Taking emergency water, sanitation and hygiene to market

Esther Shaylor Humanitarian, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)

Esther Shaylor explains how Oxfam is working with other NGOs to share learning about providing emergency water, sanitation and hygiene using local markets.

In recent years there has been a change in how we deliver humanitarian aid. The humanitarian sector as a whole is moving away from distributing food and other items, and, through research and practice, is working out how to deliver assistance through markets-based programming.

This means helping people to buy essential food and other items locally, it includes giving cash transfers to crisis-affected populations, as well as interventions that directly support the markets, such as grants to traders to recover their market capacity. (Visit the Cash Learning Partnership website for more overall information about the role of markets in humanitarian response).

Giving cash grants or vouchers allows households to decide what their priorities are and purchase goods and services from the local market. This moves us away from deciding what beneficiaries need and giving them what aid agencies think will fit the bill, thereby giving people more choice, as well as a greater sense of dignity and control over their own lives.

How can the markets-based approach be applied to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH)?

It is obvious to me if someone is hungry and I give them cash they will buy food, but if they are in the middle of a cholera outbreak will they prioritise having their toilet pit emptied to remove the sludge that will make them sick? Will they buy chemicals that ensure their water is clean?

The WASH cluster, who lead on coordination of WASH activities in major emergencies recognise the potential of using cash and markets programming to give assistance in emergencies. A working group is looking into how we can use this dignified approach while ensuring that WASH needs are prioritised. Last month the working group met to share experiences and discuss how we can guide WASH actors to feel confident in using markets-based approaches.

With the right support and information households are taking improving WASH into their own hands.
It’s an exciting environment to be in, our livelihoods focused colleagues have been doing this for years and WASH has been teetering on the edge of the party. Oxfam, Save the Children and UNHCR are some of those working to share experiences on how they have found this new way of working. With the right support and information households are taking improving WASH into their own hands.

For example, in Zimbabwe Oxfam has increased the use of water treatment chemicals to prevent cholera through market deals like buy one, get one free. Save the Children have found that giving households vouchers to buy hygiene items women can purchase nappies and sanitary pads and not have to sacrifice cash on daily essentials.

Next steps

So what next? There are challenges, to get this approach mainstreamed we need to enable our own WASH teams to feel comfortable with talking about markets as well as pipes, and to feel able to walk into the market place and understand the supply issues as well as drumming up demand for key WASH commodities. As with all emergencies there are time pressures to get assistance to those in need and markets-based programming can be time consuming to set up, but there are several rapid assessment tools that we can use if we have laid the ground work and prepared our teams in advance.

It’s too early to say conclusively what the guidance for WASH is when utilising a markets-based approach but in the next year we will see the results from the work being done by UNHCR and Save the Children. Oxfam has released its monitoring and evaluation guidance for markets-based programmes that is designed for the sector to use to understand better what works and what doesn’t, and to help with sharing the outcomes of different programmes. Oxfam will also be sharing the results from their OFDA supported project that looked at markets-based programming in Zimbabwe, Indonesia, Haiti, South Sudan and Bangladesh, all countries with regular shocks and emergencies. We know that we can provide for peoples’ water, sanitation and hygiene needs by working through markets. Ultimately the findings from current projects will help pave the way to providing a better service for crisis-affected populations.