Do we need an Open Letter to Decolonize WASH Interventions?

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  • Temple
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  • Temple is a Water and Environmental Engineer, currently practicing as an International Development Consultant with special focus on WASH consultancy services. Temple is the Program Coordinator of Nigeria Young Water Professionals and the Co-Lead of Leave-No-One-Behind Group at Rural Water Supply Network (RWSN)
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Do we need an Open Letter to Decolonize WASH Interventions?

(cross posted from RWSN Leave No-one Behind < equity@dgroups.org >)

An open letter released on 15 April, 2021.

"Recently there was an announcement of a US$30 million grant awarded to the nonprofit health organization PATH by the US government?s President?s Malaria Initiative (PMI). The grant funded a consortium of seven institutions in the USA, the UK and Australia to support African countries in the improved use of data for decision-making in malaria control and elimination.Not one African institution was named in the press release. The past year has been full of calls from staff and collaborators of various public-health entities for equality and inclusion, so one might imagine that such a partnership to support Africa should be led from Africa by African scientists, partnering with Western institutions where appropriate, especially where capacity has been demonstrated."

www.nature.com/articles/s41591-021-01307...auth-Ngozi_A_-Erondu

This is a thought-provoking open letter that shows the cross-cutting issue of decolonisation, across sectors. In as much as we share their goal, there is indeed a cogent need to rethink and redesign approach to interventions.

Do we need an Open Letter to Decolonize Global WASH Interventions?

Temple Chukwuemeka Oraeki
International Development Consultant
Co-Lead, RWSN Leave-No-One-Behind Group
www.linkedin.com/in/temple-oraeki-4630a340  
Temple Chukwuemeka Oraeki
International Development Consultant
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  • FroggiVR
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  • Froggi VanRiper is a Graduate of Oregon State University with a PhD in Environmental Sciences (Humanitarian Engineering focus)
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Re: Do we need an Open Letter to Decolonize WASH Interventions?

I would like to see such an initiative.  I am grateful to see this topic gaining steam, following the article by Euphresia Luseka.   
Among voices leading the charge are four scholars from Drexel University (Salamata Bah, Kaelah Grant, J'anne Mare Lue, and Leila Nzekele).  I had the opportunity to meet them at the Colorado WASH conference in March, where they presented a panel discussion and a poster, which I believe is in the process of becoming a publication. 
I don't know if these collaborators are active members of this forum, but I'd love to see them weigh in.
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  • AKSantaCruz
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Re: Do we need an Open Letter to Decolonize WASH Interventions?

Yes, I believe that we do. There is way too much consolidation and professional gate keeping in the sector. 
Program Director, GiveLove.org — EcoSan Training Program
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  • Djibrilay
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Re: Do we need an Open Letter to Decolonize WASH Interventions?

Yes ! Specificly in Africa 
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  • reidharvey7734
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Re: Do we need an Open Letter to Decolonize WASH Interventions?

Forgive my posting this again but it's relevant to the topic:  De-colonizing WASH.  In any open letter perhaps the word 'de-colonizing' should not be used.  Some feel threatened and we owe sensitivity to those who ARE doing the good work of implementation.


Rather, the open letter might let people know that all over Africa and the developing world there are low-income potters who are knowledgeable in producing essential products like water containers and cook pots.  Once trained in quick production techniques they will be able to form candle water filters and fabricate clean cookstoves for the good health of their communities.  There is a serious need to train the potters in sound prototypes, then determining the 'evidence-base' for these, per project and community.  There appeasrs to be huge resistance to this among policy makers.


Without involving the poor in their own production and implementation, while the human and natural resources are abundant, their communities and countries will forever be dependent on resources from outside.  Developing nations will benefit by these newly skilled potters along with their neighbors, whose talent is at the origin of industrial development.  https://drive.google.com/file/d/1lMYxJP_ly-hcXLRIewTZP_7ZXLAyEl2X/view?usp=drivesdk

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  • FroggiVR
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  • Froggi VanRiper is a Graduate of Oregon State University with a PhD in Environmental Sciences (Humanitarian Engineering focus)
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Re: Do we need an Open Letter to Decolonize WASH Interventions?

