Sustaining Rural Water Supply Using the Principles of Collective Impact

Imagine for a moment you live in a rural village in sub-Saharan Africa, where access to clean water is a remote possibility. Imagine the sense of promise and opportunity you would feel with the construction of a water facility, funded by a consortium of international aid agencies and the local water authority. Imagine the disappointment as you watch the infrastructure lose its luster without support for operations, maintenance, or repairs. The system to ensure water is delivered is fractured. Over time, the physical infrastructure will deteriorate until it collapses, leaving you without water services until another agency comes along to replace the facility entirely.

This is a common scenario for millions of rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa. In the drive to increase water coverage, well-meaning organizations have focused on building infrastructure without assessing the more complex, systemic changes necessary to sustain long-term service delivery. The rural water sector in many countries is beset by an array of challenges including a lack of resources, poor coordination among organizations, and limited monitoring and regulation of services. There is a movement afoot to change the pattern described above by acknowledging a need for whole systems change. The international not-for-profit organization, IRC, is working with an array of partners in Ghana including the Community Water and Sanitation Agency, rural voluntary Water and Sanitation Committees, the World Bank, UNICEF, and the bilateral aid agencies to ensure sustained water services by strengthening policy, financing and institutional structures at multiple levels (funding for the project has been provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation).

The process and actions undertaken by IRC and its partners share many of the principles of collective impact. The effort began with a multi-stakeholder dialogue to develop a common vision to achieve sustainable water services at scale. Research outlining the poor functionality and low levels of services in rural communities underpinned the effort’s vision for change.  IRC and CWSA facilitated continuous communication and learning through a “learning alliance” framework. Platforms for learning were established at different institutional levels throughout the country to enable multiple stakeholders (key individuals, groups, organizations) to undertake joint research and learning and to implement concerted actions.

As a result of these efforts, changes are a occurring across the water system. At a recent Sanitation and Water for All Conference, Ghana’s Minister for Finance and Economic Planning committed to ensuring sustainability by “adopting a service delivery approach…provision of adequate budget for post-construction support, capital repairs and maintenance.” The approach to sector monitoring has also shifted from counting pumps to monitoring services and conditions of sustainability, supported by a government system for data collection and analysis. Recent surveys of pilot districts show improvements in water services, but substantial work remains to consolidate change in the overall system. Complex systems do not change overnight; but with a structured process engaging multi-sector actors toward a common vision, sustained water service may become a reality for rural communities throughout Ghana and elsewhere.

We would like to hear your perspectives on the application of Collective Impact to water delivery challenges.

  • What are other examples of collective impact practices in the WASH sector?

  • How have you and your colleagues used the principles of collective impact to move donors and other stakeholders away from narrow infrastructure investments toward broader efforts around systems change?


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