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 second in a five-part series of blogs about that conference and those visits. You can see the first post about the need for government support for sanitation businesses here.
Shit happens. But maybe it shouldn’t always happen… At WEDC41, over 80 people took part as the audience of the very first edition of Blunders, Bloopers and Foul-Ups: A WASH Game Show. Complete with theme music, a host in a sparkly jacket (me!) and buzzer sounds, the aim of the game was for the two teams (and the audience) to identify which of the WASH failures described were made up and which really happened.
Unintended negative consequences happen in every project and range from the mildly amusing (communities dismantling toilet superstructures for firewood as fast as they can be constructed) to the downright deadly (children drowning in poorly constructed pit latrines). Every WASH professional has a failure story they are willing to share over a drink, but sharing those same mistakes more formally to prevent them from happening again is less common.
The game show was designed to break the silence about failures in a professional setting. It led onto a more serious discussion about identifying unintended outcomes in projects and the lessons that we need to get better at learning from them. Both the panel and the audience willingly shared a selection of failures that they had been involved in, including:
- A research project with farmers using faecal sludge derived fertilisers that assumed all the farmers would have smartphones to access the developed app
- A clever technical solution that was shown to have no market appeal
- A simple process that did not fit the shiny, high-tech aims of the project leaders
- Not realising that by giving communities a choice about their sanitation would reduce the perceived power of the municipal facilitator who deliberately blocked that choice ever reaching communities
This led to a call for all WASH professionals to be “fiercely transparent” in reporting their work, whether it is good, bad or ugly. There was an agreement that WASH professionals need to be open about where and how negative unintended consequences have happened and learn from that to ensure the same mistakes are not repeated. Across development, there is a need for better understanding and more openness and learning about the things we get wrong. We hope this will not be the last time that Blunders, Bloopers and Foul-Ups takes place and there are plans for an action research project focused on identifying practical recommendations for the sector. For more on this, follow @FSM_Fail on Twitter, read our editorial in Engineering For Change and watch out for a declaration of the practical changes that can encourage more sharing and learning from failures in WASH.