Collective Action

Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of attending a WaterSHED-run workshop entitled Cambodia Rural Sanitation and Hygiene (RuSH) Sector Convening for Collective Action.  The purpose of this workshop was to get all organizations working in Cambodia in rural infrastructure development, particularly sanitation and hygiene, in the same room to start the process of collaborating to reach our mutual goals.  If you are interested in rural infrastructure development, particularly WASH, you’ll likely find the summary of this workshop below interesting and perhaps useful.

Most development organizations working in Cambodia were in attendance: WaterAid, UNICEF, iDE, WaterSHED, PSI/PSK, East Meets West, SNV, LINC, Habitat, EWB Australia, Wetlands Works, Innovative Water Center, Good Neighbor Cambodia, Caritas Cambodia, ICS, Rainwater Cambodia among others.  Multiple Cambodian government officials, primarily from the Ministry of Rural Development (MRD), as well as some private business owners in Cambodia also attended.  Approximately 70% of the attendees were from international NGOs, 10% from local NGOs, and various others from academic institutions and private enterprise.

Speakers spoke in English or Khmer, and real-time translation was performed and transmitted to the audience via wireless headsets.  The translators switched between English and Khmer whenever needed, which was quite impressive and made the language barrier almost disappear.

Listening to the workshop’s opening speech

The keynote speaker, an MRD official, spoke of how strongly the Cambodian government supports the RuSH sector and this collective action initiative.  He dove into the details of Cambodia’s National Action Plan (NAP), which aims to 1) create enabling environments (e.g., develop capacity); 2) mobilize resources; 3) strengthen water supply, sanitation, and hygiene services; and 4) improve behavior change communication in rural areas.  He mentioned that access to sanitation systems in Cambodia covered ~23% of the country in 1997 and has since risen to 65% in 2017, an increase of ~7% per year; I have not independently verified these numbers.  He mentioned that the Cambodian government is very interested in behavior change methods and also that subsidies have made many households chose to wait to get a toilet in hopes of getting the government to pay for it – a common problem with subsidies.

The first session was devoted to discussing the sector vision and strategy for the RuSH sector in Cambodia.  The audience was asked a series of questions, which were answered as shown below.

How does the Cambodia National Action Plan (NAP) guide our work?

  • Anticipate government support for new ideas
  • Develop plans and goals that fit within government priorities
  • Aligns the visions of different organizations
  • Identifies common indicators
  • Provides priorities of sectors outside of ours (i.e., holistic approach)
  • Describes how other organizations in the sector may work and their goals

What would it take to fully align our organizations to the sector vision and strategy to realize our goals?

  • Understand the goals of each organization
  • Prioritize our goals together
  • Share information about what each organization is doing
  • Communication between organizations
  • Use similar messages/approaches in communities
    • I personally disagree with this answer; however, using non-conflicting messages is important.
  • Use the same subsidies
  • Support local governments via capacity building
  • Strengthen provincial working groups (PWGs)
    • PWGs include provincial government officials, NGOs, etc.
  • Focus on fecal sludge management (FSM) to ensure health and continued sanitation
  • Reflect on monitoring/evaluation data
  • Ensure all NAP priorities are being addressed
  • Identify what we do best and adjust to match the sector vision
  • Stop activities that do not align with the sector vision
    • I likely disagree: this can prevent innovation, particularly with small NGOs or private enterprise.
  • Identify gaps between the intended strategy and the implemented strategy due to on-the-ground factors
  • Agree upon indicators of success

What can we do as stakeholders in the sector to overcome barriers to achieve Cambodia’s 2025 vision?

  • Innovate and test new ideas
  • Consolidate sectoral data
    • e.g., continue the Open Development Cambodia project
      • How can we get people to use it?
  • Map groundwater, flooding and rainfall throughout Cambodia
  • Set collective sector goals
  • Advocate areas of need to donors (i.e., donor education)
  • Capacity building at the sub-national level
Additional answers to “What can we do as stakeholders in the sector to overcome barriers to achieve 2025 vision?”

The collective action process is just starting in Cambodia.  WaterSHED is spearheading the initiative and hopes to develop a database system for collecting, storing and sharing data among all interested parties (e.g., development organizations, government, private business).  They plan to eventually turn this system over to the Cambodian government once it is up and running.  WaterSHED is currently soliciting input from development organizations operating in Cambodia on what they think should be done to achieve collective action.

LINC, another organization working on collective action in Cambodia, presented extensively in the afternoon of the workshop about their plans to analyze the communication network between organizations working on development in Cambodia at the national level.  Within the next month, LINC plans to survey all development organizations that 1) have a presence in Phnom Penh, and 2) one of the following: a) have a mission or strategy that includes a focus on RuSH; b) have at least 3 staff working 50% or more of their time on RuSH activities; or c) allocate >$25,000 USD of their annual budget to RuSH activities.  For this analysis, they will focus on the national level to describe how information flows between organizations.  Information will be gathered from these organizations via interviews with their managers in the coming weeks.  Results will be presented to the organizations in September at another of these workshops, at which time the analysis may be extended to the sub-national (e.g., provincial) level if desired by the organizations.

