Towards politically aware systems strengthening for rural sanitation

Towards politically aware systems strengthening for rural sanitation

An expert blog by Water for Women and SNV research partner, ISF-UTS (Institute for Sustainable Futures | University of Technology Sydney). Written by Juliet Willetts (Professor), Naomi Carrard (Research Director) and Simone Soeters (Research Consultant).

What pathways can take us to safely managed rural sanitation across whole countries and regions? What steps will achieve both immediate improvements, and set us up for long-term success? How to move beyond a focus on open-defecation-free communities? Of the many possible answers, one theme has risen to the surface in recent years: we need to think of sanitation services as systems.

But what should a rural sanitation system deliver?

That is, what level or quality of services are needed and desirable in households and institutions? The human right to sanitation entitles everyone to have access to sanitation that is safe, hygienic, secure, acceptable, affordable, and provides privacy and ensures dignity. Beyond the toilet, the SDGs’ safely managed criteria consider:

  • where faecal waste ends up,

  • who handles it and how,

  • forms and safety of transport, and

  • safe re-use or disposal.

Faecal sludge management (FSM) is a relatively new part of the picture for rural sanitation. There is debate as to its place; as where space allows, covering and leaving stored faecal matter may well be the safest disposal method, and current unsafe FSM practices are the norm. However, in rural areas with higher density or where shallow groundwater is used for domestic purposes, FSM solutions are required and are an essential part of a sanitation service. Lastly, service levels will inevitably be affected by climate impacts like floods, droughts and other extreme weather events. As such, expected climate scenarios will need increasing consideration in planning service delivery.

Who is responsible?

Sustaining services requires concerted effort across government, communities and private sector, which are all part of the ‘system’. Government – particularly local government – is at the centre of this system. Without policies, strategies, and notably a budget for community mobilisation, sustainable sanitation services for all is unlikely. Hence the importance proposed by many, of, investing in building local government capacity for area-wide services, and of output-based rewards and performance benchmarking. Equally, others have pointed out the need for clear roles to support and to regulate private sector suppliers and FSM operators, placing local government in the role of ‘service authority’ versus ‘service provider’ as proposed in recent studies on rural sanitation systems. But these systems strengthening strategies, in the absence of political will or leadership, are difficult. Hence, many emphasise major advocacy efforts, better understanding of the political economy and what makes different actors ‘tick’.

A functioning sanitation service system, not just today, but in perpetuity

What does literature have to say about the drivers of sustainability? Many remind us that social cohesion and social capital [1] are important to sustain ODF communities. They assert that sustained behaviour change is best underpinned by theory-based thinking on behaviour change and acknowledging that behaviour change is strongly influenced by technology, not just psychosocial factors. Monitoring is deemed by many as critical in sustaining outcomes. Lastly, multiple studies show that leadership from government is key in raising the profile of sanitation, securing finance, and driving behaviour change, and as is the increasing role of private sector in driving improvements in technology and its management.

And on equality?

We know that a deliberate approach is necessary to achieve equality. Without concerted effort, people will be left behind. Literature and the recent #RuralSanitationMatters Call to Action point to the importance of pursuing multiple strategies to reach people with diverse vulnerabilities and needs. They emphasise the need to tailor approaches to context specificities, and to enable the key role of local government, as seen in the Making Rights Real approach.

While seemingly obvious, these are complex terrains to grapple with. To navigate the field, we can look to the growing body of work outlining inclusion-oriented principles, frameworks and toolboxes across a variety of financial, market-based and behavioural rural sanitation approaches, including those from WSSCC, ISF-UTS, SNV and CBM and CLTS Hub. As we increase our focus on equality, more evidence is emerging about what works, when, for whom and where. One example is the tricky question of financial support/ subsidies. Evidence shows that they do not always reach those with the greatest need. But, when managed well and appropriately targeted, they have potential to drive greater equality.

Beyond a technocratic view of systems

Some systems thinking approaches place limited attention to politics and power. Yet a recent four-country study confirmed that a key driver to scale up progress in rural sanitation is national level political leadership, and the importance of advocacy and political engagement at both national and local levels cannot be overemphasised.

Systems thinking arises from primarily technical disciplines and must be complemented by politically astute engagement approaches. By taking a politically aware ‘systems strengthening’ approach, perhaps we will be able to effectively tackle the three demands raised in the recent Call to Action of scale, equity and sustainability.


[1] For further reading on social cohesion and social capital, see: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0304387818316298; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5750990/; and https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27391250