Thursday 13 December 2012

11th Sanitation Community of Practice (SanCoP) Meeting: Learning from Failure in Sanitation

by Aliki Zeri for BPD Water and Sanitation 

The main river crossing in Kibera slum, Nairobi
Credit: BPD Water and Sanitation
What do we mean when we talk about ‘failure’? How can NGOs in the development sector and in particular in the field of sanitation, use ‘failure’ as a learning mechanism? Is it prudent to ‘market’ ‘failure’ and if so is there a right way of doing it? 

These were just a few of the questions the 11th SanCop, which was held on the 14th of November 2012 at WEDC (Loughborough University), strived to answer. ‘Strive’ appears undoubtedly to be the right word, since after considerable debate a number of issues still remained unanswered. And although this may be perceived by some as a ‘failure’, for me it represents a clear indication of the meeting’s success. Bringing together more that 40 academics, engineers, NGO representatives and sanitation experts the meeting provided a ‘safe space’ where ‘failure’ was recognised and embraced as part of the development-aid organisations’ learning curve. 

Is there a difference between ‘lessons learnt’ and ‘admitting failure’?
‘Failure’, ‘lessons learnt’, ‘learning opportunities’ and ‘learning return’ were used interchangeably by participants throughout the debate; illustrating the difficulty of defining the precise context and the ambit of this concept. Is in fact the term ‘lessons learnt’ radically different from the term ‘admitting failure’? Participants appeared to think so. The former was perceived as indicating a backward-looking process, a mechanism of revisiting a project/programme and assessing what went wrong. On the contrary, an ‘admission of failure’ is associated with a process of learning which is embedded within the project’s/programme’s structure, allowing implementers to constantly re-assess the project/programme and adapt it to changing and often unforeseen circumstances. 

Reassessing perceptions of failure
Within this context participants were implicitly prompted to reassess their perceptions of ‘failure’. The commonly shared understanding that, a failed project or programme means that potential beneficiaries are no worse off than they were before the intervention took place, was accordingly challenged. The need to “reframe the public image of development”  (traditionally perceived as something that is inherently benign and could therefore have no negative effect) was commonly agreed.  

Incentives and disincentives of recognising failure 
Having recognised the malleability of ‘failure’ as a concept, participants shifted their attention to the incentives and disincentives of recognising ‘failures’ - the fear of displeasing donors and the associated ‘competition for a piece of the donor pie’  appeared to be the main concerns. Could EWB Canada’s ‘safe spaces’ counteract these disincentives? And more generally could they provoke a fundamental change in the ‘donor culture’, one that would result in donors not only actively promoting an honest reflection of what is not working, but also rewarding NGOs that are openly admitting their failures? 

The dilemma of marketing failure in WASH
Building a ‘safe space’ across the development sector (the WASH sector included) is unarguably challenging; expanding this ‘space’ outside this limit is expected to be even more difficult. ‘Marketing failure in WASH’ was the title BPD Water and Sanitation chose for its discussion group. Is it indeed advisable or even prudent for NGOs to ‘market’ (i.e. communicate) their ‘failures’ to the public? Could Bellemare’s cynical argument that: “admitting failure is the not-for-profit world equivalent of corporate social responsibility in the for-profit world”  be the answer to this question? As Terence  argues: “if you’re the first NGO trying to do it you’ll find yourself at the sharp end of a ‘first penguin to leap off the ice sheet’ type collective action dilemma (i.e. it’s the first penguin that has the highest chance of getting chomped by the sea lions). Who’s going to keep giving money to the one NGO that’s forever feeding journalists with stories of what it did wrong?”  Even though there is some truth in this argument, it is equally true that:  “the more people who are honest about how challenging the work is and how rife it is with failures - not because of incompetence but because we are courageously taking on some of the most complex and dynamic problems- the more the public will see the admission of failure as a sign of transparency, humility and learning/innovation cultures and not as a sign of weakness.” 

An encouraging first step in the ‘development-aid failure’ debate 
Acknowledging the novelty of the issue and the breadth of arguments that could be raised within each of the aforementioned themes is unarguably the first step in engaging the sanitation sector with the ‘development-aid failure’ debate. Taking this first step within the context of the 11th SanCop, was for me a particularly challenging, yet fulfilling experience. The high-level of discourse, the enthusiasm and commitment of all participants, not only during the formal sessions but also during the breaks and the group-discussions was indeed admirable. In this sense, the participants’ promise to revisit the issue in the future SanCops was particularly encouraging. 

For examples of 'failure' in sanitation and also water projects, see this ongoing blog from Improve International.

Read more about Sanitation Community of Practice (SanCoP)


  1. Thanks for sharing this useful post

  2. It is awesome argument; I really enjoyed a lot.

    According to my understanding, ‘lessons learnt’ must be focused on assessing what went wrong along with mentioning uniqueness of the implemented concept and the process mechanisms. On the other side, ‘admitting failure’ must be come out from the previously mentioned concept and mechanisms where there is no room for pointing out the uniqueness of the project.
    The explanation, which is mentioned here, is not clear to me about Reassessing perceptions of failure. It has a link with hypothesis of the project and its assumptions with the end results, isn’t. Waled Mahmud, WASH Expert