Unpacking the Drivers of WASH Sustainability

In its evaluation series, USAID looked back at the results of six water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) activities to inform future USAID investments in the sector and to better understand the long-term impact and sustainability of its interventions several years after projects close. Photo credit: Water and Sanitation Collaborative Council

The water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) Ex-Post Evaluation Series represents a key milestone in the Agency’s ongoing quest to unpack the drivers of sustainability within our WASH programs. The commitment, made in the first USAID Water & Development Strategy (2013–2018), came in the wake of headlines about high rates of nonfunctional water systems in partner countries where USAID has long invested. At that time, many governments and development partners were grasping for similar answers, and a number of sustainability assessment tools emerged. For its part, the Agency pursued a multi-pronged approach that focused on: 1) measuring progress towards sustainable outcomes (such as through the development and application of the Sustainability Index Tool with Rotary International); 2) gaining a better understanding of the drivers of long-term outcomes through this WASH Ex-Post Evaluation Series; and 3) testing new ideas, approaches, and tools to strengthen the local systems that can deliver WASH service sustainability through the Sustainable WASH Systems (SWS) Learning Partnership.

The Agency, together with its development partners, has achieved staggering results in terms of delivering first-time water and sanitation access to people the world over. Since 2013, USAID has helped roughly 25 million people gain access to at least basic drinking water services and 18 million people gain access to at least basic sanitation. Together with partners, USAID has mobilized almost $100 million in new funding for the sector and supported nearly 17,000 communities become open defecation free.

Yet the results of this ex-post series are sobering. Despite tremendous achievements within the life of our programs, they have largely not endured. This is especially the case in countries and communities with the highest levels of poverty at baseline, where the Agency’s resources are needed the most. Rural water systems that, at activity close, delivered safe water to households have fallen into disrepair. Basic latrine ownership and use have dwindled. Communities certified as open-defecation free are backsliding, and gains in handwashing have not been sustained.

The series did reveal some programming bright spots. Where USAID invested in providing technical assistance to committed government partners and utilities, gains in service provision and local capacity were sustained, with local actors taking up and expanding upon best practices introduced during activity implementation. Often these successes endured in countries and communities that had higher levels of capacity at the outset. However, the successes in these contexts demonstrate important lessons about investing time and resources into partnering with local institutions and focusing on plans for management of services, not just first time access.

In the course of the roughly 15 intervening years since most of the activities evaluated in this series were designed, the sector has evolved. For instance, in resource-constrained environments, the sector is now coalescing around facilitating the development of professionalized support to community-managed rural water schemes in various forms, rather than expecting voluntary committees to manage essential services alone. Additional approaches beyond community-led total sanitation, including smart subsidies and market-based sanitation, are seen as necessary to move households up the sanitation ladder, and are being applied through USAID programming. And the Agency is shifting its WASH social and behavior change programming to more holistic approaches that address emotional drivers, convenience, and social norms to modify intractable behaviors rather than communication or health promotion alone. The WASH Ex-Post Evaluation Series validates why those shifts were essential.

All those with a stake in promoting lasting development gains in the sector need to internalize these findings and take a long look in the mirror. USAID has and is seeking to do better. First, under the USAID Water and Development Plan (2018–2022) in support of the Global Water Strategy, USAID codified its commitment to sustainability with the goal of increasing the availability and sustainable management of safe water and sanitation, and an emphasis on improving the underlying governance, finance, and management of water resources that underpin sustainability. Second, the Agency has issued a set of technical briefs that provide new guidance on important topics for developing and implementing WASH activities, as well as recommendations for activity design, implementation, and monitoring. Third, USAID has launched the Water Security, Sanitation and Hygiene Implementation Research Agenda that identifies and prioritizes sector-specific research questions to close lingering evidence gaps directly related to accomplishing USAID's goal of increasing access to sustainable water and sanitation services. Finally, the Agency is rethinking its approach to sector targets and key performance indicators in its solicitations, recognizing that targets can cause perverse incentives to undermine sustainability from the outset. Doing so underscores the Agency’s commitment to sustainability and its willingness to be held accountable to deliver against those results.

For more information, take a look at the full evaluation or access other ex-post evaluations on Globalwaters.org.

By Abigail Jones and Elizabeth Jordan, Water and Sanitation Specialists, USAID Center for Water Security, Sanitation, and Hygiene