Conversations with Collaboration Champions, Episode 4: David De Armey, Director of International Partnerships, Water for Good

Conversations with Collaboration Champions, Episode 4: David De Armey, Director of International Partnerships, Water for Good

Conversations with Collaboration Champions, Episode 4: David De Armey, Director of International Partnerships, Water for Good 751 564 Agenda for Change

Welcome to our podcast focusing on collective action and collaboration across the global WASH sector. This image shows a portrait of our fourth guest, David De Armey.

Conversations with Collaboration Champions is a podcast series from Agenda for Change, focused on sharing stories, events, and resources that highlight collaborative approaches to WASH systems strengthening. The podcast is hosted by Alec Shannon, Interim Coordinator of Agenda for Change. Check back regularly for more episodes!

About David

David De Armey is the Director of International Partnerships at Water for Good, where he supports the building of water sector partnerships in the Central African Republic (CAR). In collaboration with Central African water agencies, institutions, and NGOs, David reinforces coordination and communication to strengthen national development objectives for the water sector. He holds a Master of Science degree in Management for Sustainable Development from the Dublin City University in Ireland, where his research thesis was focused on supply chains and governance in rural CAR.

You can connect with David on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Episode Highlights

In recent years, Water for Good has shifted its efforts from building infrastructure to strengthening the WASH system. With financial support from a Technical Assistance program in 2019, important steps have been taken towards achieving long-term WASH services in CAR’s fragile context. A remarkable milestone was the formalization of a collaborative process with the Ministry of Hydraulics by signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in 2020, and even more exciting collaborative events are coming up!


Episode Transcript

ALEC [00:00]:  Welcome to Episode 4 of Conversations with Collaboration Champions, where we highlight stories, events, and resources focused on collaborative approaches to water, sanitation, and hygiene (or WASH) system strengthening. I’m Alec Shannon, Interim Global Coordinator of Agenda for Change. Today, it’s my pleasure to welcome our latest guest, David De Armey, Director of International Partnerships with Water for Good. Welcome, David. We are pleased to have you here today.

DAVID [00:40]: Thank you very much. It is a pleasure for me to be here with you.

ALEC [00:42]:  Please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit more about Water for Good and your work in the Central African Republic. For everyone listening today, we will refer to the Central African Republic as CAR.

DAVID [00:56]: Great. My name is David, I am the Director of International Partnerships at Water for Good, and I have been with the organization since 2013. As the name indicates, Water for Good is a water organization that was created in 2004. We work in only one country, the Central African Republic, and we have chosen to stay focused on that country and dive deep into strengthening the WASH sector. In 2004, Water for Good started mainly as a borehole drilling organization, and we have drilled over a thousand wells in the country. But, not uncommon to many areas in sub-Saharan Africa, pump maintenance is hampered by realities such as general economic fragility, low pump density, remoteness, and the difficulty to access spare parts that are often manufactured outside the country. Since the beginning, Water for Good has been very sensitive to keeping the water flowing, so very early on, we developed a post-construction maintenance program that has now become quite a large program that covers just about two thousand wells across a third of the country, which is comparable to an area the size of Uganda. Because of how remote the wells are there and [how they are] spread out across the country, it made sense to avoid doing one-off maintenance interventions that were frankly just too costly.

DAVID [02:25]: Water for Good opted for a circuit rider model or network circuit maintenance in which communities don’t have the burden of managing operations and maintenance on their own, but rather pumps are maintained as part of a network with regular visits from professional technicians. So beyond doing maintenance, the technicians we send out also collect all the necessary data in electronic form on each pump to create a bigger picture. We’ve been collecting and analyzing data since 2011. The bigger picture includes looking at key information such as the cost of doing maintenance, keeping track of inventory, the number of people with appropriate access, and most importantly, what it will actually take to build the system so that everyone can rightfully enjoy safe drinking water forever. In 2016, five years ago, we made the strategic decision to focus and develop an actual roadmap towards universal, sustainable access to clean water, starting in one prefecture or province called Mambéré-Kadéï. We started out by doing a thorough needs assessment of that prefecture, which took nearly a year. The data we collected gave us the capacity to build out an implementation plan for universal access.

ALEC [03:50]: OK, so the timeline I have is so far: 2004, you started, and then you started your data collection in 2011, and 2016 was when you began your roadmap process. I am going to fast-forward us a little bit more to 2019, which is when Water for Good receives funding from the Vitol Foundation through Agenda for Change to support a Technical Assistance (TA) partnership with IRC. Can you explain a little bit about what led you from 2016 when you began your roadmap to actually seek this Technical Assistance [in 2019]?

