The Urban Sanitation Research Initiative’s ‘elephant baby shower’

Themes: Research Urban Sanitation Research Initiative
Countries: Bangladesh Ghana Kenya

About 18 months into the Urban Sanitation Research Initiative, and we’re starting to see emerging findings and the beginnings of policy impact. 18 months is about the gestation period of an elephant: so we’re in baby elephant phase, but planning to make a pretty big stomp in the not-too-distant future!

Courtesy of Jon Stokes

If you explore the Urban Sanitation Research Initiative website, you’ll find details of several research projects that have already generated findings, and multiple other projects that are underway. Some are particularly exciting: we’d highlight the research looking at the willingness of Kenyan water utility customers to pay a surcharge on their water bill, to support slum sanitation… intriguing empirical results, and strong prospects of translation into policy, with the regulator WASREB and Nakuru County now looking very seriously into pilot implementation of a surcharge of this type in Nakuru.

But how do all these different research projects tie together? And how do they relate to WSUP’s work more widely?

Servicing a sewer line in Kibera, Nairobi

First thing to note is that this is not centrally a programme of research around WSUP implementation activities: primarily, it’s research that runs alongside and supports WSUP’s policy change goals in each country. In Ghana, for example, we’re keen to support the government’s aspirations to create a National Sanitation Authority, and we hope that the future NSA will be set up in a way that is both functionally effective and genuinely pro-poor. Our ongoing research project in this area aims to contribute to this process by building evidence and facilitating dialogue.

There are some exceptions to this, however, when we see real value in research that’s closely tied to WSUP implementation. A good example is an upcoming piece of research in Ghana, which will be looking at user experience impacts of being a Clean Team customer. (Clean Team is a WSUP-supported container-based-sanitation enterprise.) When someone moves from conventional sanitation to a container-based sanitation model delivered by a customer-focused private operator, does that have benefits for the customer in terms of things like “less smelly and disgusting”, and feelings of dignity? This research will not only be useful to people globally trying to understand whether container-based sanitation can work, but it will also be of direct value to the Clean Team business in developing their service model and accessing commercial capital. Of course, this might be seen as “WSUP research” evaluating “WSUP projects”, so we’ll need to be careful to put strong “Chinese wall” mechanisms in place in this research, to ensure academic independence and evaluative rigour.

Demonstrating a Clean Team toilet in Ghana

Also, we’ll soon be commissioning research to support development of the SWEEP model in Bangladesh.

So the evolving work of the Urban Sanitation Research Initiative works with wider WSUP activities in diverse ways: often generating wider evidence to support sector change, sometimes working directly to learn from and support WSUP-led implementation on ground. We think the interplay between the Urban Sanitation Research Initiative and WSUP practical implementation offers powerful “think-and-do” advantages.

But how does all this tie together? Are we just commissioning multiple research-into-policy projects which, although of value in themselves, don’t really link together in a coherent way? Absolutely not! Pretty much all of our work relates to one core question: how can high-quality sanitation services be provided to low-income urban citizens in ways which are financially sustainable? And some of our larger projects provide a sort of central core into which other work can feed: notably, the 3-country study looking at costs of urban sanitation solutions versus low-income consumers’ ability and willingness to pay; and our research around modelling of faecal pathogen pathways in urban environments, which –coupled with costing information– can provide a basis for evidence-based urban sanitation planning.

In short: all this stuff ties together in ways that we hope will drive real sector change in the countries this initiative is working in, and internationally. More about that in future blog posts… in which it’s possible that, continuing the pachyderm theme, I may make bad jokes about elephants in rooms. You have been warned!

This blog post was written by Guy Norman, WSUP Director of Research & Evaluation