“What to Do When Things Go Wrong?”…. and They Will

By Carolyn Crowley Meub, Executive Director

None of us like to fail. Yet, from time to time, we all do. How do we learn from failure and turn it into success?

Three panelists and moderator, Susan Davis with Improve International.

Learning from failures in the WAter, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) sector was the topic of a forum that I recently attended, sponsored by Helvetas USA and charity: water.

There is wisdom in learning from failure, yet non-governmental organizations, donors, local partners and other stakeholders in the delivery of WASH services do not like to admit failure.

Three panelists, at the forum, spoke about problems they have encountered and identified, sharing how they have addressed the problems and what corrective actions they have taken. Those in attendance all related to the illustrations of “failure” each presented. It happens us all.

I have both attended and participated on several panels where the general topic was monitoring WASH programs. What made this forum different was the focus on risk and risk management. To achieve greater impact, we need to understand the risk before it becomes a problem.

Maya Winklestein, Executive Director of Open Road Alliance, a funder that only supports projects that have encountered unexpected obstacles, said that many problems can be predicted. Most donors, non-governmental organizations, community-based groups and other stakeholders do not access risk or even have conversations about risk. Organizations and funders need to understand the risks involved and develop contingency plans. From Open Road Alliance’s research, there is a 20% chance that projects will face obstacles that were not planned or anticipated.

At Pure Water For the World, we have primarily focused on the risks associated with program intervention. Were people using their filters correctly? Were they practicing healthy hygiene behaviors? If not, how do we modify our program to achieve greater impact?

Risk is not only in the delivery of services, but in known and unknown factors. Are there organizational risks such as departure of key staff? Are there major changes in government policies that could impact programs? And, as we have unfortunately had several opportunities to experience, how do we continue a program in the aftermath of a natural disaster?

While there were only three panelists sharing their organizations’ less-than-optimal performances, all WASH organizations have failures to report. What’s critical is not that we have made mistakes or had unexpected outcomes, but how we respond to these situations when they arise.

Pure Water for the World has learned invaluable lessons from the field. Five years ago, we developed an extensive monitoring and follow-up program to measure how we are doing. And, thanks to that effort, our implementation program has evolved. As an example, we discovered, during our monitoring process, that people were not cleaning the filter properly, which could have a significant impact on the effectiveness of removing pathogens in the water. We have since modified the training material to directly address this issue, training our Community Agents how to effectively clean the filters to fully support proper filter maintenance.

Learning from our mistakes provides us with invaluable insights to improve our programs and to increase our confidence that the water our families are drinking continues to be safe and reliable. We can do no less.