DAVID [04:36]: Yeah. So as an organization that has mostly been focused on delivering on new infrastructure and maintaining wells, looking at strengthening the WASH sector as a whole really meant stepping out into a lot of unknowns with limited resources and even the lack of experience in soft areas like advocacy, knowledge sharing and working with policymakers and influencers. For us, getting Technical Assistance was more than welcome, obviously, and much of our theory of change, our systems approach that shapes our strategy for the past five years was very much influenced by IRC’s extensive work in research in systems strengthening. Also, when I talk about having built a regional road map, it really is more an iterative, ongoing process. How do we go from informally managed water points to reliable services for everyone includes a lot of facets of the system that need to be tried and tested, and we set out knowing that some things would work or not. But the concept of learning and adapting is very much embedded in drawing this roadmap. So again, receiving Technical Assistance to help us navigate that process has been critical.

ALEC [05:44]: A series of activities and accomplishments have taken place since the establishment of this partnership with IRC, and you’ve actually written a very nice blog for us that is on the Agenda for Change website now. Can you sum up some of the main results of this TA facility so far?

DAVID [06:03]: Yeah, so I wish my colleagues in CAR could be here to discuss this, but I would say one of the first accomplishments was that the whole concept of looking at the WASH sector as a system was successfully conveyed and absorbed by our own national staff. This is not just something we talked about outside of CAR at a high level; this is now owned and led by our leadership in CAR. With the regional approach, our Technical Assistance has helped us, first of all, map out key sector actors, understand their roles, assess the state of each building block that makes up the system, and better understand the legal framework that governs the WASH sector. It has also helped us develop and support a prefecture-wide plan and bring key actors, especially the state actors, to collaborate on that plan. This input came in a very timely manner because we were just coming into a formal partnership with UNICEF, whose Regional WASH Coordinator has been championing the systems approach we initiated. We received support from UNICEF to kind of go beyond what we had already started and conducted the same needs assessments we had done in one province, in the two adjacent provinces. So all these three form a major administrative region of the country. So, in many ways, our roadmap has now expanded to being not just a prefecture-wide or province-wide road map; it’s become a regional road map. The Technical Assistance has also played a strong role in helping us receive formal support as well from the Ministry of Hydraulics at a national level, and we actually signed an MOU [Memorandum of Understanding] with the Ministry of Hydraulics on December 2020. The team also contributed a lot in defining what is now a proper advocacy and partnerships department at Water for Good.

ALEC [07:55]: Can I dive in a little bit more on this Memorandum of Understanding (or MOU) that you’ve just signed in December, tell us a little bit more about what that entails. I’m curious.

DAVID [08:07]: So it does have several elements to it. The first one is recognizing that Water for Good is a long-term partner of the Ministry of Hydraulics. Putting this on paper was a way for us to formalize that partnership. It was a way also to send out a signal to the WASH sector that we’re not just there to implement and have a quick exit strategy. We’re here as long-term partners to work through all the issues, all the challenges that the sector faces, and take the time to share and eventually transfer the knowledge and experience that we have over to the competent agencies of the states down the road.

ALEC [08:54]:  Wonderful. Thank you. The [Technical Assistance] TA facility has now ended, right. And we’re moving into the next phase of your activities, is that correct?

DAVID [08:59]: That’s correct. It ended at the end of March.

ALEC [09:04]: OK, do you have ideas for how this Technical Assistance could be expanded and/or built on, and what are they?

DAVID [09:13]: For Water for Good, we would love for the Technical Assistant who’s been with us for 18 months to keep working with us. Obviously, I think a lot of what is actually happening, at a policy level the country has been kind of always influenced by the fragmented, spontaneous, and ever-changing humanitarian environment when in reality, the urgency resides more in building a long-term plan for the country’s WASH sector. So, facilitating a wider collaboration between actors among Agenda for Change members who are present in CAR, there are also other organizations who are keen on collaborating. Word is getting around, and more and more organizations want to want to collaborate. I think this is where Technical Assistance could be well used and just helping us bring these people together around the same table.

ALEC [10:05]: Maybe a tricky question for you. I was just reading a little bit more this morning about how we should be continuing to push international non-governmental organizations to serve more as advisers to governments and to local communities. Do you feel like this model that you’re working on in CAR and in collaboration with the government and with entities like UNICEF is going to make it possible for that model to come alive in the future?

