Rethinking schools-based programming

“Schools are graveyards of failed infrastructure”, says Water For People CEO Ned Breslin in his blog Rising Tide on 27 August 2010. To rectify this, Water For People is now promoting integrated water and sanitation programs that cater both for schools and communities. “We don’t help a school and not help a family”.

As I have commented elsewhere, schools are graveyards of failed infrastructure. Organization after organization comes, builds a new water system a few meters from the one that just broke, perhaps adding a bit of new training, but never deals with the underlying reasons why water points and latrines at schools are so inherently unsustainable. Schools in Africa, Asia and Latin America generally struggle because of limited finance, low teacher morale (often because salaries are low and irregular), high turnover (especially as locations become more rural) and poor administration.

Lessons from Water For People’s SWASH+ program in Central America prompted a change in strategy.

We had been doing what many others had done – implemented projects at schools and tried to find ways to spread the work. But we weren’t actually allocating resources and energy towards getting latrines to families. Instead communities and families were being divided between community-based water supplies and schools-based water supplies.

In response, our Central American teams came up with some practical alternatives that have now spread to other Water For People programs in India, Bolivia, Malawi and Rwanda. They made the case that the school is nothing more than a household in a community – and that we need complete community solutions that address the needs of poor families, better-off families, schools and clinics within a defined boundary. We don’t help a school and not help a family. If a water project is going in then we make sure it helps schools and households. We develop a uniform tariff rate in Central America that includes the school; it doesn’t separate school finances from community finances. If the tap breaks at the school, the community-based maintenance system repairs it.

The challenge is now to get donors follow this new approach.

We should insist that finance for water and sanitation no longer be tied to either “the community” or “the school” but both. Water For People has succeeded with this line of argument at the local government level as local governments understand that separating the two guarantees both school water-point and latrine failure. No organization has played a greater role in promoting children and schools than UNICEF. We have a spectacular partnership in Honduras with UNICEF that marries schools and the broader community beautifully. ITT started by focusing their support to us with finance for schools but as we’ve seen a better approach we’ve now opened up their funding accordingly.

We will move further, and will likely have better results, if every single schools-focused program is pressed to answer the question “and what about the broader community?”. If the response is that children will spread the word, we should scratch our heads and challenge this.

Source: Ned Breslin, Rising Tide, 27 Aug 2010

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