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MERL Tech Lessons Not Learned in International Development

By Guest Writer on October 26, 2015

decades of water sanitation commitments

The world has made several commitments to water and sanitation, starting as far back as the 1970s, and leading up to the recent Sustainable Development Goals. Also over the past few decades, the development of the internet and cool data collection tools has enabled more and more organizations to share their evaluations and monitoring data publicly.

But is anyone actually learning from them?

Four years ago, I founded Improve International to address sustainability issues in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). Since then, I’ve been reading a lot of evaluations, research, and systematic reviews, some as old as the 1970s. One great resource is Watering White Elephants: lessons from donor funded planning and implementation of rural water supplies in Tanzania from 1988.

major decade constraints in developing countries

What I’ve noticed is that, in the WASH sector, we’ve been producing the same “lessons learned” for 40 plus years. Some of the lessons re-learned throughout the past four decades were summarized in Watering White Elephants. Others include:

  • No more business as usual. It is now business as usual to say this.
  • Long-term follow up is really important to get behavior changes to stick.
  • It’s not about the infrastructure; it’s about the services.
  • Isolated rural communities will have a hard time managing their own water services over time.

The sustainable development goals have us committed to UNIVERSAL sanitation and water. It’s time for us to stop reinventing the flat tire.

Why aren’t lessons learned?

Perhaps they are learned, but they don’t seem to be acted upon. I think the main reason for this is there is little accountability in the sector. Think about this: How many charity organizations do you know that have gone out of business because of bad results? How many foundations? Can a customer (aka beneficiary) call up the charitable organization or the donor and say their water point isn’t working?

Why do we need to learn from the past? Some people ask, aren’t good intentions enough? No. Bad development is doing harm. Failed water and sanitation services make poor people poorer, impact their health, and make behavior change even harder. We have a moral imperative to work smarter.

How can we really change? I have three ideas: independent ratings, design for action, and sharing is caring.

1. Independent ratings

Rather than just doing a bunch of separate monitoring and evaluation efforts, what if have independent rating of effectiveness based on actual results? There are a few examples we can learn from:

  • In the UK PQASSO is a performance evaluation system and quality mark for charitable organizations.
  • The Water for Life Rating has been applied in Honduras, Nicaragua, and Bangladesh.
  • GiveWell does in-depth research aiming to determine how much good a given program accomplishes per dollar spent.

There is money for this! GiveWell just got $25 million grant.

2. Design for action

A recent report from ITAD on “How to strengthen ICTs for monitoring to improve the sustainability of water services?” found that:

  • ICT reporting is more likely to be successful if it is service-provider or government -led compared to crowd-sourcing. Can we get everyone working in a country together to support country-wide or regional services monitoring systems? SIASAR in Central America is a great example.
  • Water service repairs are more likely to occur if the ICT initiative has a built-in maintenance model. Can we make tech part of a service delivery system rather stand-alone?

3. Sharing is caring

Can we work toward agreeing on and incorporating more common monitoring indicators so that data can be shared? The Water Point Data Exchange made some great progress on this.

A Call to Action

So here is my call to action: You can design MERL Tech to collect & share data for action and learning. Keep in mind:

  • Monitor ongoing services, not just the project. We need more than random snapshots of functionality.
  • Plan Evaluation to be used as diagnosis not an autopsy. If we are about saving lives, we need to use evaluations for resolution of problems and reform.
  • Research should be designed and used for change, not just conference presentations.
  • Learning should come before and after programs. Let’s fail forward fearlessly and make new mistakes, not repeat the old ones.

In fact, my challenge to you is to come up with a new WASH failure that we haven’t identified in our literature search. I’ll give a $25 Amex gift card for the first person who leaves a comment on ICTworks with documentation of the new failure (deadline November 15).

Just remember, it’s important to learn and act on lessons, because it’s okay to reinvent the wheel, not to reinvent the flat tire.

By Susan Davis, Executive Director, Improve International

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4 Comments to “MERL Tech Lessons Not Learned in International Development”

  1. Robert Scheiber says:

    Thanks for posting/providing this commentary – I have forwarded it around!. and think that the key ingredients of “MERL” should be hammered home.

  2. Hi there Susan,

    Really appreciate the article, thanks for your valuable input on the subject.

    Been very happy to see an increased focus on ‘MERL’ in the last little while, although as with lessons in the WASH sector I think the MERL ‘sector’ is going to end up coming around to many conclusions we have known for some time about what makes an effective, adaptive organization: strong change management capacity, employees on the same page and engaged in finding solutions, and strong managerial capability to prioritize and and allocate resources.

    What you monitor is what you do and it won’t be until organizations start monitoring people instead of hand pumps that they will focus on making the people work. I appreciated Dave Algoso’s thoughts on having an ‘L&A’ plan in this regard: organizations, like people, need to be prepared to learn, and we ought to be focusing on the quality of an organization’s processes and culture, not just on their output, as an accountability metric. The business world is way ahead of us in this regard.

    Would be interested in asking you a few questions if you have the availability – feel free to send an email!