Designing responsive solutions: Using evidence in area-wide programming

14 July 2022

Accelerating progress in rural sanitation towards SDG 6 is possible. India’s Swachh Bharat and Nepal’s Sanitation and Hygiene Master Plan are examples of how a politically prioritized and well-funded effort can make it happen. A significant body of research provides lessons on how to maximise the impact of rural sanitation programmes. But are we embedding these lessons in new sanitation programmes? Not yet.  

The Sanitation Learning Hub, SNV, UNICEF, USAID, WaterAid, and the World Bank with the support of USAID/WASHPaLS came together in November 2021 to start to address this. Building on the 2019 Rural Sanitation Call to Action principles, we organised an online workshop to discuss the latest evidence and experiences of area-wide rural sanitation and related hygiene programming. We tried to capture key lessons that, if embedded in mainstream rural sanitation practice, will help accelerate progress. The lessons are structured around six themes, and presented in this blog series: 

There were also five overarching messages, which speak to what needs to change more broadly in how we fund, design and implement rural sanitation. You can see the headline message in this infographic, but I’d recommend you check out the workshop report to get all the details and case study examples.  

A five-part infographic with the title “Things that must change in rural sanitation programming”. Number one: Rural sanitation is in desperate need of attention and funding. An illustration shows a messy bag of money and a megaphone. Number two: There is no silver bullet for safely managed sanitation. An illustration shows a woman looking thoughtful with three thought bubbles above her head. In the thought bubbles are the words “solution a+b+c”, “solution a+b”, and “solution a+b”. Number three: The sanitation puzzle has many parts that need to work together. An illustration shows three puzzle pieces, one showing a person in a wheelchair, another showing two people looking at a latrine, and the third showing a woman with a clipboard inspecting sanitation facilities. Number four: Programmes need longer timeframes. An illustration shows a planner showing 12 periods, from “programme start” to “programme end”, then “more time needed”. Number five: Rapid learning that supports course correction is critical. An illustration from above shows six people working together in a circle. There are arrows around the circle and a thought bubble with a lightbulb.

So, on area-wide outcomes and data: firstly, what do we mean by area-wide? Area-wide programming refers to the planning and implementation of rural sanitation service delivery for the entire population of a given geographic area.

The intervention area should align with the mandate of those responsible for sanitation delivery. For example, if responsibility lies with the local authority, the area should align with the local authority administrative boundaries.  

In the event, we discussed the fact that area-wide sanitation delivery needs to be tailored and responsive to the context and issues arising in the area. Some local contextual factors (like soil type) are static, and others (like population, sanitation service levels, and rates of open defecation or coverage) are dynamic.

Those responsible for sanitation need timely information on factors such as these to take the right programming decisions. They need to know when things change.  

External institutions can support local responsible authorities to increase their capacity both to use existing information and generate quality data as they implement and oversee programs over time. Key lessons on this for those designing, implementing and supporting area-wide programmes and systems that emerged from the event include: 

  • The need for decision makers to have a broad set of data that can tell a story around the sanitation system as a whole. This includes data on levels of toilet usage and coverage, and on areas pre-, during and post-intervention. 
  • Data collection and monitoring efforts should be integrated into and aligned with ongoing government systems, with a reasonable frequency of data collection and analysis at a reasonable cost.  
  • Packaging and presenting data in a way that is compelling for policymakers as well as senior level officials at the local level is key. Having the right data available is only helpful if decision makers actively engage with and use it. For example, helpful secondary information is often available, but not always accessible and not always actively used. 
  • Understanding what frameworks and tools are available and their key uses is critical. This will also help determine minimum standards and/or recommended best practice in terms of data collection and monitoring for informed decisions in area-wide programming.  

SLH’s Monitoring and Evaluation Guidelines for Rural Sanitation and Hygiene aim to provide guidance in many of these areas, with a focus on assessing how interventions have affected sanitation and hygiene outcomes across an entire area (rather than just in specific target communities); who (from the overall population) benefitted from the intervention, and who did not; the level and quality of service used; and whether public health has improved.

The guidance outlines core elements and features for reporting on progress, while also encouraging learning and accountability 

Thinking beyond data generation to use, these key lessons are a good reminder of the value of rapid action learning to help policy makers and practitioners access easily digestible evidence and learning at the right time to make decisions and course correct. Participatory approaches that involve local decision makers in data collection and/or analysis can be particularly powerful as they realise and internalise realities for themselves.

Peer-to-peer learning – sharing learning and progress between areas – can also help solve problems and spread good practices while also encouraging healthy competition, motivating those responsible for sanitation to strive for better. As SLH, we will continue to support and connect local, national and global stakeholders to promote and share timely, relevant and actionable learning in the quest to achieve area-wide sanitation outcomes that benefit everyone, always.