DAVID [10:35]: One of the things that we’ve really been observing within Water for Good in our communication and in relationship with the government is the state agencies are more available than we thought they would be to collaborate, to receive our advice or information and orientation for the sector. So, I think it depends on each organization’s will and how intentional it is in providing that kind of advisory role that it could play in their respective countries. So I don’t know if that really answers your question.

ALEC [11:15]: Well, yeah, I know it’s a hard question. CAR is a particularly unique setting because of the ongoing humanitarian response. It seems like there’s more of an emphasis on putting out fires versus Water for Good’s model, which is to really build the systems so that the fires don’t happen as often or that they can be managed if we can use a different euphemism to explain it.

DAVID [11:40]:  Yeah, one big challenge in the Central African Republic is, just as you said, CAR is recognized as a humanitarian context. But there are organizations who are humanitarian in nature, who’ve been there for over a decade, [and] the change in staffing that is fairly rapid can be a source of loss of knowledge. But I would say, there should be ways of overcoming that – organizations do have extensive experience in humanitarian contexts, and I think it does require a profound shift within humanitarian organizations to be able to provide ways to convey experience, even though there’s a high turnover of staff, knowledge loss, etc. So it’s a challenge, but I think it’s possible.

ALEC [12:28]: I would love to dive into that with you more, maybe later. So let’s see. An impressive achievement, I assume, was also related to the [TA] facility and ongoing work that Water for Good has been doing was the setup of a meeting in March 2021 with CAR’s WASH sector professionals. Can you give us a little bit of insight into how that meeting was set up and what came out of those discussions? As far as I understand, that was the first meeting between the sector professionals, which is quite incredible.

DAVID [13:06]: Yes, on March 30th, we held a daylong workshop in Bangui that was really a result of over a year of individual meetings with various WASH-related state agencies, with key WASH champions and UNICEF, who plays a major role in the sector. It was quite a challenge to set up, just given the whole context with COVID bringing people together, that pushed off the dates many, many times since 2020. We were thrilled to be able to finally hold that workshop. So the workshop brought a lot of the stakeholders together, and we also invited national television for us to share all the information we could about the rationale behind a regional approach to system strengthening, as well as some of the innovations we are bringing to the sector, such as the development of solar-powered water-supply networks. So sharing about, for example, larger water infrastructure projects in detail and what we’ve learned so far on cost recovery stats on community water consumption, information on the financial aspects of these systems has kind of accelerated information sharing on this technological upgrade, especially since water access has almost always been about setting up hand pumps. So we consider that workshop as the first of what we hope to be regular meetings. We made our commitment to the sector, expressed it in the MOU we signed, that we would organize regular technical workshops, events where knowledge-sharing [and] learning can take place. The best way we believe to create collaboration is to share information and knowledge that helps us better understand the sector, adjust our plans, leverage our experience and other organization’s [experience] as well. And it just creates an environment of dialogue and trust.

ALEC [14:56]: You did say that learning and adaptation was one of the critical building blocks for you. So good to know that that is actually written into the MOU. What are your next steps now? After you’ve held that meeting? You say there’s going to be ongoing learning events – is there one scheduled in the near future, or what’s the situation now?

DAVID [15:15]: Yes,  so during this workshop, we also shared our 2021 objectives. There is this expectation that’s either at the end of this year or the beginning of next year. We’ll follow up on that, but the workshop also just generated a lot of follow-up work. It was the first real opportunity for us to share all the information we have through evidence and data with all the major sector actors. Something as simple as helping everyone understand our circuit rider approach through the workshop has created conversations on how the State can actually support the service in a more active way. We’ve been building a regional roadmap, along with the support of the Ministry of Hydraulics, and the workshop can really convey the collective nature of it now and really the challenges to set up practical ways to coordinate and communicate around this common road map.

ALEC [16:07]: And that regional road map is in progress now, correct?

DAVID [16:11]: It very much is, yes.

ALEC [16:14]: OK, just to say that we would love to share that if it’s available in the future for others to learn from. I don’t know if you plan to make it public or if that’s the goal in the future …

DAVID [16:24]: No, absolutely. It is public, it’s available. And we do want to share because whatever we’re doing at a regional level is what’s informing the sector at a national level, so we want to make it as public as possible so that in the future, other regions of the country can also benefit from what we’re learning and doing today.

