Originally written by Darren Saywell for Impatient Optimists.

In Nambale district on 19 November – World Toilet Day – my colleagues at Plan International Kenya will be hard at work on a national level celebration of the day, supporting communities in achieving their own sanitation solutions and sustaining hygiene behavior change.  So far; so predictable – especially for an international NGO.

What’s less obvious is that Plan’s work in Kenya on Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) is subject to much higher levels of academic scrutiny than ever before.  This is in part a function to the Kenyan program’s leadership in taking CLTS to scalable operation; in part, it reflects a strong push (obsession?) in the WASH sector towards evidence-based decision making; attaining ambitious baselines for academic rigor and the relative benefits of competing research methodologies.

I personally see this trend as positive.  It’s long overdue; and in its absence the WASH sector has lost ground to competing interests which have understood that the way to a donor or politician’s heart and head is through compelling evidence, simply told.

The challenge that many INGOs have (Plan International included) is a tendency to be very narrowly focused on the implementation of practices (with the benefit of hindsight, not always the best practices) and an adversity to change in programming approaches (we stick to what we know, we have low tolerance for risk taking and few avenues to discuss with others what we are learning).

If we want to be able to deal with these challenges, INGOs (Plan International included) need to sharpen our approaches, and do so quickly.  I think – as a minimum – this means:

  • We need greater research rigor behind our work – we need to know whether our interventions are impactful, scaleable, replicable in a way that is defensible and verifiable.  Donors look increasingly to this type of rigor when deciding where and how to invest in partners.
  • We need to identify and learn how to work effectively with research partners – to appropriate their ‘language’, internalize the implications of research into practice and understand researchers’ inputs. Our relationship with the University of North Carolina’s Water Institute on CLTS has been hugely instructive, and illuminating in demonstrating that, at times, we come from literally different worlds.
  • Lastly, we need to move beyond our comfort zone of measuring inputs and outputs; instead challenging ourselves around outcomes and longer term impact of our work.  This shift is inevitable and overdue as the public and donors investing their tax dollars in great causes are more sophisticated in their ability to judge the impact of an organizations’ work.

The corollary to this is not only sustained organizational behavior change within INGOs in the ways mentioned, but likewise with our research partners (‘research into practice’ learning cuts both ways) and institutional donors, where the current rhetoric behind the themes of innovation and ‘failing forward’ needs to be coupled with an understanding of its consequences.

Back in Nambale, we owe it to the communities that we are trying to improve and the children whose lives we are trying to save to up our game in terms of evidence gathering and rigor in our approaches.  Only in this way can we continue to learn, innovate and deliver on our wider mission.