Three things we’ve learned about measuring quality in humanitarian WASH responses

Fragile contexts, Humanitarian, Refugees and IDPs, Research, WASH Impact Series, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)

Six months ago, we started a process for water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) practitioners and coordination platforms to measure the quality of our responses across different contexts. James Brown reflects on what we have learned so far. 

Crowded living conditions Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh. Photo: James Brown
Crowded living conditions in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh. Photo: James Brown

Back in January, we introduced the Quality Assurance and Accountability Project (QAAP) – a Global WASH Cluster initiative led by Oxfam, in partnership with Solidarités InternationalTufts University, and UNICEF. The project supports humanitarian WASH coordinators to go beyond simple headline indicators to understand – and ultimately improve – the quality of our work.   

Since October, our team has visited Bangladesh, Myanmar, South Sudan and Colombia. We’ve met with coordinators; programme teams; experts in WASH, protection, monitoring, and inclusion; as well as people directly affected by crisis.   

The purpose of each visit is to understand specific needs and challenges, and the approaches that have already been tried. We then work with the response team over several months to develop and test a quality assurance system that includes practical measurement tools. 

What types of challenge did WASH teams face? 

Long term sustainability of services in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh 

A massive and rapid influx of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar has created the largest refugee camp in the world. With the anticipated camp lifespan running into the long-term, it is essential to make good decisions about how to invest limited resources early on. 

Restricted access and protracted displacement in Rakhine State, Myanmar 

Across the border, the work of WASH teams is constrained by ongoing restrictions on INGOs delivering services in confined camps.  Longer-term planning to support internally displaced people (IDPs), sequestered to these camps since 2012, remains difficult given the absence of a clear government strategy for durable solutions to their displacement.

Fragile peace and Ebola in South Sudan 

Decades of conflict have displaced a third of the population. Over two million people have been forced to flee the country completely. Any optimism based on the recent peace deal is tempered by the threat of Ebola from neighbouring countries. The WASH cluster is coordinating a response in both formal and open sites across the country; constantly responding to new needs.

Despite the unique challenges of each context, we found consistency in the following themes:   

1. Data needs to be used in the right way 

WASH partners and third parties conduct sophisticated monitoring that includes surveys, interviews, focus groups, user feedback systems and community engagement.  In recent years, smartphone or tablet based digital surveys, GPS mapping and aerial imagery from satellites and drones have enabled us to collect huge amounts of data.  And specialist assessment organisations such as REACH can support organisations through large scale, multi-sector data collection and analysis.  

All this data can support responses to make evidence-based decisions, and to monitor the effectiveness of our interventions. However, the right data needs to be collected, shared and analysed in the right way. We found that this is not always consistent between partners, which means joint analysis at the response level is limited. 

2. Data needs to tell us if we are meeting our objectives 

Too often, data can’t tell us whether services really are equitable, sustainable, dignified or safe.
Additionally, the data being collected often does not measure the objectives of the WASH response, or the risks faced by people it aims to serve.  Strategic response objectives often include phrases like ‘equitable and sustainable access’ or ‘safe and dignified facilities’.  

Yet too often, data used to measure these indicators can’t tell us whether the services really are equitable, sustainable, dignified or safe. Community engagement and consultation is rarely even factored into the planning of water and sanitation facilities. We measure and report from our humanitarian response point of view, rather than from the experience of people using them.  

3. We all need to work to consistent standards 

We saw many examples of WASH teams carrying out good quality programmes, designing approaches that are both effective and appropriate. The potential for other organisations in the response to learn from them, and to scale up to improve quality is great.  

However, service levels and approaches are often not consistent across organisations. And, while knowledge of key standards frameworks, such as Sphere and the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS) is widespread, these standards are not routinely applied to programme design, or the development of monitoring frameworks. 

So, where next? 

WASH coordination platforms exist to promote joined up approaches across organisations, but in a complex response this can be extremely difficult. Teams are concerned about the growing number of WASH actors working without engaging with UN-led coordination mechanisms. We heard calls for the National Humanitarian WASH Coordination Platform (NHWCP) to be strengthened, and to ensure compliance with agreed ways of working.  

The Quality Assurance and Accountability Project will continue to work with coordination platforms to tackle these issues.  Together with country partners, we will define clear expectations and standards for each response, and design how best to monitor key performance indicators.   

By ensuring information is collected, analysed and shared in the right way, we can highlight where the quality issues arise.  Ultimately, our aim is to put quality at the top of the agenda. When partners have the right information at the right time, we will all be able to deliver continually improving, and more effective WASH services. 

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.