Communicate to collaborate: Advancing inclusive water, sanitation, and hygiene communications (Part 2)

Communicate to collaborate: Advancing inclusive water, sanitation, and hygiene communications (Part 2)

Communicate to collaborate: Advancing inclusive water, sanitation, and hygiene communications (Part 2) 1063 798 Agenda for Change

Effective collaboration cannot happen without considering inclusivity. At Agenda for Change, we have realized that changing systems and influencing the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector will require communicating differently. Below we share feedback on what worked and what still needs work, and where we’re headed next.


An old-fashioned way to communicate before texting: a set of three black and silver rotary dial pay telephones mounted on a beige wall (Pavan Trikutam via Unsplash)

By Alec Shannon, Content Strategist at Agenda for Change

In my last blog post, I gave five practical steps the Agenda for Change Secretariat has taken in the past year to make our communications and knowledge sharing more inclusive, including accommodations like translation, interpretation, and professional facilitation.

Looking at our progress, there is no doubt that including these accommodations has paid off! From March through December 2020, we had close to 900 participants from 78 countries register to attend our online events. Compare this to a maximum of 90 people from fewer countries at our in-person events. These approaches have also attracted new member representatives to subscribe to the Agenda for Change newsletter and follow us on social media, which we hope will help them find and share systems information. Even with these successes, we did not get everything right. We have requested feedback from participants after several events we hosted this year. Below are a few examples of feedback we got and how we responded, plus our plans for the future.


Feedback we’ve received

Your panel is all-male, and I am not interested in participating (two people said this; maybe others thought it).

Yes, for our first global learning event we ended up with a mostly male panel (one female co-presenters’ photo wasn’t shown in the invitation!). When we asked our members to recommend colleagues from certain countries, they all came back with male candidates. At the time, we did not ask them specifically to recommend women. For our next events in the learning series, we asked members to recommend women, and we ended up with 5 women, 9 men, 10 countries, and 3 languages represented overall. We will continue to encourage our colleagues to do so for all events in the future.

The five women featured in our Learning Exchange series this year (left to right): Avo Ratoarijaona, Deputy Director, CARE; Cate Nimanya, Country Director, Water For People Uganda; Dora Chaudhuri, Senior Advisor, Splash; Sovattha Neou, Executive Director, WaterSHED; Agnes Montangero, Senior Advisor Water & Infrastructure, Helvetas


Your graphic is gender-insensitive and shows that the WASH sector/leaders have more to do around gender equality (one person said this; again, maybe others thought it).

Original graphic                                                                                      Revised graphic

Some context: The original graphic was not intended to be a man, but a “cartoon” of a strong person with WASH systems elements inside of them; the concept came from two women who exercise regularly, and the designer was a woman; based on our US-centric perception, it is not uncommon to see women with muscles.

We assume this person perceived the original graphic to be a man. In response, our designer revised the graphic to make it appear more gender neutral (above, right). However, we received further feedback that the flexing position can be considered intimidating in certain cultures. One of the challenges with trying to bring creativity and humor to a global audience is that we can’t anticipate how it might be perceived across individuals and cultures. Next time, we will show graphics to colleagues in different countries to get their feedback before publishing.


We didn’t have enough time to respond to all questions in the chat box and in the Q&A section (three people said this).

This was in response to a 1-hour Zoom webinar. In response, we did two things: we saved the questions that speakers could not answer during the live webinar and asked panelists to answer them afterwards via email. We included those responses in the event summary. Second, we extended the next two online events by 15 minutes to allow more time for questions from participants. We have been tracking how many people stay online and notice that it starts dropping off after an hour. We must balance not having long webinars with trying to provide enough time for rich discussion.


I was not able to make it, please share a recording of the discussion (lots of people make this request for our webinars).

For the learning series, we recorded the discussions on Zoom and added subtitles in English, French, and Spanish and posted them on our YouTube channel. Given how common this request is, and how much we put into each session (e.g., facilitation, subtitling, editing), we have started tracking how many people view the recordings. For instance, it cost around 20,000 USD to produce the learning series for a cost per view (to date) ranging from 12 to 16 USD (1,524 total views). It is important to note that these videos will remain available online. This cost per view compares to approximately 130 USD per attendee for Agenda for Change’s signature event – a breakfast panel discussion at Stockholm World Water Week – which in 2019 was conducted only in English, featured 5 speakers, and was not recorded on video.


