How metrics grew access to clean water

It’s a truism that what gets measured gets done. But in the case of international NGOs seeking to measure the effectiveness of their programs, the doing is often in the hands of local communities and the funding that fuels the doing comes from donors on another continent. Keeping measures simple and highly meaningful to both donors and those in the local community can make all the difference in motivating stakeholders toward a shared vision of healthy lives and livelihoods.

Take, for example, World Vision’s experience in scaling up access to clean water in Africa (WASH). Three years ago, we changed our approach to ensuring communities had access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene, setting an aggressive goal to reach five million people in need over five years. This required a rapid expansion of the program, from building enough wells to help 200,000 people annually in three countries of West Africa, to helping five times that population per annum across ten countries. The new approach also meant partnering with five times the number of local communities, who would own the project, plan for it, invest and maintain it.

To attract funders and to seriously engage local communities, we needed to measure and communicate the challenge and potential impact in ways that felt relevant to villagers, to teams drilling the boreholes and to potential donors.

Simple nonfinancial measures 

A starting point was to adopt a uniform measure of the need: access to clean water. Access would mean having a protected clean water source available 12 months of the year, within a 30- minute round-trip walk from a person’s household. By this measure, only 45% of the people living in African communities where World Vision donors had long-standing investments actually had access to clean water. That left 15 million in need. By creating a simple metric that described the challenge, we were able to communicate the need to donors and set an aspiration for local communities – to reduce their daily trek for clean water to 15 minutes each way.

The next set of measures related to ensuring clean water access could be sustained. This included the formation of community water committees responsible for the water point, establishing a process to collect $1 to $2 annually from individuals accessing water to provide a fund for future repairs, and training of seven to eight people to perform routine maintenance. The committees also ensure that villagers understand the importance of keeping water pure by using water containers with lids, building a protective apron around the pump and keeping animals away. Outputs are also measured – both the pace of drilling boreholes and their upkeep ten years out.

Effective and meaningful

These simple measures of the need and community commitment allowed us to grow funding which, in turn, allowed the organisation to hire the expertise required to grow activity. We used our measures to make a strong business case to existing donors, securing multi-year commitments which enable World Vision WASH teams to plan activities over several years, and not be affected by fluctuations in year-to-year budgets.

Finally, any project needs simple metrics of effectiveness and results. In scaling up WASH, we measure our effectiveness in reduced cost per family member accessing clean water. In the first two years of the program, this has dropped from $80 to $50, thanks to creating more productive water points and adapting drill technology to the needs of the terrain. At the same time, we measure our impact in reduced incidence of nonfinancial metrics such as diarrhoea and dysentery; as well as tracking the number of girls able to attend school – because they aren’t spending hours fetching water. The incidence of diarrhoea has dropped 70% and we are hearing of more and more girls attending school, which we will quantify in our next independent assessment.

Measures can motivate. By last year, we had grown the rate of access to clean water, with training in hygiene and sanitation, five times, reaching one million people per year. As important, we are sharing results and methods across our network, so that measurement converts to broad-based learning.
Probus is CFO of World Vision US and accountable executive for the organisation’s water, hygiene and sanitation investments in Africa.