Learning from and preventing failure in WASH

Frontiers of Sanitation 21
February 2023

We need to acknowledge that not everything we try will succeed, but that if we learn from one another, we can continuously improve our work.

Water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) failures continue to be discussed mostly off the record, with professionals the world over repeating one another’s mistakes.

Failure is difficult to talk about, but WASH failures have negative impacts – money is wasted and sometimes people are harmed. We need to acknowledge that not everything we try will succeed, but that if we learn from one another, we can continuously improve our work. Since 2018, we have attempted to foster this change through the ‘WASH Failures Movement’.

This issue of ‘Frontiers of Sanitation’ is a compilation of what we’ve learned about why WASH failures happen, how we can address them, and how we can facilitate a culture of sharing and learning from failure in the WASH sector.


  • Different stakeholders will have different ideas of what constitutes success and failure, so it is essential that all stakeholders agree on what success and failure look like at the start of a programme.
  • Failures often result from: a lack of holistic approaches, inadequate community engagement, unrealistic funder expectations, idealistic planning, politics and bureaucracy, insufficient capacity, poor coordination and communication, and a ‘project’ mentality.
  • Co-designing services with the intended users, and recognising that different users have different needs relating to these services, prevents us designing failure into WASH activities from the beginning.
  • Where there are many options to solve a problem and little evidence of what will work best, allowing for experimentation and flexibility in projects, timelines, and budgets can enable teams to learn as they go.
  • Transparency and accountability are vital for learning, and although it is important to build these into organisations and partnerships, external mechanisms to hold organisations to account can also be helpful.
  • WASH must be considered within wider systems of service provision to identify how to maximise benefits of interventions as well as recognise where challenges may arise.
  • Funders can encourage sharing and learning by being transparent about how they allocate funds, providing flexibility in their funding approaches so that grantees can respond to failures, and having honest discussions about what sustainability means when discussing services and how it can be achieved.
  • Sharing failures can be challenging and those in positions of power must work hard to build trust, rapport, and space for conversations about failure with those with less power.
  • Discussions of failure can be sensitive, and most people prefer to have these conversations in-person and in constructive ways that provide opportunities to learn from others and address problems.

Additional details

PublisherInstitute of Development Studies
ThemesChallenging contexts, Leave no one behind, Monitoring, evaluation and learning
ApproachesLearning approaches, Learning from failure
Sindall, R.C. and Barrington, D.J. with Shaylor, E. (2023) ‘Learning From and Preventing Failure in WASH’, Frontiers of Sanitation: Innovations and Insights 21, The Sanitation Learning Hub, Brighton: Institute of Development Studies, DOI: 10.19088/SLH.2022.025

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