The Power of Information: Spotlight on sanitation
This can be very important work, yet, it is often the least appreciated because of this very reason; it is hard to explain.
Even though I have had to respond to the question “What does EWB even do – build wells in Africa?” many times, I still don’t think I have an appropriate, compelling response. This is partly because I feel like I have nothing to say that would be equally as tangible and compelling as building wells. Building wells makes sense and its simple. More water points. More water access. Better health. However, most of EWB’s work is within the intangible workings of governance, teamwork, coordination, information sharing.
WatSan, one of EWB’s most established ventures, works with both the Water and Sanitation side of things in Malawi. In a country that experiences 19 000 preventable deaths from diarrheal disease every year, we know that they are in desperate need of change in their water/sanitation sectors. However, when WatSan began working in the sector many years ago, there was minimal data on water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure/outcomes. Without this data, there was no way to make appropriate decisions regarding the progress of the sector. Where was progress being made? Where was additional focus needed? No one really knew.
EWB set out to work on monitoring & evaluation systems to create a simple Excel-based system on recording water & sanitation statistics, such as latrine coverage, waterpoint functionality and borehole locations. Instead of aspiring to use a costly and complicated GPS-based system that would have required a system overhaul for the Ministry of Water Development and Irrigation as well as the Ministry of Health, EWB helped the ministry use their existing systems to create a standardized monitoring & evaluation platform. This involved the use of existing extension workers and Excel-based computer systems. This standardized system for every district in Malawi allowed communities, districts and the national ministry to direct resources to areas most in need.
Districts have been using this information in many ways, including putting boreholes in appropriate places and prioritizing pump repairs over new pumps. In the sanitation area, some districts have prioritized HSA efforts in places with low latrine coverage, resulting in a reduction in cholera outbreaks. Such data can also be used to appropriately channel the efforts of other stakeholders, such as NGOs, that enter the sector to try to improve outcomes. In the Chikwawa District, the government of Malawi collaborated with China to construct new boreholes, using this data. Although initial political pressure was going to cause boreholes to be built evenly across the district, the data was used by the district offices to build boreholes in the locations with the most need.
In the same vein, another EWB venture, VOTO, is currently hoping to create an Infoline for ebola that allows people to call in to a toll-free number and prescribe to free information about disease symptoms, prevention measures and spread, in citizens’ language of choice. This allows the venture to circumvent one of the biggest issues in the management of the ebola epidemic in West Africa – misinformation.
Improving information availability and flow is essential to being able to do impactful development work. Yet, it may be hard to grasp without fully understanding the system. It may be hard to sell to donors. It may be hard to answer the question “So what do you actually do.”
So when I answer the question, “What does EWB even do – build wells in Africa?”, I answer “We don’t build wells, but we improve information flow and stakeholder coordination. We collaborate with local actors and use their feedback to improve our work. We work within existing systems to improve outcomes. I guess it’s not sexy or alluring or very catchy…but it works.”