Three things you thought you knew about innovation in emergency WASH

Published on 31/08/2017

What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘innovation’? Is it an image of a lone inventor, waiting for that one brilliant spark to solve multiple challenges? Or is it an image of disruption to much-needed everyday programming?

On 26 July, we at Elrha’s Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) facilitated a panel discussion with selected HIF grantees and technical advisers at the Water, Engineering and Development Centre (WEDC) Conference 2017.  Here we explore reflections from this session in the first of a three-part blog series. We begin with three myths about emergency Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH).

MYTH #1: Innovation happens in a flash

For Andy Bastable, Head of Water and Sanitation at Oxfam’s Global Humanitarian Team, innovation in WASH isn’t an instant, isolated occurrence but rather happens among groups of people with a mix of expertise. In fact, we can further separate the innovation process into problem recognition and the generation of a solution, with the understanding that those defining the problem aren’t always the best people to solve it. This means that innovation isn’t only the responsibility of field staff, but can happen at different levels within an organisation or sector. Furthermore, as pointed out by Harriette Purchas, KnowledgePoint Coordinator at RedR UK, innovation breeds more innovation, which means that we can’t limit our understanding of innovation to a one-off event: it’s a constant cycle.

MYTH #2: If we do not use the term ‘Innovation’, we are not innovating

The WASH sector has been creative in thinking about how to do things better and more effectively even before the term innovation was used in this field. For example, the Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) approach, first introduced in 2000 to help rural communities analyse their sanitation practices and become open defecation free. This is an approach that our panel and audience agreed has changed the WASH sector and has been adapted to a variety of contexts including urban areas, schools, and post emergency environments.

For some, at the heart of innovation is the sentiment that we need to radically improve the way we do things.  However, if we think of the continuum from programming to invention shown in our HIF/ALNAP report ‘More Than Just Luck’, it’s clear that even adapting programming from a different sector can be innovative . This is what the Oxfam team did when adapting the Tiger Worms toilet technology used at household level in urban and rural settings, to fit a communal purpose in humanitarian contexts.

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Source: Obrecht, A. & Warner, A. (2016). More than just luck: innovation in humanitarian action. ALNAP and HIF.

Adaptation-driven innovation can also mean looking backwards. An audience member from Afghanistan discussed struggling to find surface level water, but also having difficulty finding water underground due to layers of oil and gas. The panel explained that innovation can involve exploring solutions used by WASH practitioners in a similar scenario in the past.

Although creativity and adaptation happen continually, grouping these inventions and adaptations under the word ‘Innovation’ allows us to have a common language. We are able to create relevant tools such as the DIY toolkit that serves the domestic sector, as well as adapt tools from other sectors to fit the nature and mindset of humanitarian innovation such as the Business Model Canvas. Keeping in line with this, we are currently working on an Innovation Management Guide, bringing together different tools aimed at humanitarian innovation, to be launched in 2018.

MYTH #3: Innovation produces tangible products

In emergency WASH, it is easy to think of innovation as something we can see and touch, or, with the rise of mobile technology, a new app. While these can certainly be examples of innovation, there are various types and stages of innovation. The 4Ps model of innovation differentiates between product, process, position and paradigm innovations, all of which are necessary for us to truly affect change. So, while innovation could mean a new and improved water filter, it could also be a private sector financing project, which encourages the financial sector to lend expertise to the WASH sector and moves away from the notion that WASH is purely a social intervention.

In the next blog, we discuss common challenges in emergency WASH innovation. Join us then!

Author: Mambwe Chella, HIF Programme Officer, who provides support to the HIF’s WASH programme.

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