Aina prepares a meal at her emergency shelter outside Palu. Oxfam installed clean water facilities here after a powerful earthquake struck on September 28th, 2018. Photo: Rosa Panggabean/OxfamAUS

If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it: Quality in WASH responses

Emergencies, Emergency, General, Humanitarian, Methodology, WASH Impact Series, Water, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)

As we launch our WASH Impact Series, Oxfam’s Quality Assurance Project Manager, James Brown introduces a new global initiative to help organisations focus on achieving quality in humanitarian WASH responses.

Aina prepares a meal at her emergency shelter outside Palu. Oxfam installed clean water facilities here after a powerful earthquake struck on September 28th, 2018. Photo: Rosa Panggabean/OxfamAUS

Aina prepares a meal at her emergency shelter outside Palu, Indonesia. Oxfam installed clean water facilities here after a powerful earthquake struck on 28 September 2018. Photo: Rosa Panggabean/OxfamAUS

What would a quality assurance system for humanitarian WASH programming look like? That’s the question being explored by the Quality Assurance and Accountability Project, a Global WASH Cluster initiative led by Oxfam, in partnership with Solidarités International, Tufts University and UNICEF.

Over the next six months we will be working to define and test a process that can be used by WASH practitioners and platforms to measure the quality of responses around the world.

Why is it important to measure quality?

WASH coordination platforms (sometimes called ‘clusters’ or ‘sectors’) are groups of WASH practitioners from NGOs and UN agencies.  An important part of their work is analysing information to provide an overview of who is doing what, where gaps exist, and whether standards are being met. Their summaries are used to inform decisions about prioritising resources across the response.

Headline figures hide a multitude of complexities, and can give a very different picture to the reality experienced by many.
Until now, coordination platforms have mainly focused on quantitative measures of output, which are then compared to the number of people in each area to give headline coverage figures (eg 20 people per latrine, 15 litres per person per day, one hygiene promoter per 250 people).  However, these headline figures hide a multitude of complexities, and can give a very different picture to the reality experienced by many.

The risks of ignoring the unseen

A recent Oxfam study of several programmes showed that, on average, 40% of women were not using the latrines provided. The needs of different users had not been sufficiently considered in latrine design. If we collect and report only numbers of latrines constructed, without quantifying actual use, we’re likely misunderstanding the problems faced by most of the people we’re committed to reaching.

If we’re not asking the right questions it’s unlikely we will have the information to make good decisions.
In a humanitarian response, when time and resources are limited, we’re biased towards prioritising visible problems and risk ignoring the unseen. If we’re not asking the right questions it’s unlikely we will have the information to make good decisions.  And this can lead to wasting scarce funding on activities that do not contribute to our objectives of providing basic services and keeping people healthy.

Practical benefits for the WASH sector

  1. A consistent definition of quality

Quality is a broad term that encompasses so many different factors and contexts it can be hard to define.  It’s often easier to identify where quality is lacking, because we have a subjective understanding of ‘good programming’.  Therefore, our first challenge is to define quality in a way that is both specific enough to measure objectively, whilst being flexible enough to apply to a broad range of contexts.  We will do this by gathering input from WASH practitioners, and carrying out a desk review of existing literature.

It is essential that our definition of quality is rooted in the experiences of communities affected by crisis.
Through this definition of quality, we will be able to shape the way humanitarian WASH responses are measured: influencing the incentives that drive programme design.  It is essential that our definition of quality is rooted in the experiences of communities affected by crisis.

  1. An adaptable framework for measuring quality

We will develop a draft framework that sets out the universal components of quality in WASH programming.  This will form the foundations for developing context-specific monitoring systems that can be set up and tested in live responses.  The framework template will be updated as we test it in each context, and then later shared with other WASH coordination platforms for wider use.

  1. Three context-specific quality monitoring systems that work

Working with WASH coordination groups in three countries, we will use the general framework to create monitoring tools and approaches that are adapted to the needs of each context.  We plan to visit each country twice, initially to gather information, and then to test each of the systems developed.  This testing process will ensure we are delivering the information that is most useful to the WASH practitioners working there, without creating additional burden. It will also provide a baseline quality measure for future assessments.

  1. Guidance and advocacy

We will write a guidance note at the end of the project to summarise our process, and what we learned.  This can inform the roll out of further quality monitoring frameworks in other countries.  We will also make recommendations for the Global WASH Cluster to systematically improve the quality of responses.

 

We hope that this project will start a more focused dialogue around quality in humanitarian WASH responses.  By demonstrating practical ways WASH coordination platforms can measure quality across different contexts we hope that this will become standard.  Once quality is routinely measured, WASH coordinators will be equipped to make better decisions about priorities and programme design, and ultimately, ensure that we deliver on our commitment to the people we aim to serve.

Author
James Brown

James Brown

James joined Oxfam’s Global Humanitarian Team as a Public Health Engineer in 2012. In 2016, he was seconded to the Field Support Team of the Global WASH Cluster (GWC), taking on national coordination roles in both Iraq and Ukraine, working on capacity building initiatives and leading the GWC’s Technical Working Group on Cash and Markets. Before joining Oxfam, he founded a social enterprise developing household water treatment products for the development sector. His background combines humanitarian WASH programming with human-centred design and engineering.