Identifying and facilitating opportunities for connections

We are not done! There is still more we can do to be inclusive in our communications, and this applies not only to our work with WASH colleagues, but also to other professionals whose systems strengthening work intersects with ours (e.g., from health, agriculture, climate change, or other related fields). To that effect, we are exploring how we can support a more inclusive, purposeful community of practice dedicated to WASH systems strengthening.

Two approaches we are considering:

A dedicated online discussion forum. We have no intention to replicate existing, robust discussion forums like Rural Water Supply Network’s D-groups or the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance Forum, but we do want to find a way for our Members and other WASH professionals (who aren’t likely to find themselves in the same real-life room anytime soon) to talk about systems strengthening. We are considering how to make it useful by researching moderation techniques and looking at successes and challenges for engagement across existing forums.

Informal collaboration chats. We envision providing a regularly scheduled, yet loosely structured meeting (probably through Zoom) as a way for WASH professionals to informally chat with one another. How loosely structured can they be and still draw participants? Should we have a specific topic of conversation? A moderator? Different time zones each month? French-, Spanish-, and English-only, or live interpretation? These are all questions we are still considering.


Promoting inclusive language and graphics

Obviously, we cannot control someone else’s method of communication, but we can help them when editing content. Additionally, we can simplify our own language and graphics by:

Going back to the basics. Shortening sentences, removing long, complex phrases, spelling out acronyms, providing history and context, and getting rid of jargon. English as a Second Language learning materials can serve as inspiration for anyone who wants to simplify their language.

Accounting for up to 30% more text when translating documents from English to other languages, like French and Spanish. This is due to grammatical differences[1].

Including more inclusive design and graphics. While we depend on our members to provide most of the photos we use, we aim to show a range of abilities, genders, ages, races, and cultures, and will avoid stereotypical images of gender roles[2]. We will also consider image backgrounds, language, and functionality/usability.

Using image descriptions for those with visual, cognitive, and/or tactile disabilities. Image descriptions “provide textual information about non-text content that appears on your website [or graphics], allowing it to be presented auditorily, as visual text, or in any other form that is best for the user[3].” Image descriptions are only one type of visual description[4]. Below is a photo with the three common types of visual descriptions.

Image description: Three female Cambodian officials sit in front of a long, wooden table in black leather chairs. Each woman has a microphone stand in front of her, and the woman closest to the camera (right side) is leaning forward to push the button on her microphone stand. Each woman has a pile of papers in front of her, and there is a colorful bouquet of flowers in the bottom left corner (WaterSHED).

Caption: Provincial leaders are trained by national officials to lead commune level Civic Champions training in Cambodia (WaterSHED).

Alt text: A picture of three Cambodian women sitting in front of a table.


What else?

  • Providing the names (whenever possible) of people in the images we share. They are usually important actors in the system and deserve to be recognized.
  • Considering other languages we should offer beyond English, Spanish, and French, as well as learning preferences (a recent Member survey included questions about this, and we are compiling results now).
  • Compiling a list of translators, interpreters, and their contact information to share with members and others (we have already gotten requests from colleagues for these).
  • Continuing to collect feedback and track engagement.

Finally, we want to continue sharing our success and failures, and we would love to connect with you to offer and/or receive advice on how to be more inclusive in our WASH communications. If you have a question, recommendation, or want to share your own approaches, please contact Alec Shannon.

Interested in learning more? Stay tuned for Part 3 to find out what tools we recommend!


[1] Why Spanish Uses More Words Than English: an Analysis of Expansion and Contraction:
[2] Toolkit on Gender-sensitive Communication:
[3] Image Descriptions:
[4]Guidelines for Creating Image Descriptions:

Alec Shannon (she/her) is Content Strategist at Agenda for Change where she supports the mission of the collaboration through planning, curation, translation, and distribution of evidence across members and other systems actors. She has been working in the WASH sector for more than 7 years, and has provided programmatic guidance, technical assistance, and communications support to WASH, menstrual health, and community-led total sanitation projects throughout her career. She is passionate about shaking things up in development, and finding new, creative, and inclusive ways of working.

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