Thoughts from SWWW: What Next for Handwashing?

 Woodburn_Hanna_2014by Hanna Woodburn

About the author: Hanna Woodburn is the Deputy Secretariat Director, Public Private Partnership for Handwashing (PPPHW). Follow her on Twitter @WASH_Hanna.

I’ve been at the 2014 Stockholm World Water Week (SWWW) for over three days now. As someone solidly in the water, sanitation, and hygiene sector, I’ve found the conference to be an interesting mix of people with a wide range of interests and technical backgrounds. In addition to my own session on the role of hygiene in achieving the full benefits of water investment, I’ve attended sessions on gender, inequity, WASH service deliver in emergencies, and more. These are my reflections both from these sessions and the many conversations that I have had with other attendees.

First, while much energy has been devoted by the Public Private Partnership for Handwashing (PPPHW) and others to the promotion of hygiene at the policy level, there are is a knowledge gap within the larger sector as to the definition and role of hygiene in development. And it’s true: hygiene can encompass many different specifics, such as menstrual hygiene management, food hygiene, facewashing, toothbrushing, and of course handwashing with soap. These behaviors, and their supporting “hardware”, such as materials and facilities, can be quite different from one another. They have different evidence bases, different measurements, and different challenges. This was a good reminder that there is more that we need to do within the hygiene sector to better communicate, educate, and advocate – not only at the global level, but also amongst our colleagues in the water and sanitation¬† sector.

Secondly, a word about working within a system. My favorite session thus far was convened by the GermanWASH Network and the German Federal Foreign Office on the subject of streamlining strategies for humanitarian aid within the WASH sector. This session included¬† a robust discussion on the role of governments, INGOs, and local actors in delivering WASH services within the humanitarian context. While there were many valid and salient points raised, this session for me emphasized the role that hygiene plays within a larger system. We actively work to promote integration of hygiene within correlate sectors, such as nutrition and education, but hygiene is also embedded within a context. And that context influences not only what program, but how, and what we measure. There isn’t a “magic bullet” or a “one size fits all” approach to hygiene behavior change. We need flexibility.

Finally, I’ve been struck by the number of people who have mentioned the need to move from conversation to action. There’s a great emphasis within the sector on ensuring that we not only have evidence, that we have perfect evidence, before moving to action. This can have an unintended consequence of stifling innovation and reducing our willingness to take risks. To be clear, I am certainly not advocating for acting foolishly, or minimizing the importance of strong evidence, but there is a feeling that there needs to be more room for failure and a greater aptitude for trying and doing, rather than being overly cautious where our knowledge is imperfect. Indeed, even projects that aren’t successful can contribute to our knowledge base about handwashing promotion and behavior change. PPPHW can contribute to innovation leadership within the hygiene sector.

I’m excited to take these and other learnings from the conference and apply them to our work in handwashing advocacy and knowledge leadership.