When Technology Fails: Insights on Socially Sustainable Strategies in the Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Sector
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Background: As the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) come to a close, 783 million people still lack access to improved water (Onda et al., 2012). An estimated 30 - 40% of development efforts to improve access to water still fail (are broken and/or unused) (Lockwood et al., 2010), which is similar to rates found 40 years ago (Imboden, 1977). While there have been increasing efforts to address this issue - especially the financial and technical aspects, a review of recent sustainability frameworks in the Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) sector reveal that there is a need for better understanding how to plan for and address the social aspects of sustainability in delivering rural water services. Purpose: The purpose is to explore different strategies used by leaders in the WASH sector to deliver socially sustainable safe drinking water in low income countries. The goal is to provide insights based on specific examples and participant experiences on ways to increase the social sustainability of services: a) in the bigger picture of international aid effectiveness, and b) with a specific focus on creating effective motivation infrastructure. Methodology: Twenty-two key informants were purposively selected and interviewed for an average of one hour and fifteen minutes, during which they were asked to describe in detail their organization's approach to sustainability along with a specific example of an effort that failed and one that succeeded. Interviews were recorded, transcribed, and analyzed using qualitative analysis and ©NVivo10 software. Results: Eight main themes emerged which were consistent across what participants believed worked and did not work and found worked and did not work. Socially sustainable efforts create effective incentives, build local capacity, respect local stakeholders priorities and preferences, learn before, after and throughout the process, prevent failure and protect investment, ensure on-going monitoring and maintenance, identify and avoid assumptions, and focus on what people want rather than need. Given the variability of local context and culture, it is not helpful and may not be possible to create a fixed list of actions that accomplish the themes listed above. However, learning from themes that emerged provides valuable insights into how we might more consistently include mechanisms that improve sustainability by recognizing the importance of social versus technical challenges. Examining how these themes align with the bigger picture of development, we find that 85% of the themes fit into one of the five categories of commitments made in the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness (2005); but a lack of consistent, wide-scale monitoring in the WASH sector makes it difficult to tell to what extent each of these international commitments have been met. Looking at how these themes align with a specific focus - motivation as described in Maslow's Theory of Motivation (1943), we find that strategies participants believe to be effective align more with higher level needs such as self-actualization (n=105), self-esteem (n=88), and safety and security (n=110) compared to physiological (n=8). Conclusion: More rigorous, collaborative research is needed to better document the definitions, combinations, and contexts in which strategies work and do not work. There is no magic bullet that will guarantee sustainability 100% of the time, but a more accurate understanding of social challenges and barriers like human motivation provide us with better tools from which to make evidenced based decisions in addressing a missing area of sustainability.
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