At present, systematic documentation and learning in the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) sectors often depends on external/ project related funding. Two challenges are: how to institutionalize learning as an integrated component of WASH sector management and how to link sector monitoring to reflection and adaptive management.
There are two broad learning processes which can contribute to accountability and greater effectiveness of work on WASH (and in other sectors too):
(1) Learning from research, monitoring data and independent evaluation
(2) Learning from practice and feedback from peers
Formal sector review mechanisms such as Joint Sector Reviews, sector monitoring, or systematic consultations with stakeholder groups exist in many countries, but efforts are needed to strengthen and link such initiatives, so that learning becomes an integral part of sector monitoring, implementation and planning processes, in particular at sub-national levels (region, district, sub-district and consumer levels).
The monitoring and learning process cycle
Learning and adaptive management can be seen as two sides of the same coin. Or as elements of a cycle of continuous improvement, where monitoring can help identify patterns, trends problems and things that work.
The key aspects of adaptive management are
- Gathering and management of information – i.e. the ability to pick up signals of progress or change
- Sense making, analysis, of signs of progress or change to identify patterns and trends
- Using analysed information to adapt and improve work – i.e. closing the learning cycle
A ‘learning sector’ can continuously innovate, evolve and adapt
“Building a learning sector with the capacity to continuously innovate, evolve and adapt based on evidence is a must for delivering sustainable services and requires the capacity and willingness to do things together, better and differently.” (waterservicesthatlast, 2012).
To create a ‘learning sector’ where sector professionals are able to adapt to changing circumstances and demands, we need mechanisms to:
- collect and interpret sector monitoring data
- encourage information and knowledge sharing
- facilitate continuous reflection and analysis of success and failure
- identify potential innovations, test and adapt them
- support stakeholder consultation
- document and manage information and research-based knowledge
A ‘learning sector’ has processes and mechanisms that help sector players actively create, capture, transfer, and mobilize knowledge to enable the sector as a whole to adapt to change. Management systems to make organisations more accountable to their promises need to be joined up with systems that encourage sector professionals to critically reflect on problems and solutions and to recognise emerging trends. But, systems and procedures, formats and workshops are not enough, it will also take leadership and personal commitment to create a culture of continuous learning.
IRC supports learning processes in various countries, while also advocating for learning and adaptive management to be recognized as central to sector performance. Resource centres and learning alliances are two ways that IRC has been supporting learning and change in water and sanitation. In Ghana and Uganda, IRC’s Triple-S programme has also been advocating for sector learning and supporting learning processes to improve the sustainability of rural water services. At international level we work with the Sanitation and Water for All and others to promote learning for sustainable WASH. And this blog is another way that we’re trying to engage and learn about learning and change.
IRC’s recent pamphlet on ‘sector learning‘ contains more information on learning and adaptive capacity for the WASH sector.
Learning and adaptive management is one of the building blocks towards a ‘service delivery approach‘, see: http://www.waterservicesthatlast.org/Resources/Building-blocks/Learning-and-adaptive-management
IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre. 2012. WASH sector learning : continuous improvement for services that last. [online] The Hague, The Netherlands: IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre. Available at http://www.irc.nl/page/75135.