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Evidence and engagement: debating the UK Government’s new paradigm for water, sanitation and hygiene research

Written by Nathaniel Mason


By Nathaniel Mason and Roger Calow

The UK Government has affirmed its commitment to water, sanitation and hygiene, acknowledging its place at the heart of poverty reduction. Speaking at a gathering of sector professionals hosted by ODI, RiPPLE and SHARE, Minister of State for International Development Alan Duncan MP outlined DFID’s aims to provide clean drinking water to 15 million people, improved sanitation facilities to 25 million, and hygiene promotion to 15 million over the next four years.

But the Minister also made clear the need for the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) community to help build the evidence base for what works, in terms of cost-effective, sustainable and equitable interventions. The emphasis on evidence and results is in-keeping with the goal of the recent Bilateral and Multilateral Aid Reviews, which the event theme – ‘Managing for results: from evidence to impact – highlighted. While results have always been important, the need to justify spending in terms of clear outputs and outcomes is increasing, as exemplified by the ‘results offer’ that each DFID country team has been asked to develop.

This is not something the WASH community, and specifically researchers within it, should shy away from. This is a critical time for dialogue around what kind of results count, and how we can collect, verify and evaluate those that do. Alan Duncan listed six focus areas where further research is urgently needed to provide the required evidence that underpins DFID’s results-based approach:

  1. What works at scale
  2. How much it costs to provide, and maintain, access to services
  3. How to create the right incentives to ensure existing services are used and sustained
  4. Whether aid benefits the poorest and most vulnerable, in particular women, girls and people with disabilities
  5. How the private sector can help overcome challenges in the WASH sector
  6. How to cost effectively mitigate against climate uncertainty and water insecurity

These are hard to argue with – they are questions which ODI’s Water Policy Programme (WPP), and our co-hosts SHARE, are already asking. But how should these priorities be nuanced and developed? Two points provide a starting point:

  • Climate uncertainty and water insecurity: Alan Duncan emphasised the need to consider these issues at all levels, from national to household. In so doing, many different types of data and evidence are required. Ongoing work with WPP, including RiPPLE and ACCRA, has sought to engage poor people regarding their own perceptions of climate impacts and their existing coping strategies. The Local Adaptive Capacity Framework provides a systematic way of understanding the political economy of climate adaptation at local level. These individual and community perspectives should complement, rather than be obscured by, a high-level focus on hydro- and meteorological modelling, and national adaptation strategies.
  • What works at scale: while DFID’s ambition is to reach 55 million people with water, sanitation or hygiene promotion, this represents a fraction of the global unserved population (2.6 billion without sanitation and 0.9 billion without safe water according to the Joint Monitoring Programme). Ultimately, water and sanitation services will only be provided at sufficient scale if national governments are enabled to provide for their own citizens, in partnership with civil society and the private sector. The Minister focused on the latter category in his six priorities, but while understanding private sector incentives and risks is essential, we need to adopt a pragmatic approach that plays to the strength of all partners – as ODI has recently highlighted in the context of urban water. To do so will require further research on the political economy of the sector as a whole, for example the institutional and capacity factors undermining the maintenance of improved water systems.

This last point implies the kind of research that may not provide cold, hard numbers. As ODI’s Jonathan Glennie pointed out in his response to the Bilateral Aid Review, the increasing emphasis on ‘value for money’ should not be allowed to crowd out risk-taking, or long-term sustainable change. This applies as much to research and evaluation as it applies to implementation. Indeed, a true results-oriented approach means that learning and doing are inextricable. As we continue to discuss and evolve the research agenda, feeding the learning back into policy and practice, we need to be open to the full range of information, taking risks and, as Alan Duncan acknowledged, not being 'rigidly bound [to] what is easily countable'.