This post was written by Colin L. Beckwith, Deputy Director, ITI.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) hosted a roundtable discussion at the BMGF Campus in Seattle, Washington on December 6-7, 2012 to engage diverse perspectives on the subject of “Finding Synergies between Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) and the Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs): Practical Considerations to Collaboration Between the WASH and NTD Sectors.” Thirty participants representing research institutions, private philanthropy, bilateral aid, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) attended the roundtable organized by the Gates Foundation, Emory University’s Center for Global Safe Water, and The Task Force for Global Health’s International Trachoma Initiative and Children Without Worms programs.
A formal report on these proceedings is forthcoming. However, I would like to share my personal take-aways from this important dialogue that, hopefully, represents the first of many more to come.
It was noted that we share compatible goals, namely: equitable access to WASH services; disease-free communities; and access to knowledge for success in support of increased well-being for poor, marginalized populations living in developing countries. While we acknowledged the fact that we each have distinctive approaches to achieving our respective goals, we identified several mutually beneficial opportunities for collaboration, among these (in no particular order):
1. Advocacy for increased financial and technical support as well as increased articulation of efforts within and among donors, host country ministries, implementing NGOs, and researchers;
2. Coordination in messaging at all levels, especially as this relates to necessary behavioral change for improved personal, household and community hygiene and sanitation practices;
3. Coordination for the development and use of more compatible and systematic monitoring and evaluation frameworks for tracking progress and building an evidence base to support the mutually beneficial link between WASH and NTD programming;
4. Increased investment in operational research that supports the case for increased articulation of WASH and NTD investment and on-the-ground program implementation;
5. Coordination and consistency with regard to developing and delivering training and capacity building in order to reduce redundancy, mixed messages, and overload for those being targeted at all levels; and
6. Articulation among our respective in-country stakeholders, especially with regard to planning, resource allocation, and program implementation.
As the round table title suggests, participants worked to identify practical steps towards gaining traction on these opportunities for collaboration. It was felt that the health district was an appropriate unit of operation and analysis shared by WASH and NTD programming as well as for operational research. As such, we suggested:
a. selecting a small set of countries to serve as "living laboratories" for collaboration and, in each of these countries;
b. mapping who is working where and doing what in WASH and NTD programming as well as in operational research;
c. systematically exploring and initiating mutually beneficial opportunities for on-the-ground collaboration (at the health district level); and
d. identifying key moments during which national, sub-national and health district-level planning and coordination takes place in an attempt to link or merge efforts among stakeholders.
It was also recognized that we are not starting from scratch in that there have been and continue to be a good number of examples of collaboration among WASH and NTD programs and operational research. In fact, from the participants of this round table alone, we heard about many initiatives underway that represent collaborative effort and/or mutual benefit. It will be important that we find ways to keep ourselves informed of progress made on these initiatives.
At the same time, it was also noted that there are many more mutually beneficial opportunities to be had, if we can figure out ways to avoid our “passing each other in the night,” if you will. For example, it was felt that there are opportunities at the global level for increased dialogue, for sharing experience and knowledge, and for exploring opportunities to collaborate. There was consensus that we would keep ourselves informed of such opportunities and to more consistently extend and accept invitations to participate in each others’ global and regional events and campaigns.
As a first step toward staying connected, we will look into the possibility of establishing a WASH/NTD collaborative space on a suitable website. We also briefly explored the notion of this round table discussion evolving toward a community of practice.
Communities of practice serve to create a space for exchanging experience and knowledge and for promoting transformative thinking that will support and give rise to cutting edge practice within a given subject area – in this case, collaboration among WASH and NTD programs. Participation is voluntary, driven by one’s interest in the subject area and one’s desire to connect with a wide, diverse array of professionals actively engaged in the practical application of the subject area. While it is not uncommon that formal partnerships or joint initiatives exist among participants of a community of practice, such arrangements are not prerequisites. Communities of practice very often involve a virtual site for staying connected and for ongoing exchange as well as convening on a regular basis for face-to-face engagement on themes of mutual interest related to the subject area.