The word "colonize" is neither a subjective descriptor, nor an interpretive one.  Oxford English Dictionary offers two definitions of colonize: to "come to settle among and establish political control over", and to "appropriate (a place or domain) for one's own use".  The humanitarian sector has many historical and continuing examples of colonialism, with varying degrees of severity, intentionality, and/or subtlety.  Assuming we agree that this power dynamic and its associated exploitation is worthy of condemnation, we need not avoid the use of its objective definition.  
We can recognize a legacy of colonialism in our sector, or even our organizations, without taking personal offense.  A call for decolonization is a call for progress.  It is only a condemnation if someone is committed to continuing without examination or adjustment of problematic practices.  
Reid, nobody stands to be threatened by decolonization unless they have a vested interest in maintaining an advantage preserved by colonial power imbalance. 
Regarding the attached newsletter:  Who is the intended audience (i.e. who is the "we" referenced in the first sentence)?  Is it to be assumed that "the poor" are not the audience of this newsletter?  If so, I must gently point out that this is an example of a colonial mindset: defining what another group needs, on the basis of the assumption that they lack the knowledge to solve their own problems, or possibly even the ability to define their own problems.  The problems referenced in this newsletter (poverty and inadequate sanitation) are the direct result of centuries of resource extraction and subjugation by outside groups from the global North.  Poor communities rely on "outside help" only because the same outsiders extracted centuries of natural and human resources without allowing any related benefits to accrue to the local population.  Numerous context-appropriate, innovative solutions for clean water and safe sanitation predate colonial society.  Such infrastructure and/or systems were viewed with distain by colonial forces, who destroyed both the physical resources, as well as the ability for practitioners to pass on the knowledge and skills important to their creation and maintenance of such systems.  Sometimes this was a deliberate act of sabotage, and sometimes it was the result of the arrogance and ignorance of assuming that European, "modern" approaches were superior.  "We" only perpetuate this phenomenon when, adhering to a false narrative of implicit shortcomings among communities in the global South, well-meaning Northern folks superimpose "solutions" generated by the same cultures responsible for the original damage and resource exploitation.
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  • reidharvey7734
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Re: Do we need an Open Letter to Decolonize WASH Interventions?

Hi Froggi VanRiper,  When using the word, WE in eliciting an interest in solving the dire environmental health problems of the poor, I
want to believe that all here have this as a goal.  I am hesitant to use the word 'colonize' because there appear to be profiteers who will feel threatened and fight back.  They sell expensive interventions to donors, when the poor are capable of their own production and
implementation, primarily needing capacity building.  I am tip toing around the profiteers because they seem to be using their influence with policy makers, in such a way as to continue a status quo of ‘colonizing’ the poor, to use your term.
 
It sounds as if you are talking about reparations when you suggest that those in the prosperous north, should continuously provide for
those in the impoverished south.  I  would agree that the prosperous donors need to provide for the kinds of capacity building that will make the poor independent of them.  This would cost them by far less than current practices do.  Then far greater numbers of those vulnerable would be reached. 
 
‘We’ seem to be in a situation where there was some sort of a loose deadline between 2009 and 2015 or so, that if sustainable technologies could not be identified, the flood gates would be opened to those out for a lot of profit.  Now that this has happened it appears to be very difficult to return to revisiting sustainable interventions.  The means of meeting the SDGs are present but unfortunately there are those who seem to be preventing others seeing these. 
 
Now I have said more than I wanted to.  These seem to be awful truths that might best be overlooked while we focus on solving the problems.  Can someone please tell me, WHERE CAN WE FIND HONEST DISCUSSIONS ON SUSTAINABLE INTERVENTIONS?  There seem to be those who really don’t want such conversation, deluding themselves with their own poor ones.  Let us hope and pray that good sense prevails.  The stakes are incredibly high.
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  • FroggiVR
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Re: Do we need an Open Letter to Decolonize WASH Interventions?

Reid, nowhere in the above message did I "suggest that "those in the prosperous north, should continuously provide for those in the impoverished south".  I was referencing the content of your linked newsletter, which states "...they [ "the poor" ] will continue to be dependent on outside resources...".  My statement was descriptive.  "Should" is prescriptive.

