones “The brave men did not kill dragons; the brave men rode them.”  – Daenerys Targaryen

I founded Improve International with the goal of shining a light on failures from the past – mine and others – so that we can learn from them. Rather than hiding our dragons of failure in a dungeon, let them see the light of day and ride them to victory!


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