Systems thinking was specifically addressed by Avery Ouellette of LINC, asking “How can we approach RuSH in different ways?”  She used the afternoon session to test what LINC plans to do with each organization individually in the coming weeks.  A video from the Omidyar Group about systems and mindset shifts highlighted four things that define systems thinking:

  1. Seek health, not mission accomplished;
  2. See patterns, not problems;
  3. Unlock change; and
  4. Plan to adapt

In the video, these topics were frequently compared to examples in human health; for example, to stay healthy over time, you must continue to eat healthy and adapt to changing situations (e.g., eat more when working out).  The same is true when considering how best to solve a problem in society: you must continue to work at it and adapt as needed when (not if) things change.  Also, “unlocking change” was compared to vaccines, which unlock the power of our immune systems and help suppress diseases that hurt us; in a system of systems, it is best to find those aspects of the system that help unlock the potential of other parts of the system (e.g., increasing incomes via improved crop yields).

We then began a group game that required us to move crumpled up pieces of paper into the center of a target to earn the most points.  In round 1, one person was asked to move the pieces of paper by blowing on them through a straw (video); this proved difficult, took ~30 seconds to complete, and scored 80 points out of 100.  In round 2, all people at the table were asked to move the pieces of paper in the same way simultaneously (video); this proved even more difficult (e.g., we blew each others’ papers out of position), took ~20 seconds to complete, and scored 100 points.  Lastly, in round 3, all people at the table were asked to move the pieces of paper in any way they chose.  Our group discussed our plan of attack and decided to bend our straws and use them to pull our pieces of paper into the center of the target; this proved very easy, took 4 seconds to complete, and scored 100 points

Despite being good, childish fun, this exercise provided the following take-away messages:

  1. Using the right tool (or an old tool in new ways) to accomplish a goal is likely the best and easiest method
  2. Communication about methods and goals is critical to quick success.
  3. Communication and planning do take time (~50% of Round 1’s time in this exercise) but produce much faster results when implemented.
  4. The goal was obvious in this case (score the most points) but isn’t always in development.
  5. We did not lack resources (e.g., straws, people) in this game but typically do in development.
Experientially learning how collective action produces better results faster than working individually

LINC then provided an overview of what makes a network healthy: sharing information, solving problems, delivering services, creating shared vision, and achieving shared goals.  This led into another group exercise that described the network of information sharing between the organizations represented at a 10-person table.

At each table, each person was from a different organization, each of which was written down on a post-it note and placed in a circle on the table.  Arrows were then drawn between each organization that has shared info about RuSH in the last 6 months: each person in turn described the connections their organization had to the others shown on the table.  The entire workshop then reviewed and discussed the characteristics of the networks drawn.

Density (i.e., the number of arrows in a network) describes how many communication channels exist between organizations, while centrality (i.e., how many connections does a given organization have) can identify the organizations through which communication primarily flows.  Both of these characteristics speak to a network’s communication efficiency; for example, a simpler hub-and-spoke network where one organization receives and relays a lot of information to the rest of the network is likely to work more efficiently than a dense mesh where most organizations are talking to many others.  It was agreed at the workshop that one organization that collects and distributes information relevant to the sector should help us all achieve our common goals.

Lastly, fragmentation (i.e., unconnected or poorly connected organizations) identifies those outlier organizations that aren’t communicating well in the network.  Including them could improve information sharing between organizations and would make the network more complete; however, it is difficult to locate such organizations if others do not mention their existence.

Discussions continued about what the network should ideally look like and about how it will change over time since the analysis LINC will perform is only valid at one point in time.  Avery and Rich Fromer of LINC also discussed the steps in a network analysis, which include network parameter definition (most importantly the boundaries of the network), data collection, and analysis and reporting.  The entire audience was then asked to review a roster of all development organizations operating in Phnom Penh to see if LINC had missed any.

Apparently, translating the phrase “collective action” and “collective impact” into Khmer is difficult, particularly because many of the direct translations have overtones of communism associated with the words, which Cambodians want to avoid for obvious reasons.  The Cambodians in the room spent ~15 minutes discussing and voting on the Khmer version of the phrase.

Next, as a group activity, each group was asked how to make a bowl of rice within the next hour and to explain it in pictures.  Many different ideas and methods were proposed: grow it, buy it, call a restaurant, use a pot, use a rice cooker, have guests bring it, etc.  The takeaway message was that there are many methods to achieve a goal, and the first answer you come up with is likely not the best or most efficient route to achieve that goal.

A discussion about corn seeds and how best to get improved seeds (e.g., resistant to pests and/or drought) into the hands of farmers in a given region (not in Cambodia) then ensued.  After discussing the detailed systems of corn sales and production, the analysis showed that farmers prioritized and required both 1) good shelf life, and 2) higher yields in order to consider switching to different seeds.  Thus, seed breeders needed to achieve both to be successful.  However, the analysis also showed that 80-90% of seeds were sold through informal markets, and that no organizations were working to improve this market.  Thus, the right leverage points were not being hit in this region!  A similar analysis will be applied to the Cambodian RuSH sector by LINC.

To complete the workshop, each group was asked to make a messy map (i.e., a post-it note collage with arrows) that answers the question “what is required to achieve sustained access to sanitation in a hygienic environment by 2025?”.  You can see the messy map my group created in the picture below.  Consumer behavior change and increased incomes were identified as the most critical components to achieve this goal.

A speech by a Cambodian MRD government official rounded out this Collective Action workshop.

Closing speech by a Cambodian MRD government official

Overall, I found this workshop to be very well organized and helpful as a start to an important project that should provide tangible benefits to development throughout Cambodia.  It was also great to see so many interested parties in the room and put a lot of faces to names.  However, the projects proposed by WaterSHED’s Collective Action contingent, primarily the public database of development-relevant information, must be easy to use and accessible by all interested organizations.  The details of how this is both tested and deployed will be critical to its success.  I look forward to seeing what they develop and contributing when I can.

Thanks to the photographer at the workshop for some of the above photographs!


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