Rural Water Supply Network 6th Forum
Sitting at the back of the large and luxurious Speke conference room at the Rural Water Supply Networks 6th Forum in Kampala – together with some 500 or so delegates from around the world – although predominantly from Africa. IRC is a supporter of this mega meeting of the world of rural water supply.
Half listening to the opening remarks and speeches – why do we always think this is a good way to do things? A passing thought for a good conference resolution would be to make opening ceremonies no more than one hour in future. The famous envelope back would suggest that 300US$/person x half a day x 500 people = 75,000 US$ (and that’s not counting the hall, bottles of water and so on. I wonder ….
Anyway, not fair to complain. All very well organised, running smoothley and a great chance to catch up with friends and colleagues and enjoy the first chance in several weeks to think, talk (and write) rather than just frenetically do (i.e. excuse for not having written anything in over a month!). A nice list of what look like potentially interesting papers. And a strong IRC presence including a really exciting experiment of bringing together a water cube to collect video interviews with signification through SenseMaker. Will definitely yield great things in terms of tons of interviews with interesting people and may go a step further if the software lives up to its promise and helps our interviewees to identify interesting emergeant trends. We’ll see …
And should also give mention to WaterAid who are also maintaining a nice forum blog here
So – now its all over, and back in Accra time to ask/answer the question … how did it go?
In a nutshell – it was OK. Nice venue, well organised, good mix of people and some great presentations here and there.
At the same time, the agenda was heavily overloaded with plenaries in which speaker after speaker ran over time and of course there was no time for questions or discussion. And in any case – discussion by 400+ people in an audotorium is impossible/meaningless. Added to this, the parallel sessions were overly packed with power-points (see some earlier comments on this post) and little time was left for useful discussion to provide the ambitious ‘outputs’ that were required of each session in terms of main recommendations, action points etc. This is a genuine quandry for any conference organiser. On the one hand, as many people point out, the real value of a conference is in the informal networking between sessions – so why not junk the presentations and just organise a huge open space? Because, on the other hand, however imperfect they are, conference papers do represent a valuable codification of otherwise largely tacit knowledge – and more practically, having a paper accpeted for a conference is often the first step to being financed to attend it!
On the content side, there was a mixed bag. Still too many ‘we dug a borehole and because we involved the community it was a fantastic success’ presentations – but balanced by some good emerging experiences on taking a more systematic approach to rural services – particularly by strengthening local government capacity under decentralisation. However, as some South African colleauges said “where is the presentation by the local government people on asset management for the 600 bereholes for which they are responsible?” – and that in a nutshell is where the challenge remains. How do we get our sector to move beyond the individual success story of a single community or system to thinking about the challenges of providing scaled up services? To realising that while community sense of ownership is important – so too is actual ownership of assets, financing mechanisms for capital maintenance, regulation …….
So – on balance, the forum showed that while we still have a long way to go, we are probably (on balance) ‘getting there’. Not as fast as we’d like – but then we never do! The opening and closing speeches by Richard Carter on behalf of RWSN hit all the right notes. The presentation by the World Bank did the same – clearly setting out the need to shift from infrastructure to service delivery. So – on balance broaly positive.
But how to measure this sort of gradual shift in the thinking of a whole sector? Cue the other succes from my/IRC’s point of view – the “story booth” that we ran throughout the conference. All of which are being uploaded (and I’ll add a link here once its available). In this we collected over one hundred video clips of conference participants – some of which were played back at the start of each day’s sessions. So far so WaterCube! The really (potentially!) exciting part was that we also bullied (well – bribed with chocolates!) participants into ‘signfying’ their stories using Cognitive Edge’s SenseMaker software. This represents valuable additional inputs to the couple of thousand ‘user’, ‘service provider’ and ‘national’ level stories we have been collecting in Ghana and Uganda for the last couple of months. Will this help to provide a baseline against which we can track further evolution of sector thinking in subsequent events? Only time will tell. For now we are waiting for the first crunching of the data from this exercise – which I will share once it becomes available.