Leveraging WASH Network Connections to Strengthen Sanitation Services in Ethiopia

On May 20, 2020, USAID’s Sustainable WASH Systems Learning Partnership (SWS) hosted a webinar, “Strengthening WASH Networks in Ethiopia: Analyzing an Urban Sanitation System,” featuring representatives from SWS partners University of Colorado Boulder, LINC, and Tetra Tech. 

While SWS is also working in Cambodia, Uganda, and Kenya, this webinar specifically highlighted the work being done in Social Network Analysis (SNA) in two towns in Ethiopia: Woliso, in Oromia Province, and Debre Birhan, in Amhara Province. Through SWS, USAID is working in these communities to strengthen and build local learning networks to improve urban sanitation. SWS identified organizations involved in providing sanitation services in these towns to participate in “learning alliances,” which aim to increase collaboration and knowledge sharing among stakeholders for improved efficiency, effectiveness, and sustainability of local sanitation services. 

Webinar presenter Diana Harper, program director at LINC, introduced SNA, explaining that it is a tool that aids practitioners in visualizing the relationships and connectivity among actors in a system, and helps actors identify knowledge gaps and challenges in sharing information.

According to Harper, the findings of these analyses have three powerful applications. First, in the design stage, SNA can provide insights to plan and strengthen activities; second, during the monitoring and evaluation phase, it is useful to track changes in the structure and nature of connections; and third, for network strengthening, it can help local stakeholders make data-driven decisions. By understanding the actors in a system and the factors that affect their interactions, SWS is using these applications to help practitioners implement more sustainable WASH systems. In Ethiopia, SWS is using SNA to understand the relationships, interactions, and changes over time among sanitation actors in Woliso and Debre Birhan.

Woliso and Debre Birhan share similar characteristics in terms of sanitation, according to Desta Dimste, one of the webinar presenters and a WASH expert at Tetra Tech. Neither town has a centralized sewer network system and both prioritize access to water over sanitation. Additionally, the towns face similar emerging problems, such as an increasing number of nonfunctioning community toilets and the increasing prevalence of traditional “unlined” latrine pits. 

Based on baseline analysis of the sanitation system in these towns, SWS created learning alliances to address the limited coordination among stakeholders, poor connections between researchers and practitioners, lack of documentation, inadequate dissemination of knowledge, and limited opportunity for scale-up. These learning alliances consist of researchers, decision-makers, government officials, individuals, private sector organizations, and community based organizations that come together to share information, support innovation, and improve coordination to scale up WASH solutions.

Using a network perspective, learning alliances in both towns designed public engagement events after they identified poor management of solid and liquid waste as a sanitation problem in their communities. “If the community is not aware and not involved in the management of town-level sanitation, it is impossible to achieve their target,” Dimste said. 

Dimste said the learning alliances and SNA opened the eyes of WASH stakeholders, who were surprised to find out how many other actors they were interacting with in the first place. The activities helped stakeholders realize how far their connections reached outside of the WASH sector and into the fields of media, academia, and finance. 

SWS monitored three types of relationships at the kebele (neighborhood) level—information sharing, problem solving, and coordination—in hopes of increasing connectivity and knowledge sharing to strengthen sanitation systems. The  midterm SNA found gains in connectivity among actors in both towns, with the most significant gains made in information sharing. The full midterm ONA report is available to read here.

After the presentation, Amy Javernick-Will of the University of Colorado, Boulder, moderated a Q&A session, which further explored the mechanics of SNA, discussed more of its applications, and underlined its transformative power in helping actors recognize their agency in knowledge sharing in the WASH community.

By Claire Hubert of the Water Communications and Knowledge Management Project