Tag archives: complex systems

#WEDC41 Part 4: The wider system and the role of religion

In July, I spent two weeks in Kenya at the WEDC conference in Nakuru and visiting sanitation companies, Sanergy and Sanivation, and the newly-established sanitation research group at Meru University of Science and Technology. This is the fourth in a five-part series of blogs about that conference and those visits. You can see the earlier posts about (the lack of) government support for container-based sanitation businesses here, about WASH failures here and about behaviour change toolkits here.

Nothing exists in a bubble. Sanitation is no exception. Sanitation is a social issue and any sanitation process will be affected by the communities, businesses, governments, NGOs and a host of other stakeholders that interact with them. Understanding that sanitation is part of a wider system and how that system works is a vital part of successful projects.

WASH Catalysts Malawi and Engineers Without Borders Canada held a workshop on systems mapping. The aim of systems mapping is to understand the stakeholders present and how they relate to each other. Armed with that information, it is easier to identify potential blockages to sustainable projects. The example that was given was an NGO looking at a withdrawal strategy from Malawi. They had set up a borehole management system that was working well but were concerned that when they left the system would break down. A systems mapping exercise was carried out and it was seen that the NGO acted as a go-between in several critical relationships. By identifying this early, it was possible to look at how the system needed to change so that it would continue to operate after the NGO withdrew.

Later in the conference, I attended a presentation by Nathan Mallonee of Living Water about the role that religious organisations play in sanitation provision. In Africa, 90 % of people identify as either Christian or Muslim and religious organisations play a major role in their lives. That means that religious organisations can be powerful stakeholders in community systems. Yet only in a small number of cases are religious organisations involved in the delivery of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programmes. Water plays an integral role in virtually every major world region (think about Muslims washing before prayers or Christian baptisms) but WASH programmes rarely consider in detail the implication of religious ideas and religious practices on programme delivery and outcomes. This is an oversight that people are starting to realise needs addressing. To halt the spread of Ebola earlier this year, Oly Ilunga Kalenga, the Health Minister for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), identified churches as one of the “best allies to carry public health messages that require communities to change age-old habits and challenge their traditions”. Wilf Mwamba, a Senior Governance Advisor at the Department for International Development (DFID) is passionate about working better with faith organisations and other powerful non-state stakeholders.

In the WASH sector, we are getting better at engaging with communities and recognising the value that community engagement brings to programmes. However, we need to get better at looking at the wider system and all of the stakeholders in it, and understanding the nuances of how they interact. For most communities in Africa, one of the important stakeholders is probably a church or a mosque and too often we overlook the value that such organisations could add to WASH programmes. Many faith based charities understand that, but perhaps it is time for all of us to look a little deeper at religion and the opportunity that it may offer for better water and sanitation in Africa.

Why I’m not the right person to solve your problems: an engineer in sanitation

I sat in a meeting recently about sanitation prototypes that are being tested in the “real world” – the informal settlements and rural households that they have been designed for, rather than the labs where they were created. As with any early stage testing, the prototypes have problems and it was these problems and the potential solutions that were under discussion at the meeting.

While listening to these challenges, it hit me. As an engineer, I am not the right person to solve sanitation problems. Of course, there are some technical problems with the prototypes – materials that foul in a different way than expected causing downstream problems, control sequences that need adapting to deal with different circumstances – but it is the non-technical challenges that really interested me. Some are focused on the views of individuals, like toilet users being unhappy with human excreta being stored in close proximity to their perched backside; some are linked to the wider community, like jealousy and distrust of the families who have been selected to trial new toilets; some are political, like the wrangling between settlement committees and councillors affiliated to different political parties; and some are linked to the wider economic situation of the area, like the theft and sale of copper wire used for earthing electrical connections. Some of these problems do have a technical aspect and technology may play a part in the solutions but, for the most part, sanitation is a social issue.

So what’s an engineer to do?

First, as an engineer I have to acknowledge that I don’t have all the pieces to complete this jigsaw puzzle.

Next, I have to make sure I am working with the people who can add in the puzzle pieces that I don’t have. The advantage of the prototype testing discussed in this meeting is that there are a wide range of people involved – academics with social science and engineering backgrounds, community development specialists who work closely with the communities where prototypes are being tested, and municipal representatives who can contribute valuable knowledge on the economic and political intricacies of the sanitation issues in these communities. Of course, having those people in the room is not enough in itself, which brings me to…

I have to listen to what they say and understand when I have reached the limits of my own expertise. That is not to say that my views are useless here. However, the solution to every problem is not technical. My softer engineering skills still offer a huge amount of value – a logical approach to problem-solving, an ability to work within a team, and written and spoken communication of complex ideas.

There are several young engineers involved in this testing and I hope that the experience of working with a diverse team will help them to recognise the value of inter-disciplinary collaboration when it comes to overcoming challenges in sanitation. Sanitation is a complex issue and engineers cannot solve these problems alone.