October 31, 2018

Food for Thought: Handwashing in the SDG era – Four things to remember

Submitted on behalf of the Clean, Fed and Nurtured Coalition. Jointly written by Kristie Urich and Peter Hynes from World Vision; and Julia Rosenbaum, FHI 360

Young boy using handwashing station

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a gauntlet for practitioners. Data emerging from the Joint Monitoring Program (JMP) about performance against the SDGs show that access to basic hygiene facilities is low across all developing countries. Not only is access to proper infrastructure a problem, but handwashing behaviour is not guaranteed even when infrastructure is available. Indeed, the practice of handwashing with soap is extremely low in all countries, with only about 19 per cent of us washing our hands with soap after contact with excreta. That’s less than two out of every ten people.

The WASH sector has been trying to address hygiene issues for decades, yet handwashing rates still remain very low. Clearly, it is an ongoing challenge for our sector as a whole. But it’s also an opportunity to learn and grow – something we must do if we are to move the needle in the right direction on handwashing. This is something we must do because we know handwashing saves lives.

As we celebrate Global Handwashing Day this month, let’s remember these four things.

We must rise to the challenge. The SDGs call all of us to a much higher level of service and quality in our work. The challenge is extensive and comprehensive. We have about 12 years to go until the SDG period is over, and, in some ways, we’re only beginning to understand how to measure them. The quality of our work in hygiene promotion was not sufficient in the MDG period, so we must not fail again this time around. The time is now to innovate in order to see success by the end of the SDG period.

Start with the end in mind. When doing behaviour change work, we must target behaviours in their simplest form to design the most effective programme. We can’t necessarily target a set of behaviours with one intervention. It is important to do this well, and, at the same time, remember the ultimate outcome we are aiming for. With handwashing, for instance, we are striving to reduce disease burden and save lives. This goal will give us the urgency needed to innovate and improve our work.

We must go together, or we won’t get anywhere. If our programming is to be more comprehensive and transformational, we have to strengthen partnering and collaboration. Partners should be seen as joint problem solvers rather than simply funders, service providers or competitors. By improving the spirit of collaboration, perhaps we’d stop reinventing the wheel so much and see more opportunities to maximise our impact through more collective efforts.

Always remember, it’s about people first. Of course, this is something we all know. But, when dealing with proposals, implementation plans, log frames, reports, and more, it can be easy to lose sight of who we work for. It’s about people, not programmes or projects or proposals. How does the way we work affect the day-to-day lives of the people we are working with? How much are we expecting of them? Would we want to be treated the way we are treating them? How do we continue to respect the value and autonomy of individuals, recognizing that all people have an inherent desire for well-being?

The SDGs are a challenge, yes, and we are still early in our learning. But, at the end of it all, if we rise to the challenge, we’ll be better organisations doing higher quality work leading to better impact for those we seek to serve. Let’s move forward together with a sense of urgency and importance as we strive to move the needle on hygiene.