Muhammed Ibrahim is a local facilitator in Ethiopia working on USAID’s Sustainable WASH Systems Learning Partnership (SWS). His job is to improve the sanitation systems in the small towns of Debre Birhan and Woliso using an unconventional approach. He isn’t building toilets or educating people on the need for safe sanitation. Instead, Muhammed and his team are supporting local government staff, residents, and private companies to work together to address complex systematic issues as a collective. This approach is called collective action.
In Ethiopia, SWS is using a collective action approach to tackle challenges that cannot be addressed by a single organization or with a simple infrastructure solution. Much like other coordination efforts, collective action starts with a platform to convene a range of stakeholders to work toward a common goal. What differentiates the approach is an explicit focus on building trust, the creation of a shared measurement system to track progress, a commitment to shared accountability for the group’s vision, and a push for collaborative (not just coordinated) action. SWS provides “backbone support” through people like Muhammed, who guide the collaborative process and provide administrative support to keep the group on track, empowered, and motivated.
The success of collective action approaches largely hinges on the quality and techniques of facilitation applied. One method SWS finds particularly useful is the “consensus workshop,” a facilitation method that supports a group’s exploration of all relevant issues and alternatives prior to making a collective decision. The facilitator begins by posing a simple focus question (e.g., “What are some practical ways that we can build strong and effective teams in organizations today?”). The facilitator then walks the group through a process that starts with participants generating their own individual ideas about a topic or issue. As everyone in the group participates in building consensus from the bottom up, participants feel the product is theirs, and share ownership and responsibility for it.
So far, the collective action efforts of the Ethiopia team have yielded promising results. In a recent meeting, SWS used the consensus workshop technique to re-open a difficult discussion on the location of a fecal sludge disposal site in Woliso that had stalled, in part, because of an impasse among stakeholders. After the meeting, relevant local authorities agreed on a designated site within the Woliso woreda (district) boundary. The woreda administration submitted an official letter to the town administration with the value of the land and compensation amounts due to the current landowners.
SWS is training local stakeholders with these new techniques to act as cofacilitators and take on more responsibilities during platform meetings. Ultimately, Muhammed would like to entirely transition facilitation of the platform to local leaders within the collective action group.
Click here for more resources on consensus workshops.
By Lucia Henry, Water Resources and Infrastructure Associate, Tetra Tech
Tetra Tech is an implementing partner under SWS that leads work focused on small town sanitation in Woliso and Debre Birhan, Ethiopia, in partnership with LINC and IRC. Its work focuses on strengthening local systems responsible for sanitation service delivery so they operate more effectively and efficiently.