The newsletter is profoundly illustrative of the need for decolonization in our sector.  It contains multiple examples of the "benevolent colonialism" mindset:
  • It speaks about people and communities in poverty from an outside perspective rather than with or to them.  It employs us/them language, assuming the audience to be scholars, industrialists, or those with wealth, and the objects of the text to be uninvolved in the conversation: "We need to help the poor..."; "...the resources necessary to remediation tend to be all around them."; "Training the poor to create their own stoves..."  
  • This lens descends into condescension even when purporting to extend recognition to the communities in question: "Fortuitously, many impoverished potters are highly skilled."; "They tend to be entirely capable of production...".  
  • Finally, it purports to have a solution these communities and people need, neglecting the likelihood that they already have solutions and knowledge, but simply lack the financial or physical resources to realize these solutions (As mentioned before, this lack of wealth is a result of colonialism.  Yes, I do believe reparations are an appropriate step in rectifying such theft.)
Benevolent colonialism tends to be unconscious on the part of the author.  Those raised in colonial environments and with colonial educations (including myself) are taught assumptions, biases, and stereotypes that we often do not examine until we are confronted with "wake-up calls". 
Failing to address these biases will only perpetuate inequities and contextually uninformed interventions.  Evidence-based research suggests that humanitarian efforts, including "capacity building" programs imposed from without are prone to high failure rates, whereas solutions that arise from collaborative decisionmaking among local stakeholders yield lasting and contextually informed outcomes.  

Here are a few resources off the top of my collection.  These lean toward the methodological and philosophical, but a simple search on Google Scholar will reveal many manuscripts documenting the concrete link between outcomes and stakeholder engagement in humanitarian projects.   
Chambers, Robert.  1995.  “Poverty and Livelihoods: Whose RealityCounts?” Environment and Urbanization 7 (1): 173–204.  doi.org/10.1177/095624789500700106 .
Jasanoff, Sheila.  2004.  States of Knowledge: The Co-Production ofScience and the Social Order.  Routledge.
St Clair, Asunción Lera. 2006.  “Global Poverty: TheCo-Production of Knowledge and Politics.” Global Social Policy 6 (1): 57–77.  doi.org/10.1177/1468018106061392 .
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  • reidharvey7734
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Re: Do we need an Open Letter to Decolonize WASH Interventions?

Froggi, With respect to your intellect and understanding, did you read the newsletter and the information at the link of the bottom of that page?  From what you say I seriously doubt it.  You seem to be filled with pre-conceived notions just as so many are, about some incapacity of the vulnerable poor.  You and others do talk about their talents but don't explain how that could be put to use in solving the problems.

You seem to assume that I have no real understanding of their plight, so I will tell you a bit about how I do.  Around my twenties, I spent eleven years in Liberia working for the churches.  The longer I stayed the more aware I became of, for example, the constant coughing of many and learned that it was from cooking fires.  I was present when small children died, the locals telling me that it was due to the water.  The two radio stations advertised powdered milk, telling moms that they didn't need to breast feed, then the moms mixed this with contaminated water.  From Liberia I went on to spend a total of 24 years in various parts of Africa and Southern Asia, working on soultions whenever I could.

While still in Liberia I decided to continue my education in ceramics, convinced that this would bring about development.  I was aware that the same 'mud' with which people so skillfully built their houses of sticks and mud, could probably be used to put together an energy efficient stove.  But as yet I had little idea about the candle water filters that I would later develop, that these could be treated with silver, to basically destroy waterborne pathogens.  Clean cookstoves and ceramic water filters are incredibly simple technologies.

Can you please, for the sake of discussion, read the newsletter and the information of the link.  It seems that you as so many others can only talk about the problems without talking about the solutions.  With all due respects, please set aside your assumptions about how it is that outsiders impose their solutions.  If you know of local technologies of local people that will solve the problems of environmental health, please tell us.  I have no doubt that you are well intentioned and for that I thank you.

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  • FroggiVR
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Re: Do we need an Open Letter to Decolonize WASH Interventions?

