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    Rethinking Schools-Based Programming

    Not sure if the gate can be knocked on any harder.  Trying to get inside the school grounds but nobody is there; the gates are locked.  The water supply on the other side of the enclosed gates is tempting but not available to the community.  The implementing NGO has decided that too much use of this water point would strain it, and would lead to the handpump’s premature breakdown.  So they decided to make sure only kids and teachers can have this water, during school hours.  Toilets would be used by non-students, filling them up too fast.  So let’s lock up the water point and toilets when school is out – the philosophy being as follows: this infrastructure is only for the school, we will spread the message to the community as a whole through the students.  Community members can come and look at what they could have.  Someday.  Maybe.

    As my colleague Susan Davis so aptly suggests, welcome to School Water, Sanitation and Hygiene MINUS Community (SWASH-).  It’s pretty standard.

    Latrine at school in GuatemalaSchool water and sanitation is messy to say the least.  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.
     
    The objective of SWASH+ (School Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Plus Community) is that interventions focused on schools can spill out and influence the community.  Students use a toilet at school and push their family to get a toilet at the house as well. Children learn about soap, wash their hands properly at school and then bring these skills back home.  As water flows at the school so it will ideally in the village.

    Yet most programs actually implement SWASH+  as if schools are islands on their own.  Given the weaknesses of schools described above, this is a risky strategy.

    Our monitoring data from Central America suggested that we needed to rethink our SWASH+ program.  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.

    handwashingIn 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 to get donors to shift gears a bit.  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.  Hopefully a new focus on integrated programs, that give real meaning to the plus (+) in SWASH+, will lead to better field results and fewer water points locked behind school gates.  Hopefully the acronym SWASH+ will fade away as no such program ever exists again.
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