Simple explanations for complex concepts: WASH Systems Strengthening (Part 3)

Simple explanations for complex concepts: WASH Systems Strengthening (Part 3)

Simple explanations for complex concepts: WASH Systems Strengthening (Part 3) 754 567 Agenda for Change

“The most effective way to teach a complex concept is by identifying what is the most complex [piece], and take the time to understand it, before communicating it to your learners.”

How to explain complex concepts blog


A system is like a puzzle. Let’s build the puzzle together, piece by piece. In this image, there are many colorful jigsaw puzzle pieces on a white background. (Mel Poole via Unsplash)

By Noah Kaiser, Intern at Agenda for Change

In my first blog, I used a puzzle to explain water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) systems and what it means to make these systems strong; in my second blog, I began building the puzzle with a few special pieces that we call Building Blocks. Here, I’ll continue building the puzzle by simply explaining three more important puzzle pieces: Monitoring, Planning, and Finance.

Tracking changes over time

While we build the puzzle, some pieces change over time. If we don’t watch these changes, we can lose track of the puzzle-building process.

Monitoring: This piece includes tracking big and small changes over time, to quickly identify parts of this system that need repairs.

In a strong system, there are organized ways of managing people and processes, and governments and other local leaders have the right information at the right time about small changes that occur in the system. They know how to act on that information to make sure that the puzzle stays whole for a long time.

In a weak system, governments and other leaders don’t have the money, tools, or time that they need to watch the changes in puzzle pieces. When nobody is watching, these changes can shift the existing puzzle pieces, so that they fall apart, or have trouble fitting together. This can lead to people not getting the safe water they need.

Failing to plan is planning to fail

An important part of building the puzzle is having a plan that includes the information, jobs, tools, and money needed for all of the leaders and workers who are building the puzzle.

Planning: This piece includes the different leaders and people who make the system work, coming together to begin the puzzle-making process.

In a strong system, the government and other workers set up a national or local plan, which helps them ensure that everyone knows their job and schedule, and has the right tools and money needed to start different parts of the puzzle building process.

In a weak system, governments and other workers aren’t communicating with each other, and they don’t have a plan for how to build the puzzle. Placing a piece in the puzzle is hard because it’s not easy to see which piece goes where. This makes the whole process confusing and can make it really hard to even start the puzzle.

Big money, big money!

Puzzle-builders around the world need money to pay for all of the important parts of the system and to pay the people whose job it is to work on it.

Finance: This piece is focused on making money available to pay for people’s time and training, planning, monitoring, machines, and replacement parts that make up the system.

In a strong system, the people responsible for keeping water flowing know just how much money it will cost over time. People get paid enough that they can afford to pay taxes to the government and fees for their water services. Water utilities have enough money to hire and train people, expand services to reach more people, and fix things when they break. Governments can use taxes to do things like planning, monitoring, and regulating water services.

In a weak system, nobody knows how much it costs to install, repair, or expand water services. Billing systems are complicated or not used well. The government might not have enough money to plan, monitor, and regulate, or water utilities cannot keep water flowing. This can happen because people can’t afford taxes or water fees, or if people don’t want to pay for services that don’t work well. This means people often end up living without access to clean water or sanitation.

Monitoring, Planning, and Finance are three important Building Blocks within the water and sanitation system, but there are still three more to talk about! Interested in reading more? Stay tuned for Part 4 of the ‘Simple Explanation’ series, where we will finish building the puzzle.

Noah Kaiser is an Intern at Agenda for Change who is passionate about the application of systems-thinking in a global WASH sector. He also works as a teaching assistant and research assistant within the Mortenson Center in Global Engineering, at his alma mater the University of Colorado at Boulder, from which he holds a BS in Mechanical Engineering and an MS in Civil Engineering. Noah’s research and career interests span WASH, rural transportation infrastructure, disaster risk reduction, food security, and the humanitarian aid and development nexus.

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