Reid, 
Ask and ye shall receive:
Here are examples of effective co-development that situates the expertise of the "beneficiary" community at the heart of innovation, production, and ongoing management:
  • SOIL's EkoLakay CBS toilet system was developed as a collaboration between Haitian community members and a small team of Northern scholars.  With ongoing product and service model iterative development by the locally-run operational team, It remains one of the longest-lasting and highly successful CBS models in the world. (oursoil.org)
  • Bantu et al., (Ugandan scholars) have developed a highly efficient cookstove model using local expertise.  They don't need training and knowledge from the north; they need only capital investment for production, in order for their innovation to effect positive change at scale.  www.hindawi.com/journals/jre/2018/9620103/ )
  • This publication documents an attempt to document and resurrect indigenous water harvesting and preservation techniques in arid South Africa.  These techniques and infrastructural solutions predate colonialism, and in many cases are superior to modern technologies, as they were developed on the basis of centuries of understanding local hydrology and natural resources.  www.wrc.org.za/wp-content/uploads/mdocs/...ter%20management.pdf   (Similar re-discoveries have been made in Egypt).
The keyword "co-development", typed into Google Scholar will yield further examples of genuinely collaborative, non-colonial approaches to sustainability challenges in the global South. 
I avoid the words "developing countries" and "developed countries", as these terms are laden with assumptions about the desirable state, and/or the capacity of communities on both sides of the resource divide.  The global South is not slow in "developing"; it is economically depressed by resource exploitation benefitting the global North.  Fortunately ingenuity, knowledge, and innovation are not resources the North can extract and deplete.  The many North/South sustainability-oriented collaborations that have succeeded, have done so by leveraging the financial resources of the North to fund solutions generated by the ingenuity and innovation of Southern collaborators.  
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  • reidharvey7734
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Re: Do we need an Open Letter to Decolonize WASH Interventions?

Thanks FroggiVR,  suppose you and I pursue SDG 17, partnering for the goals?  We are alike in that we pursue interventions of water treatment and cookstoves together, a course that few people follow.  There are innumerable synergies in producing and implementing these interventions together, as you seem to be well aware.  As with so much of development, pursuit of these has come to be siloed, especially the case with stoves.
 
Indigenous knowledge and practices are vital, but this cannot substitute for formal training and education.  You may notice that in my various presentations I stress the importance of capacity building for low-income potters who hand form water containers and cook pots.  Their training in model and mold making aswell as improved refractories and kilns should be viewed as formal training in
support of their indigenous knowledge that should give them capacity in a diverse product line.  Their indigenous knowledge base is fortuitous.  That theyhave never been trained in model and mold making could be viewed as a way that the poor have been colonized, denied essential knowledge.  Apologies, however, to those who could have assisted towards such training, but had no idea about the developments made possible through ceramic knowledge.
 
The thematic subject, ‘De-colonizing WASH’ might be viewed as an appropriate forum in which to revisit best practices.  No such discussions are apparent.  Indoor air quality figures into this because of the numerous synergies between these two environmental
health crises.  Here are some observations about technologies of water treatment and cookstoves that are well intentioned but are likely to be considered threatening by some, as criticism of their work.  They are free to pursuethe improvements that I suggest, however, and these come from my formal education in ceramics.  I.e., there is no substitute for formal training and education.
 
1)  Among the prominent clean cookstoves that are viewed as good practice are ones with a refractory liner that is said to come
from ‘a rare light weight clay.’ This assertion could well appear to the formally educated ceramist as absurd, because of what we universally describe as ‘a clay composition.’  I.e., it is silly to assume that a refractory liner should be composed of a single material.  There is a wonderfully simple refractory liner that is composed of 50/ 50 powders of clay and charcoal, so appropriate that an insulating rocket stove made from this clay composition is possible with no metal components.  I.e., it’saffordable to the poor within their economy since they can easily produce it, costing what would amount to US$3 or $4; paid for quickly in the savings on fuel.  Rocket stoves that are nowhere near as energy efficient that cost the donors around $100 and are sold to the poor for around $10.
 
2)  Ceramic water filters can be easily made that will reduce pathogens to the highest standard, e.g., log 6 or log 7 reduction
(99.9999% to 99.99999% effectiveness).  By contrast there are water filters that are considered as an acceptable alternative,
that achieve log 4 reduction at best, to which silver is added simply to prevent the regrowth of bacteria.
 
