Learning for sale in the WASH sector


It’s common: innovation and change never comes alone, it comes in clouds, or bubbles. But before bubbles appear, one’s been blowing in the water like crazy and nothing happens – or perhaps only shy ripples on the surface.

This is what happened with the resource centre development work that our partners and us have been undertaking in the past seven years. From 2002 to 2006, IRC (my organisation) was involved in a resource centre development programme. Some lessons learnt and ideas about that programme are presented on the IRC website.

Very little seemed to come out of those initiatives. A series of lessons learnt showed disappointingly small outputs of five years of organisational learning and an attempt at organising what we now refer to as ‘sector learning’ (a very blurry term, I agree, and a debatable one too, but that’s for another blog post I guess). In 2006, the end of the programme meant the end of resource centres in quite a few cases, not unlike many other development initiatives.

And yet… the seed was growing very slowly. In the framework of our regional programmes (and with very limited funding), a number of resource centre (RC) initiatives started off again: RC network in Ghana, RAS-Hon in Honduras, RC network Nepal etc. In Francophone West Africa, where I am working quite a lot (chiefly in Burkina Faso and Benin), there is a similar trend of reviving moribund RC networks (RCNs) with renewed interest and energy. I attended (and co-facilitated) the launch of a widely supported network in Benin in July last year. Last week, I helped the RCN Burkina define their priorities in terms of focus areas. Governmental, non-governmental, private organisations were all there and testified of their interest in the network.

What has happened between 2006 and 2008? For some reason, the ‘knowledge economy’ seems to have dawned upon WASH sectors of many countries. IRC is now supported by other international organisations wishing to improve sector learning: WaterAid is developing a series of regional learning centres on various topics (sanitation, decentralisation etc.), the Stockholm Environment Institute is promoting the development of knowledge nodes on environmental saniation in various countries, supported by WASTE.

All of a sudden, knowledge and learning is indeed the real buzz in town, and the water sector’s bubbly as ever. In these weeks of shopping sales, learning is another item discounted on the market: everyone wants to buy it, quite a few are selling some of it.

Learning for sale

Learning for sale

I personally don’t know whether these renewed initiatives will be more successful than in the past, but one thing I’m sure of: that’s a very good direction. Finally we turn bubbles into streams.

Like I recently read on an RSS feed from the Knowledge share fair, ‘knowledge is not power, sharing is power’. I hope the mass of organisations supporting resource centres and knowledge nodes and all the rest of it will keep true to their call. While learning is for sale, it is gaining value, not losing it. Another knowledge paradox that makes it so much more worth than working with material values…

And while I’m at it, since I managed not to skip this week’s blogging on my learning musings, I’ll celebrate with bubbles: the narguile bars in downtown Ouaga are inviting me to rejoice for learning!

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