Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Change is hard

By Elise Wach

Elise Wach is currently working with the Impact and Learning team to support the IRC International Water and Sanitataion Centre through a learning process around its Triple-S Initiative 

Penelope Beyon’s blog about failure and learning brings up some interesting and very valid points about the recent attention to failure, evaluation and learning in development. While it is essential (and quite difficult) for the development community to know when their programming is unsuccessful, and admit this, it doesn’t do any good if we don’t then learn from our failures and change our approaches so as not to repeat them.  

But how does change happen?

The IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre is in the middle of a six-year initiative which is attempting to shift the rural water sector away from a one-off infrastructure-based approach towards a Service Delivery Approach; what they term, Sustainable Service Delivery at Scale (Triple-S). How to enact change is exactly what they’re trying to figure out.

For decades, most development organisations and agencies in the rural water sector (like most sectors) did not know about, or did not want to know about, their failures. They were oblivious to the fact that the majority of their boreholes fell into disrepair within five to seven years, or that many were never even used at all.  Without this knowledge, it is easy to see why development organisations and agencies charged ahead with the same unsuccessful approaches.  

However, in a recent round of interviews I conducted with key stakeholders in the sector (as part of the Impact and Learning Team's support to IRC on this initiative),  it was overwhelmingly apparent that now, everyone in the water sector knows that the standard approach to rural water supply has been ineffective and unsustainable. It is common knowledge that the sector has been failing.  

So the rural water sector has overcome that essential, but difficult first hurdle of finding out about and acknowledging failure. 

Source unknown, but widely available
And in the most recent round of interviews, key stakeholders in the sector generally agreed that the discourse at the top – the policy-level – is starting to reflect these revelations.  But funding practices and implementation on the ground seem to have continued relatively unchanged: the same infrastructure-focused, unsuccessful approaches continue to dominate. Why?

Because change is hard.

One interviewee explained, ‘We’ve been engineered to do small-scale piecemeal interventions…so of course shifting to more of a sustainable approach at scale (vis-à-vis financial flows, regulations, norms, and standards) is going to take time.  There will be resistance to change.’

Changing approaches to realising change

To date, IRC ‘s Triple-S initiative has been attempting to accelerate changes within the sector through three main approaches:
  • Relationship-led (i.e. using champions to mobilise change)
  • Value-led (i.e. leveraging peer pressure and creating coalitions for change)
  • Evidence-led (i.e. providing proof that the current approaches don’t work and proof that other ones do)
The initiative has also been exploring the relationships between policy, funding and practice.

This week, IRC and the Impact and Learning team are holding a learning retreat to go over the findings from the most recent round of stakeholder interviews and other evaluation data.  Based on this, IRC may refine its Theory of Change and tweak its approach to help maximise the efficacy of the initiative moving forward. 

We’ll report back on the outcomes of that learning retreat next week.

In the meantime, a final thought. If more development actors followed a similar approach to IRC (i.e. if they thought through Theories of Change for their approaches and periodically revised them based on real-time evaluations and analysis), it’s not unrealistic to think that the way we work in ‘development’ would be quite different. That is, the phenomenon that Penelope termed as ‘reinventing broken wheels’ might not be as common. Change is hard, but not impossible, and it is certainly needed.