3)  Large-scale drinking water projects are being implemented using municipal-style water treatment, replete with chemicals,
electricity and a lot of gadgetry.  By contrast, large-scale water filters of granulated ceramics will be nature-based and easily maintained by the poor.  Their new understanding that they are capable of these interventions could be presumed to motivate them in community engagement and behavior change, with the prospects of the resilience of their communities.
 
4)  Chlorine is widely used to treat drinking water, though implementers tend to hate this. Too little chlorine and it’s not effective.  Too much and it’s a poison.
 
If there is anyone who can refute these assertions, I would love to hear about it.  When I go to the websites of organizations that do the good work of getting water to those vulnerable, there tends to be no information at all about making the water safe to drink.  Please, please, the vulnerable poor are getting sick and dying while they could do the production and implementation, getting their communities good health and resilience.  The interventions need to be for the poor, by the poor.  Can someone explain why it is that these interventions are only considered viable if they are introduced from external sources? 

I do not wish to be cynical but I doubt that there will be an explanation.  The point is that the evidence-base of the technologies should include affordability to the poor.  The evidence-base should be determined on a project to project basis, based on sound prototypes.  Thanks for reading.
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  • Elisabeth
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  • I'm passionate about SuSanA's role in the WASH sector since about 2005. I'm a freelance consultant since 2012 (former roles: program manager, lecturer, process engineer for wastewater treatment plants)
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Re: Do we need an Open Letter to Decolonize WASH Interventions?

I just wanted to point out that we have another forum thread about the topic of "decolonisation of WASH sector knowledge" here:
forum.susana.org/196-capacity-developmen...ash-sector-knowledge

That thread has 40 replies and 11,000 views so far which is quite a lot. I recommend for people who want to learn more about usage of the term "decolonisation" and what it all means to also read there.

The exchange between Froggi and Reid has been interesting and I thank you both for tackling this head on, despite the fact that it can lead to uncomfortable feelings. 

I must admit that in the past, certain statements of Reid have also made me cringe when I read them. I didn't say anything at the time because I felt you mean well, Reid, but some of the language comes across as not quite right. I am glad that Froggi has chosen to say something about this and agree with her statement of:

This lens descends into condescension even when purporting to extend recognition to the communities in question: "Fortuitouslymany impoverished potters are highly skilled."; "They tend to be entirely capable of production...".  

You've made the same statement in several of your posts, e.g. here :
"Importantly, it needs to be understood that the poor tend to be entirely capable of their own interventions of environmental health and development."

It's a bit like saying "Black people in the US are entire capable of achieving university degrees." or "girls are entirely capable of studying maths and physics at university". Even though on face value these kinds of statements are correct, they sound like someone is questioning this (given the history of everything). 

I know that you absolutely mean well. What you said about your CV is very impressive and shows that you know the situation from the grassroots level in several countries. Also, it's not a question (in this thread) about which technology for water treatment or clean cook stoves is best. We are not debating here whether technologies that you'd like to see used more have more merits than others or not (they very well might do). We are debating the wording that is used and whether this - unintentionally - reinforces certain stereotypes.

Perhaps Froggi and others could help in proposing other wording. I am wondering if this kind of wording would be better: "when looking for suitable technologies for water treatment and clean cook stoves, we should support those approaches that work with local knowledge and that are sustainable on all levels, ideally with the minimum of external funding or support required." Or something like that?

Maybe we also need to avoid using the term "the poor" altogether, as it is ill-defined. Replace with "people living in rural areas with low levels of household income"? Or something like that?
Note that I am no expert on this either. Just trying to help.

And the whole "decolonise WASH" discussion is painful for all of us who are in the privileged white grouping (and probably more painful for white men than white women). It might even be one aspect that would want me to quit working in the development cooperation sector, as there is just no easy solution for it. We want to help others but by doing so, we run the risk of having "white saviour" syndrome. It's not easy to reconcile this. Step 1 is to become aware of the contradictions and to reflect on them - which is what we are doing in this thread. Thanks for keeping an open mind.

Regards,
Elisabeth
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(with financial support from WSSCC, now SHF)

Dr. Elisabeth von Muench
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