The Lebanon Water Project in Action. Photo Credit: Levanon Water Project

Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting for Water Security, Sanitation, and Hygiene

Using Evidence to Drive Action in Support of Water for the World

The Lebanon Water Project In Action. Photo Credit: Lebanon Water Project

Collaborating, learning, and adapting (CLA) are critical to effective and efficient water security, sanitation, and hygiene programming and strategy at USAID and among its partner governments, donors, and implementing partners. By looking to the past, present, and future, USAID is seeking to coalesce partners and the sector around approaches that produce lasting results, measure those results in meaningful ways, and ensure that the important feedback loop between learning and adaptation continues. This page explains how USAID is collaborating with partners, generating new learning, and adapting sector programming and strategy to deliver on the Agency’s Plan and results framework under the Water for the World Act.


More than 2 billion people still live without access to safe water, even more live without hygienic sanitation, and water scarcity increasingly affects the world’s most vulnerable populations. Those that do have access often find that services fall into disrepair. Estimates suggest that about 40 percent of rural hand pumps fail within a few years of installation. Because water and sanitation underpin the well-being, household assets, and livelihoods of vulnerable communities the world over, getting sustainable service delivery right is crucial to a myriad of development outcomes. Consequently, USAID is systematically and intentionally using learning throughout the program cycle in an effort to strengthen sustainable water and sanitation service delivery, with a focus on the Water for the World high-priority and aligned countries.

Collaborating Intentionally

USAID is focusing its development efforts in water and sanitation in the Agency’s Water for the World Act high-priority countries (HPCs), strategic priority countries, and aligned operating units. HPCs are partner countries of greatest sector need and opportunity, and where U.S. engagement can best protect our national security interests. Each HPC has a Water for the World Priority Country Plan in place that provides relevant stakeholders with a high-level overview of how USAID will seek to work with development partners, host-country governments, local entrepreneurs, and others to promote sustainable water and sanitation service delivery. While high level, the country plans frame how USAID is collaborating with partners to add value, fill gaps, and avoid duplication of efforts. The plans set measurable targets, apply global learning, and tailor the learning to the local context.

Learning Systematically

USAID invests heavily in learning to support sustainable water and sanitation services. The Agency has bilateral research investments worldwide, as well as centrally funded, global water and sanitation research activities that are directly informing programming approaches and sector strategy. Through a number of approaches and methods, USAID is generating evidence for the sector and taking time to reflect on implementation modalities in light of new findings.

Learning from the Past

Through a series of ex-post evaluations, USAID sought to understand the long-term drivers of program outcomes. By returning to six Agency-funded water security, sanitation, and hygiene activities three to 10 years after completion, USAID was able to examine whether and how activity results were sustained, and most critically, what implementation or programmatic approaches proved most durable and why. The series examined a diverse set of implementation approaches in a variety of different contexts, including: community-led total sanitation with and without subsidies in Senegal and Mozambique; utility credit enhancement to support market-based financing in India and Indonesia; capacity building for volunteer-based water management committees in Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Senegal; public-private partnerships in Madagascar; tippy tap promotion in Ethiopia, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Senegal; and training local masons to provide professional construction services in Madagascar, Mozambique, and Senegal. The results, however, of the ex-post series were sobering. Despite tremendous achievements within the life of the evaluated activities, results have largely not endured. This is especially the case in countries and communities with the highest levels of poverty at baseline.

Learning from the Present

USAID has produced a new series of technical briefs that distill key learning and highlight critical considerations for activity design, implementation, and activity monitoring. Each brief puts current practice into context with a discussion of programmatic approaches that have and have not worked in the past, includes concrete examples from the field, and suggests additional resources for further reading. They are intended to be actionable and help both implementing partners and USAID staff better understand how to put the latest evidence into practice in the field based on global knowledge, analytics, and programming.

