Thursday, 7 July 2011

Paralysis by Analysis - Does Thinking Global Really Help?

by Ken Caplan

Over the past year, a wide range of people have been encouraging us at BPD to “blog” – to put some of our ideas down in a space that allows us all to explore, to play, to provoke. Certainly we in the water and sanitation sector do too little of all three. Exploration means admitting we do not have the answers. Playing means discounting the seriousness of the sustainability challenges we are facing. Provoking is not something that is done in polite society (at least not generally on an individual level among and between colleagues, friends or peers). So this new blog is meant to be a space to share things we are thinking about. Exploring allows us to get away with not having the answers. We learn a lot from play. And a bit of provocation might just keep us more honest. So here goes…

Much of the talk in the water and sanitation sector these days is about scale – trying to get our heads around the scale of the problems we face and of the contributions we are making both to the problem and the solutions. The related scale of climate change and global warming is something most of us can’t really comprehend. Our small efforts in the UK to convert to energy-saving light bulbs and turn off the taps when brushing our teeth seem rather insignificant somehow. This leaves the messengers feeling frustrated that they are not getting through and a vast number of us –perversely - positively disincentivised to change our behaviour, uncertain that our contribution makes a difference. 

I was recently asked to facilitate a meeting that brought together civil society partners from various countries to revisit the impact of a governance programme halfway through its funding cycle. This wise and experienced group were struggling with how best to learn together and share their experience. Part of the challenge was to find ways of overcoming the seemingly huge differences in the contexts in which they are operating. There is a bigger problem at hand though. While the conversation was going on, I couldn’t help but think that we have done ourselves a disservice in some ways by constantly reiterating just how enormous the water and sanitation challenge is. The numbers and implications are certainly staggering and incomprehensible to those of us who have had the very basic services of running water and access to toilets in virtually every aspect of our lives since birth – at home, at work, on public transportation, in big towns and small.

Yes, somehow - unbelievably - we still need to convince the wider world – donors and funders, policymakers and decision-makers, friends and “competitors” from other development sectors – that water and sanitation are critical to human development. With clear parallels to the climate science discussions, I can’t help wondering whether this shouting to the outside world has had an impact on us within the sector. I have often been struck of late by how colleagues from across the developing world, though justifiably proud of their achievements, are reluctant to draw out their learning for wider audiences – thinking perhaps that it wasn’t of sufficient magnitude to live up to the enormous needs, that it wasn’t ground-breaking, fully formed, easily transferable, a magic bullet, or the holy grail. 

Are the pressures to find the answers so great that we are losing the art of iterative thinking and learning? While the poor are desperate for services, they may recognise better than anyone that small steps can make a huge difference in people’s lives. I was reminded at this meeting in India that learning comes from the ground up – by doing, exploring, playing, provoking. It then gets shaped, reshaped, discounted or exaggerated as it makes its way up the system – sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Whilst we should still be encouraged to think big and think bold, we need to keep sight of the pressures this puts on us to big-up or bold-up, which may in fact immobilise most of us when we come to articulate our learning. In a fast-moving world where big ideas only take hold now and then, we need the perspective to maintain those smaller conversations that encourage the little “Aha” moments and the everyday reflections that might ultimately make the most difference.


  1. Nice blog post, and I do think that you should keep it up.

  2. I totally agree with what you say. I see this phenomenon taking place every day on the field in Bolivia... I am tired of hearing the phrase: "sanitation challenge is BIG... and big problems require BIG solutions" and then everything gets paralyzed. When we started working on a water project at a district in a peri urban area, the authorities said that the only solution was to get a 4 Million USD loan for the water utility to do the job. Five years later, we have given access to water to about 30,000 people of that district investing only about 1 Million USD and without increasing the debt of the operator. The key: thinking small. We built 32 projects each one of about 200 households. Community participation, incremental investment and a multi sector partnership made this possible.