Shaping the future: Our strategy for research and innovation in humanitarian response.

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Highlights from the 2023 EEHF Event 

Advancing dialogue in the humanitarian WASH community 

The Emergency Environmental Health Forum (EEHF) event which took place in May, is a unique platform that brings together water, hygiene and sanitation (WASH) implementers, researchers, donors, and policy makers to discuss the latest research, evaluations and learning on humanitarian WASH programmes. Through this event the humanitarian WASH community share new research and learning, discusses new approaches and innovations, identify research gaps, and build new partnerships. 

As a first-time attendee I was greatly encouraged by the scope of this central forum aimed at advancing dialogue between the various WASH stakeholders, something that the wider humanitarian system often lacks. The diversity and richness of the presentations delivered was noteworthy both in terms of scope and origin. These covered all aspects of WASH with equal representation from academics and implementing humanitarian organisations, demonstrating the value that the sector places on knowledge-based approaches. There was also a good representation of actors from lower-middle income countries (LMIC), both in person and online, which enabled us to hear important messages directly from the contexts which the humanitarian WASH community strives to serve.  

Setting the agenda for optimising the humanitarian response

It was reassuring to see the level of commitment within the sector, with frequent reference to the WASH Roadmap 2020-2025 set out in 2019 to align resources and build capacity to meet the basics of providing safe WASH to those affected by crises. Up until recently, global research and innovation agendas in WASH have not been clearly defined nor systematically evaluated. Now set, the WASH Research Agenda aims to serve as a guide formulated by the WASH community of practice, for use by that community, which includes donors, academics, local governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and United Nations agencies. It aims to coordinate efforts in addressing the most pressing humanitarian WASH questions and subsequently optimising the humanitarian response in a collaborative manner. 

In response to this we at Elrha – which sits at the intersection of global public health research, innovation, and humanitarian response – commissioned a WASH research prioritisation exercise of which results were shared at the EEHF event. The results, which can be explored using the data visualisation tool, demonstrated how identified research needs vary by organisation type and region, calling for a more tailored and context specific approach to WASH research. 

"CARE Somalia has implemented a women and girls involvement focused strategy, constructing shared latrines in Southern Somalia. Women and girls were engaged in a latrine co-design resulting in developing latrine designs incorporating features suggested by women and constructing in sites identified by women. This has culminated construction of latrine design that was highly acceptable to women and girls. CARE Somalia and partners have since resorted to community centered WASH interventions across Somalia.” – Ibrahim Sheikh, CARE Somalia

Adopting context specific approaches

During the event, multiple examples were provided of situations where communities affected by crises had been directly involved in the design and delivery of health interventions and research, resulting in increased acceptability, coverage, sustainability and subsequently, a longer lasting effect on improved health outcomes.  

“Recently, several studies have been completed, including a WASH assessment in the Rohingya camps and host communities funded by OXFAM, piloting of automated chlorinators funded by ACE, and exploration of pathogen contamination in the sanitation chain in Cox's Bazar, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. These projects involved local partners, community leaders (Majhi), and trained fieldworkers from both the host and Rohingya communities. Engaging local partners and data collectors in these projects has increased the capacity and knowledge of the local people, fostering long-term sustainability within the community.” – Dr. Nuhu Amin, icddr,b, Bangladesh

Localisation became a mainstream reform during the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit where it was included as one of the main Grand Bargain commitments. This commitment has never been more important as the humanitarian and research communities continue to face a shrinking donor landscape alongside increasing humanitarian demands. Seeking long term and sustainable funding is essential to addressing key WASH evidence gaps, optimising humanitarian responses, and addressing priority needs and expectations of those affected by crisis. Adopting context-specific approaches and building of capacity and resources at the local level is critical to ensure local acceptance, ownership and sustainability to meet growing humanitarian demands. 

“The German Jordanian University (GJU), in partnership with Action Against Hunger, Bioforce, UNICEF, the Global WASH Cluster, and other humanitarian organiszations, are running a WASH master’s degree program which aims to build the capacities of local WASH practitioners and provide the necessary human capital to respond to humanitarian crises in the region. The program is the 1st first of its kind within the region and is among the collective efforts to strengthening and localiszing the WASH response capacities. In the same context, GJU is collaborating with different international NGOs to design and offer short training courses and organisze regional workshops to give the opportunity for national and regional early career professionals to develop their WASH response capacities.” – Dr. Arwa Abdelhay, GJU, Jordan

Furthermore, investing in initiatives that directly build research and implementation capacity in communities and regions affected by crises will result in less reliance on academic institutions from the Global North, will empower local academics to take research leadership roles, and will drive meaningful research that will address the WASH sectors’ most pressing challenges.  

We, at Elrha, aspire to fund more humanitarian and research actors based in countries affected by crisis and we promote equitable research partnerships. We work with research teams to identify the impacts they seek to achieve through their studies and support them to develop engagement strategies identifying strategic local actors who they plan to influence. We also collaborate with humanitarian coordination mechanisms such as the WASH cluster, and other global actors to ensure the uptake of new evidence seizing local leadership. We recognize that we are one part of a much wider system and to deliver change it is only through collaboration and empowerment of local populations that our humanitarian responses will be most effective, appropriate, and successful.

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