ALEC [16:46]: Great! Before we move into kind of our closing remarks, is there anything else you wanted to share with us about your working CAR or the future of Water for Good? Is there anything I maybe missed in our discussion here?

DAVID [17:00]: I think we’ve pretty much covered it all.

ALEC [17:03]: Thank you so much for sharing more about your experience in CAR. It is certainly a unique context, and I am so impressed at what you all have accomplished since 2004. I think you have embodied what it means to collaborate and to build systems kind of from the bottom-up. And, of course, this very exciting memorandum of understanding with the government is exactly what we want to see as far as supporting sustainable or long-term systems. Before we end, I wanted to hear your final thoughts on this topic of collaboration, or as you so aptly put it in your blog, “getting help from our friends.” Why do you think it is important for organizations to work together?

DAVID [17:55]: I would say one of the biggest challenges to collaborative work is to stop and figure out what the needs are in the sector and what the organization has to offer. It may seem obvious, but it does take focus and energy, and resources beyond regular business to do so. It can get tricky when an organization is involved in many kinds of contexts and countries. But it is also why it’s important for national and even local staff to understand and own the systems approach. I think, you know, I believe that when national staff feels empowered and [are] the ones in charge of change, in charge of collaboration, it can be very motivating for them, for us, for everyone. And because at the end of the day, it’s our colleagues who are the ones who face the reality of their own country. It’s difficult to initiate collaboration because we get caught up in everyday life business. It’s a challenge for Water for Good. There’s this natural tendency to get caught up in the complexities of all of our projects. So, yeah, it takes intentional, willful action to create collaboration. I think even if it at first feels like it is beyond the scope of an organization’s mission, it does pay off. WASH service users get a better chance at having reliable services in the long term.

ALEC [19:18]: I was going to throw one more at you. Is there a person, maybe someone you look up to, or even a quote that really keeps you going on this journey? I know you said it could be hard. You’re obviously not based in CAR, so you’re kind of seeing the situation a little bit from the outside. But, what keeps you going on this journey? What motivates you in particular to collaborate?

DAVID [19:43]: I think one thing that really motivates me is to just see the work that’s been done around building the communication tools, the coordination systems, and seeing actors that traditionally don’t speak to each other come together and start dialoguing around implementation, around knowledge sharing. And this is the kind of thing that’s going on right now in the Central African Republic. We were seeing agencies that have weak capacity really take on this opportunity to come in and get information from us, from other actors, and obviously, this is very motivating. I’m not sure that’s the best answer I could give.

ALEC [20:27]: No, that’s fine. I threw that one at you just to see what you’d say.

DAVID [20:30]: It is a good question. I would say …

ALEC [20:33]: Sometimes it’s a person, sometimes it’s a quote. Sometimes it’s, you know, just a future goal. It really is interesting to know what drives people in this work because it’s really hard, and it takes a long time. You have to be patient. You have to really have a future goal in mind.

DAVID [20:50]: I mean, something I would, you know, definitely say and is just what’s motivating us to remember that systems are about people. People make up the system and persevering in our personal relationships with different sector champions is what motivates me the most. It’s when you see others that you talk to initiate change at their level and influence the system at their level and the way they can. That’s something that really motivates me.

ALEC [21:20]: I really liked what you said about needing to focus your energy and resources beyond regular business. So, taking into account that system strengthening can often happen outside of normal business hours and outside of your everyday work is also something to kind of figure out how to build it in. Right? But when you’re first starting it, it’s kind of like, oh, this is maybe something extra I need to do. This is an extra meeting or an extra bit of resources I need to gather for this project. So kind of business not as usual.

ALEC [21:56]: And, of course, empowering others to take that work forward in the future is a great example of what you’ve been able to achieve. Well, that’s all I have for you today, David; thank you so much for being a guest and sharing more about Water for Good and [your] experience building stronger WASH systems and collaboration in the Central African Republic. Your achievements are really impressive, and I’m looking forward to sharing this podcast in hopes that others will learn about your work and learn from it.

DAVID [22:29]: On behalf of Water for Good and all of our colleagues in CAR who are doing all the hard work, I want to thank you for giving me a chance to share.

ALEC [22:38]: Of course. Thanks to our audience for tuning in to our fourth episode of Conversations with Collaboration Champions; we hope you found it insightful. We’ll be back again soon with our next episode. Stay tuned!

Interested in learning more? Stay tuned for our next episode!

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