Blog by Guy Norman, Director of Research & Evaluation

Yesterday at the Water & Health Conference 2015 at the University of North Carolina (UNC), we ran an interesting session around “where next?” for urban sanitation research. “We” means myself and inspiring colleague Radu Ban of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation… though I stress that this blog is my own and may not reflect Radu’s views! Here I wanted to briefly report on what was said in that session, and give my own view on where we should be taking urban sanitation research.

First, a bit of background. Research can surely play a key role in achieving progress in urban sanitation over the SDG period. But what research is most useful? What types of research can genuinely impact on individual behaviours, on market development, on public policy? What types of research can genuinely inform the cost-effectiveness of donor investment? These are enormous and pretty complex questions, which we certainly weren’t going to be able to answer in a 90-minute session!

So we approached it like this. We asked four researchers to come up with an initial concept around a research project that could drive massive progress towards universal urban sanitation coverage, in a given country, within the lifespan of the project. We asked the researchers to assume a $5 million research budget over a five- to 10-year period, and we requested that the research be situated in a single country.

It’s a tall ask, of course: a research project that will drive massive progress. But if research can’t drive massive progress, or at least major progress… why do it?

There were around 60 people in the room: we asked them to listen to the concepts, and to imagine themselves to be WASH research funders with $1 million to invest. Where would they put their money? And that was fun: it was only Monopoly money, of course, but Monopoly’s a great game.

First up was Oliver Cumming of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Ollie stressed that the big challenges in achieving slum sanitation are not technological, but rather institutional and political: it’s centrally about getting government to pay serious attention to slum communities, setting up effective structures to deliver water and sanitation in these communities, and investing accordingly. So from this starting point, Ollie proposed an impact evaluation study designed to demonstrate to government the costs of not doing this. Specifically, he proposed working with a committed local government (say Kisumu in Kenya) and other actors to develop an integrated water, sanitation, nutrition and healthcare package, and tracking the impact of this intervention on health and other aspects of individual wellbeing and national economic productivity. . I liked this idea, with strong involvement of local (and national?) government from the outset. In order to achieve real change it would need to treat policy influence as core not secondary, viewing government as partners in the research (not just as “targets for the evidence”): and I guess that Ollie would agree with this!

Second was Matt Freeman of Emory University, who drew on his experience of school WASH research to propose a project, also in Kenya, that will “leverage public investment in schools sanitation for full community coverage in Nairobi informal settlements”. This research would be around market-led sanitation businesses using urine-diverting technologies, but would at the same time aim to lobby government for better regulation and more investment. This was another very interesting idea, and I think Matt was suggesting that schools can be a powerful “way in” for achieving community change. But it wasn’t entirely clear to me what “leveraging public investment in school sanitation” actually means.

Next up was Henry Northover of WaterAid, who drew on his team’s recent research looking at the history of sanitation improvements in countries like South Korea. He noted that in South Korea, massive improvements in sanitation in the second half of the 20th century were driven by high-level political commitment, and often financed through non-WASH sector budget lines like housing. Henry proposed a continuation of this historical research, but looking in greater detail at exactly how improvements were financed. He also proposed that this research be tied to implementation and policy change research in a particular low-income country, perhaps Mozambique, incorporating South-South learning (Korea-Mozambique?) and paying strong attention to city sanitation planning.

Last but not least, Molly Lipscomb of the University of Virginia presented a proposal for research aiming to free up faecal sludge markets. Her hypothesis is that there are major barriers to entry into the faecal sludge business: trucks are very expensive to buy and maintenance is costly and difficult, so that it’s a truck-owners’ market with weak incentives to improve services and reduce cost to consumer. She proposed a rental market for desludging equipment to allow small entrepreneurs to enter the market.  The market would clear through a call centre which would match suppliers with equipment and clients with suppliers (similar to her existing work in Senegal).  The impact of the centre on neighbourhood prices and desludger businesses would be tested through an RCT. I thought this was well-conceived research, though I wonder whether we could really expect this to achieve massive change.

My own view? These were all great ideas, and I hope that with further development they may all develop into bankable projects. But in my opinion, the best model we have to date for research that can drive real change is the SWASH+ project (in which Matt Freeman played a lead role): this was a research-and-advocacy project designed to demonstrate the importance of investing in schools WASH to Kenyan government, and to use research to identify the most effective ways that the government might invest money. This research had three features that I think were critical to its success: 1) the Kenyan government was deeply committed to and involved in the research right from the get-go; 2) the research programme was not one big pre-defined study, but a cluster of related studies of diverse types evolving over a period of years; and 3) policy influence was core to the project, not an afterthought. For more details of this study, see the recent Public Finance for WASH Finance Brief on SWASH+.

In my view, that’s where we should be heading: away from “pure” research and towards research+influence projects, in which the translation of research into policy or other change is given equal weight alongside the research per se. I’d like to see a project in, say, Kenya in which the explicit aim is to provide the government with the evidence base they need to improve slum sanitation; a project created not just by researchers but also by policy/advocacy specialists and experts in financing; a project which draws on various types of research (impact evaluation, demand characterisation, finance modeling, etc.) to generate evidence as required and in parallel with an upscaling implementation.

Pipe dream? Maybe, but hey – what’s the point of our doing research if it doesn’t aspire to drive big change? And this session was very helpful in getting us to think more clearly about how the WASH sector in general, and WSUP in particular, can do research that achieves that.