WASH Program Management and COVID-19: Lessons Learned by Water For People in Latin America
by Jennifer Zavala, Latin America Regional Program Officer, Water For People
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Since March 2020, the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) has presented widespread challenges for water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) programming in rural areas where Water For People works. However, challenging development contexts also present opportunities and create space for adaptive and innovative approaches that can lead to long-term program improvements. Throughout the pandemic, Water For People in Latin America continued to progress toward reaching Todos para siempre with sustainable WASH services through rural systems change approaches in partnership with District WASH Offices and other local actors. While the ever-evolving context was overwhelming and the progress was slow at times, country teams persevered by implementing systems and processes, adapting to a new virtual reality, and embracing new opportunities for sector influence and fundraising in Bolivia, Perú, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. In a global context full of uncertainty, it is important that we reflect on the experiences and lessons learned over the last year and leverage them to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of program management that will contribute to reaching Everyone Forever with reliable WASH services.
It is important to adapt and implement systems and processes to provide clear direction, communication, and order amidst uncertainty.
At times, it seemed futile to implement systems and processes when everything was in constant flux, but the effort proved worthwhile as Water For People coordinated a response to the pandemic and provided clear direction on how to continue program implementation. In Latin America, Water For People implemented a system to track country caseloads, lockdowns, and other government ordinances with country directors and reported that information at a global level on a bi-monthly basis to keep everyone across the organization informed. At regional and country levels, teams regularly monitored infrastructure project progress through communications with country directors and program officials on the ground to identify areas of risk. When it became clear that many projects would be delayed due to lack of access to communities, slow procurement processes, and cashflow restrictions from government partners, teams re-forecasted goals around population impact, infrastructure completion dates, and budgets. Water For People also maintained open lines of communication with donors and implementation partners to ensure that realistic expectations were set given the constantly evolving contexts in each of the five countries in Latin America where Water For People works.
Due to country lockdowns and general concern for the safety of Water For People staff, partners, and community members, country programs were unable to complete annual monitoring in fiscal year 2020 (FY20). Water For People typically completes annual monitoring activities between February and May. Teams in country and in the United States then analyze the data internally and use it to inform discussions at annual Reflection Sessions in June or July. These Reflection Sessions, which involve local partners and stakeholders, evaluate progress over the course of the year and leverage that information to inform planning for the next fiscal year. In 2020, Water For People modified this approach to take a deep dive into 2019 datasets and carefully analyzed 2020 qualitative data that we were able to collect through service authority interviews. The exercise proved valuable and allowed for new perspectives and analyses of datasets from previous years, even while Reflections Sessions were held virtually. In the future, country programs will integrate these new analyses into data processing.
Planning for FY21 in FY20 also presented a challenge to the region as the uncertainty of the future loomed over the process. To develop realistic programmatic and budgetary goals that Water For People could confidently present, country programs created various analyses to look at "best case", "conservative case", and "worst case" scenarios. Country programs then determined which scenario they felt comfortable presenting in multiannual operational plans. As FY21 continues, Water For People will analyze these plans to ensure that they track with program goals for 2021 and future years.
Technology empowers Water For People to continue work despite travel restrictions and the inability to regularly visit rural districts and communities.
One positive outcome of the pandemic is that it has brought cross-country teams closer through more regular use of technology and platforms such as Teams, Zoom, WhatsApp, and Skype for Business. The virtual landscape has also changed coordination and communication in support of District WASH Offices and local service providers. In Perú, the Water For People country team created WhatsApp groups to connect with District WASH Offices and local service providers. Through these groups, water continued to flow during the pandemic providing an important service to rural populations that helps curb the spread of the virus. The Perú team also established shared monitoring documents that District WASH Offices could access and log chlorination levels, water flow, and other service quality indicators to monitor service levels even when access to communities was limited. At the regional levels, the Perú team also worked with government stakeholders to develop ordinances that mandated the continued provision of WASH services in the face of COVID-19 in rural areas despite high default rates as people faced economic hardships.
Finally, new challenges and contexts also present new opportunities.
With a greater emphasis on handwashing and hygiene practices in the current global context, the donor landscape is changing and interest in the WASH sector is growing. At the beginning of the pandemic, Water For People in Latin America observed that a lot of emphasis in the WASH sector was on urban WASH services and not rural WASH services as the world turned its attention to more population dense areas to try and stop the spread of the virus. However, Water For People knows that you cannot ignore the rural populations in the face of a pandemic. To help spread awareness of the importance of rural WASH, Water For People Communications Officers in five Latin American countries coordinated to develop a guide for "Sustainable Management of Water and Sanitation Services in Rural Areas: COVID-19 Scenario" (Water For People, 2020). The guide was published on the Water For People website after a webinar was held with external partners and other sector actors.
Water For People and other WASH implementers must be ready to adapt to new contexts, learn from experiences, and face future challenges. COVID-19 is not the first, nor will it be the last, external factor that will pose a challenge to the sector and our journey toward reaching Sustainable Development Goal 6, especially considering climate change, natural disasters, and socio-political contexts. Responding to these external forces requires strong, agile program management and close coordination to track new opportunities and pursue new partnerships. In summary, the WASH sector, specifically WASH program management, must reflect on experiences during COVID-19 to ensure that lessons learned are not wasted, and continue to innovate and adapt to ensure that WASH programming makes a positive impact around the globe.