Agenda For Change Breakfast: Advancing Systems Approaches Through Collaboration And Partnership

This year marked the 4th annual Agenda For Change breakfast at World Water Week in Stockholm.  Building on the content presented over the last few years, the breakfast presented the progress made over the past year. It provided a forum to share examples of systems approaches and partnership at district, national and global levels. The session opened with a case study from Cambodia by Fraser Goff, which focused on the system strengthening work of WaterAid’s SusWASH program.  This program is interesting because it provided examples as to how WaterAid is contextualizing and applying their sector strengthening approaches in the Cambodian context.  Lessons from the presentation include the need for engaged and responsive leadership, targeting both national and subnational systems for strengthening, and that time and flexibility are essential to this work.

The second part of program shifted from an in-depth look at one country and program to learning from experiences of systems approaches in action across Africa. Harold Lockwood of Aguaconsult moderated a panel discussion, which included panellists from different Agenda For Change partners from the Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Malawi and Uganda. The discussion focused on five themes: Partnerships and Collaboration; District level application; National level systems building blocks; Advocacy; and Measuring Systems.  (See the list of panellists below)

Louis Boorstin of the Osprey Foundation shared his impressions on outcomes and highlights from the panel discussion. These include the following.

  1. Political economy – The WASH sector needs to focus on the political economy and not just digging wells.  This requires participatory analysis, stakeholder mapping and understanding the interest, influence, incentives and levers that actually make a system work.
  2. Getting out of our comfort zone – Historically, the WASH sector is most comfortable trying to provide first time access or rehabilitation of WASH infrastructure.  Over time, there has been a shift towards providing services and a focus on sustainability.  To achieve this as well as changes within the system, it is necessary to engage with both WASH and non-WASH actors. We often engage with relevant technical ministries at all levels, but getting out of our comfort zone means engaging with ministries of finance and parliamentarians.  There is also a role for advocacy and engaging with civil society to bring collective voice to the issue. 
  3. Leading from behind – A key point is about supporting government.  Leading from behind is about providing data and the means to interpret it.  It’s about listening to different voices and helping them be heard.  Ultimately, it’s about strengthening the leadership and coordination function of government to be able to support WASH service delivery.
  4. ‘Systems leadership’ – The leadership you need for this sort of work is different.  It is a different set of skills - partnership skills, understanding collective action, how to work with a range of organizations that have different interests. Systems leadership focuses on coordination and being able to identify when to step forward and lead, and when support and encouragement from behind is a better approach. It is important to try to overcome organizational inertia and organizational issues.
  5. Dynamic, not static; complex, not linear; indirect, not direct - It would be so much nicer if our work was just about installing boreholes, it would be so much easier if it was just about the technical issues facing the WASH challenge.  But as we all know, it is not.  It is an adaptive function. It is not a project, it is not even a multi-year program, it is an on-going function. What is evident from the organizations the panel and the other organizations that do systems work is that they are aligned with the same basic principles - strengthen systems and eventually get out of there so that the system can stand on its own.  That is a great vision. It is a vision that all of us can get behind, but it is a very different way of working and honestly, much tougher.

As a bonus, Louis highlighted a topic that did not get much attention:

  • Money – Although budgetary allocations were mentioned a few times, this is still the elephant in the room and maybe next year we will have more to say on the topic!

Participants represented the wealth of knowledge and diversity found within the WASH sector including bi-laterals, corporations, foundations, implementing organizations, academia, etc. A few of the attendees also shared their reflections on the event.

Darren Saywell, AECOM – The event shared very practical insights about system wide change, which I think is going to be the sort of defining narrative of the next 5 years or so.  It is highly relevant within the work we are doing, it’s all about how you bring about wider change, more sustainable change.  The building blocks around institutions, rules and regulations and financing are part of the bread and butter of our programming and we need to understand those processes and how other organizations have worked on them.  I like the emphasis on systems leadership or leadership as a whole so I could imagine us trying to think more about that within the institutions that we engage with, particularly utility leaders as a way to think about how utilities expand their network and footprint.

Andrea Jones, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation - It was a great conversation about what systems orientated approaches look like across various contexts, countries with stronger governance structures in place as well as more challenging contexts.  An area that we need to better flesh out as a knowledge gap is what are the actual incentives, what are the motivations of individuals as well as organizations to be working in this different way.  It is really important to identify how can we understand those motivations, design appropriate incentives, and drive people to work towards a systems approach. A core belief for the Hilton Foundation is that not one organization can do it all, and that with government in the lead we have a huge opportunity to bring in other organizations leveraging each other’s expertise to accelerate progress on the ground. 

For more information about Agenda For Change click here, and you can find our 2018 Year in Review here

The panel included:

  • Dr. Alain Randriamaherisoa, CARE Madagascar Chief Of Party of RANO WASH Project
  • Bethlehem Mengistu WaterAid Ethiopia Country Director
  • David De Armey, Water For Good Director of International Partnerships
  • Jane Nabunnya Mulumba, IRC Uganda Country Director
  • Kate Alinafe Harawa, Water For People Country Director, Malawi