Current programming, in particular, is generating new learning and evidence about best practices in water and sanitation service delivery, including on a number of key topics:

Systems USAID is currently investing in research and learning to assess the effectiveness of emerging systems-based approaches in water and sanitation service delivery. Through the Sustainable WASH Systems Learning Partnership (SWS), USAID is working with local partners to understand local systems and test approaches to overcome barriers for improving service sustainability. These approaches include establishing new models for maintaining rural water service that incentivize preventative maintenance and fast repair times, and supporting collective action platforms to bring about policy change. Evidence shows that these are promising approaches that can result in improved performance of water and sanitation services, but a supportive enabling environment, including public finance, is necessary.

Sanitation and Behavior Change Through the WASH Partnerships and Learning for Sustainability (WASHPaLS) activity, USAID is working in partnership with governments, other donors, and implementing partners to carry out implementation research to fill evidence gaps related to rural sanitation and behavior change. It also focuses on novel approaches for reducing feces exposure to infants and young children. As a result of this work, USAID has uncovered key factors in whether community-led total sanitation is likely to succeed in different contexts and has developed a new market-based sanitation framework and toolkit for supporting sanitation enterprises to become viable businesses.

WASH in Humanitarian SettingsUSAID is committed to furthering the evidence base to address documented research gaps, identifying solutions for emerging contexts, and supporting new and innovative interventions that aim to improve the health of populations affected by humanitarian crises. Beyond emergency interventions, PRO-WASH conducts applied research initiatives to identify field-viable solutions for improving WASH service delivery for the chronically vulnerable and food insecure. USAID reviews the Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance programming, as well as globally identified needs and priorities for research, to determine priority focus areas. Published results include chlorination research gaps, menstrual hygiene management and emergency sanitation solutions, innovative handwashing initiatives and trials, and disease outbreaks including ebola and cholera.

Health Impacts USAID has also invested heavily in understanding the health impacts of traditional water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) interventions. A USAID–funded impact evaluation of the USAID/Cambodia Integrated Nutrition, Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene activity is pending publication, as is a USAID–funded impact evaluation of a shared sanitation intervention in informal settlements of Maputo, Mozambique. These findings should provide additional insights to those that have already emerged from the WASH Benefits and SHINE trials--insights that have led to calls for more transformative approaches that bring higher quality water and sanitation services to everyone if water and sanitation services are to reduce diarrheal disease and achieve widespread health benefits.

Learning in the Future

Despite the significant investment in evidence generation USAID has made to-date, many lingering gaps remain. Some of these important gaps are related to evidence supporting key implementation approaches employed in sector programming to maximize impact. To galvanize investments in filling these gaps, the Agency launched the Water for the World Implementation Research Agenda (2020) that identifies 27 broad research questions that are critical to improve implementation of WASH development activities. These questions represent the culmination of an extensive evidence review and consultation process that included mapping evidence gaps associated with current programmatic approaches, and of prioritizing those evidence gaps through broad consultation. Three centrally funded mechanisms are seeking to address these research questions. For more information on each mechanism and their work, visit their pages:

  • Rural Evidence and Learning for Water (REAL Water)
  • Urban Resilience by Building Partnerships and Applying New Evidence in WASH (URBAN WASH) (coming soon)
  • Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Partnerships and Learning for Sustainability Project 2 (WASHPaLS 2) (coming soon)

Adapting Approaches

The dynamic cycle of CLA is ongoing and iterative. New learning will continue to emerge, and USAID will work hand-in-hand with governments, implementing partners, and donor counterparts to internalize new findings and apply them to maximize sector impact, including by pivoting mid-implementation if needed. USAID will also remain steadfast in its desire to enhance monitoring as a key tool to facilitate activity- and project-level adaptation when needed. To that end, USAID has released a Water and Development Indicator Handbook. The handbook, which is available to all, includes all current standard performance indicators and provides guidance on how to measure specific indicators for a variety of programmatic approaches.

On the horizon, USAID, together with the Department of State, will be leading the revision of the U.S. Government Global Water Strategy by 2022. This revision will ensure that learning generated through the cycle of CLA will be enshrined within the whole-of-government approach toward the vision of a water-secure world for all.