How to couple ‘innovation’ with the realpolitik of local level implementation?
by Darren Saywell, BPD Board Member and WASH/CLTS Technical Director at PLAN International USA
Do all development sectors suffer from the constant search for the (Holy) Grail, the ‘silver bullet’ that will bring transformational change to everyday implementation? I suspect so; it being part of human nature to challenge expectations and question norms.
Currently, the Grail for the WASH sector is how to achieve ‘scale’ (scaling-up, or if this is anathema to your instincts, operating at scale) and accelerated change. At times it seems we are awash with examples from other sectors achieving huge leaps and bounds in coverage by thinking and doing differently. Consider the often quoted examples of mobile telephony in Africa as a metaphor for innovation or large scale conditional cash transfers in the health sector to alter the incentives for large scale behavior change.
In the bewildering array of new information being released in the sector (I blame Twitter and, ahem, bloggers), I observe a trend towards what I would call ‘disruptive influence’; the clarion call of individuals and organizations who argue for bold, radical, fearless, revolutionary scale thinking as a way to deliver change in the sector.
The basic idea is that we need to ‘disrupt’ normal thinking to shake ourselves out of a collective WASH stupor. These calls are typically accompanied by excellent marketing, attractive imagery and articulate and charismatic spokespeople that seduce us easily. Perhaps this is the modern day equivalent of paradigm shifts compressed into a 30 second Youtube video, a mobile phone app or brightly colored infographic.
I doubt that it will do my career any good to be cast as a naysayer to bright and bold ideas, and this blog is not advocating for conventional approaches and a return to almost glacial-length timelines for the achievement of international development goals. Like everyone, I passionately want WASH programs and outcomes to be more widespread, accessible to all and sustainable for everyone. And I want it now.
My main point is how do we best couple advocates of disruptive influence with the realpolitik of local level implementation? This trend needs to acknowledge the challenges. Local champions already struggle to translate policy level rhetoric into action and maintain it over time. They fight to adopt new standards and norms in regulation that allow engineers to innovate with technology that serves the vulnerable and marginalized better. We need to understand that the sector is woefully understaffed and that the supply side of bringing new capacity into WASH is one that simply takes time to achieve.
There is inter-dependence and synergy here that the WASH sector must grasp. Disruptive influence without continued analysis/diagnostics is an empty and futile exercise, one which will ultimately be prone to failure and disappointment.
My best answer to this may appear blindingly obvious, but this doesn’t make it any less relevant – disruptive influencers are key in building our upstream constituency in the High Level Meetings and High Level Panels of the day. We will continue to need their sharpness and savoir-faire in turning heads and keeping resources focused on our sector. At the same time, we need the continued analytics and diagnostics for the sector – BPD’s constant and comprehensive learning is a great example – that informs us of tried and tested approaches, signals promising paths ahead and warns us of pitfalls on the road.