Reflections on a Nerd Summit and working collectively to strengthen WASH systems: a conversation with Water for Good’s Chief Strategy Officer

Adrienne Lane, Chief Strategy Officer at Water for Good

Background: In 2019, Water for Good and Water Mission began a long-term, bi-directional technical assistance partnership to collectively strengthen the WASH systems in districts where they work, the objectives are which are outlined in this recent blog post. In February 2020, the two organizations came together for a 3-day Nerd Summit at Water Mission headquarters in Charleston, South Carolina, USA.

Alec Shannon, Content Strategist, Agenda for Change: What was the objective behind the Nerd Summit you just attended?

Adrienne Lane, Chief Strategy Officer, Water for Good: Our organizations have had had several meetings over the last six months while we continue to define and develop our partnership. Over the course of those meetings, we recognized there was a need for a smaller group of people to take a deep dive into a few topics and really get into the technical details over the course of multiple days. The “Nerd Summit” got its name because the topics we wanted to focus these discussions on were what we deem “nerdy,” things like data systems, solar systems design, water quality monitoring, and the nuts and bolts of professionalized maintenance services. Along with in-depth discussions around those four topics, we also utilized the together to continue building our partnership plan.

AS: Who participated in this Nerd Summit – was your roster more technical and engineering based, or did you also include social scientists?

AL: We had both. From Water for Good we had Jay Hocking, who is our Country Director in the Central African Republic; Paul Harris, a Senior Advisor who is a retired engineer; and me. Of the three of us, I am the one who is more focused on systems strengthening and the softer side of how to build programs that strengthen the different building blocks. Of course, I was very interested in following the details of the various engineering topics, but my role is to bring the broader systems perspective and document where we are headed with our program development.

From the Water Mission side, we had access to their full staff since we were at their headquarters in Charleston. This also made it possible for us to pull in resources from different country programs, quickly and easily, with the support of their staff. We may have taken notes on something that occurred during Water Mission’s East Africa workshop, for instance, and it was easy for us to connect the dots while visiting their offices and connecting with their staff.

AS: What was your favorite session or topic?

AL: There is a water quality testing lab at Water Mission, and we were able to to see how they physically set that up, talk through the environmental requirements with them, and discuss how we can make that possible in our setting in the Central African Republic. Being able to talk that through completely with them was super helpful. It’s a tacit knowledge, not just the steps you would see in a manual.

AS: Once you talked it through with them and saw their process, did you feel that this process is implementable in the Central African Republic?

AL: Yes, very doable. You do not need that much space, yet you can do some rigorous, routine, and risk-based water quality monitoring. We also talked through the degree to which the results would be compatible with the national standards but allow us to do routine sampling at a regional level. Within the next couple of years, we expect to have a robust data set of groundwater quality from water points in Mambere-Kadei, the prefecture (region) where we adopted a district-wide-approach to government partnership, planning, and service delivery. We are working in harmonization with the regional government and a focus of these efforts is to provide visibility of the quality of water services, which this water quality testing process will help us to do.

AS: How does this technical assistance partnership work, practically speaking? How will Water Mission support you in setting up this water quality monitoring process in the Central African Republic, for instance?

AL: We have a helpline, so to speak, where we can continually reach out to them with questions, or for support. This is mostly through email. There is also a plan for some colleagues from Water Mission to come out and support the development of the lab, verify our methods, and do some training with our team in the Central African Republic.

AS: Can you talk a bit more about how you are both supporting staff and travel for these meetings and technical assistance opportunities – this is all in-kind, correct?

AL: Yes. To date, both organizations have been supporting this work through in-kind support. In the beginning, Water for Good realized we had time sensitive and impractical timelines that required us to invest in making this technical assistance happen quickly. As we are now a year and half into this partnership, I think we are building some great evidence that this these types of partnerships, based on global level collaboration built through communities of practices and working groups, can result in tangible, specific technical assistance. As it expands to a broader, long-term collaboration with different types of knowledge sharing, we are looking forward to institutionalizing how this collaboration works and we are actively seeking additional financial support towards these efforts.

AS: Outside of Water Mission staff visiting your programs in the Central African Republic soon, what else do you have coming up?

AL: Water Mission just launched the Global Water Center, which is a new independent non-profit that has the explicit mission to scale and replicate collaboration and learning in the WASH sector. So, we want to evaluate what we’ve learned from working together already, and see how this learning can inform and support the Global Water Center’s launch.

Beyond that, we will be working with the staff at Water Mission to develop some knowledge products that they can use both internally and externally, largely based on concepts that arose during their East Africa workshop last November, which Water for Good participated in.

AS: Do you have any advice for other organizations that are getting started on their WASH systems strengthening journey? How can they foster these relationships and work more collectively?

AL: I think it is context specific and should stem from where you are working and trying to strengthen systems. Especially if you have limited resources, rather than trying to jump in at the global level, it is better to invest in understanding the context you work in and the systems that are already in place. There are also lots of frameworks available for you to start to evaluate the systems where you work; depending where you work, there may already be some systems evaluations from the WASH sector. That is the best place to start.

As far as getting more opportunities at a global level to interact with larger WASH organizations, starting to engage with the Agenda for Change community of practice is a great place to start. That is how Water for Good got involved about six years ago. We knew our strategies were evolving towards a systems approach and we used resources to align our strategies with what we though were best practices at the time.

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Ms. Adrienne Lane serves as the Chief Strategy Officer for Water for Good. In her role, she focuses on program and business development and growth, bridging fundraising and operations. Water for Good's mission is to sustainably end water poverty in the Central African Republic, a fragile and complex emergency country. Adrienne serves on the WASH Agenda for Change Executive and Steering Committees and the Technical Assistance Working Group. In 2018, she completed an MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management from the University of Oxford, UK. She has a BA in Political Science from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, USA. Adrienne joined Water for Good in 2011.