Committing to Collaborative Learning to Improve Sanitation in Debre Birhan, Ethiopia

Nov 5, 2021 by Brittany Ajroud, Kimberly Pugel, and Lucia Henry of SWS Comments (0)

Members of a collective action group in Debre Birhan, Ethiopia, scout the location of a fecal sludge disposal site. Credit: Maheder Hailesalassie

Members of a collective action group in Debre Birhan, Ethiopia, scout the location of a fecal sludge disposal site. Credit: Maheder Hailesalassie


Failing Sanitation Services

Despite urgent needs and past efforts, the town of Debre Birhan, Ethiopia, still struggles to provide reliable, long-term sanitation services to its 113,000 residents. This rapidly growing town has no centralized sewer network, meaning most sanitation facilities contain waste onsite, and only about 50 percent of these meet global standards for quality. In addition, an estimated 72 percent of the town’s fecal sludge (FS)  is not safely managed until disposal.


Moreover, the town’s sanitation decision-maker network is disparate and uncoordinated, which exacerbates the above issues. This highly precarious social and public health scenario could easily lead to life-threatening diseases and have a cascading effect into the political and economic realms.


To address this, USAID-funded Sustainable WASH Systems Learning Partnership (SWS) and its on-the-ground partners — Tetra Tech and IRC — applied a collective action approach to bring together town stakeholders around a common vision and change how sanitation services are delivered. As the name implies, SWS is a learning initiative, and a collaborating, learning, and adapting (CLA) approach helped the activity partners cooperate and adapt program approaches, enabling key local actors to coalesce to advance a safer, more sustainable sanitation system they can maintain long term. 


Lax coordination among Debre Birhan sanitation stakeholders played a major role in the town’s sanitation situation. The large number of dispersed government agencies and entities mandated to manage the town’s sanitation made it difficult for all actors to fully coordinate or agree on each stakeholder’s precise roles, responsibilities, or workflows. In addition, layers of social, political, and economic complexities surrounded the construction of a new FS facility that had little community buy-in.


A Collaborative Approach

Given SWS’s commitment to collaborative learning, the team quickly identified that maximizing stakeholder collaboration and coordination was key to improving this development challenge. With SWS support, Tetra Tech partnered with IRC to bring key stakeholders together and identify priority areas for sanitation improvements in Debre Birhan. The two organizations had complementary strengths — Tetra Tech brought science and engineering expertise to expand access to sanitation and IRC offered years of experience building and facilitating multi-stakeholder platforms in numerous WASH contexts. Collaboration, adaptation, and learning were key principles for both of these partners even before any work was done on the ground.


Critical to SWS’s collaborative approach is the establishment of a learning alliance — a committee comprising key local stakeholders who establish a common vision around an agreed upon issue to learn together, innovate, and collaborate toward a systems change. The activity established Debre Birhan’s learning alliance in 2018, bringing  together local public officials, the private sector, donors, NGOs, and academics.


Opportunities to Foster Learning and Collaboration

Another SWS partner, LINC, conducted a Social Network Analysis of the actors in Debre Birhan’s sanitation management and operations service network. The mapping process, which visualizes individual and organizational network relationships and dynamics, helped all stakeholders see where they   fit into the sanitation service network and identify early opportunities to improve cooperation and information sharing  among the matrix of actors.


Quarterly learning alliance meetings created space for local stakeholders to reflect on outcomes and jointly steer new activities. For example, when members realized some public latrines were not being maintained or managed, the learning alliance designed and conducted management training for latrine managers and routinely followed up on site to ensure latrines remain operational.


To continuously support relationship-building among learning alliance members SWS partners conducted systems-wide assessments and kept local government officials at the forefront of sanitation service decisions. For example, once the learning alliance identified the town’s sanitation priorities, they needed to get approval by key decision-makers, including the town administration and the mayor. Because these actors did not have time to attend frequent meetings, the learning alliance began conducting annual high-level meetings for key decision-makers to provide important feedback. Overall, this arrangement has fostered healthy and productive relationships among those working toward town sustainable sanitation.


Because it is operating in Debre Birhan under a finite, 5-year plan, SWS further adapted the learning alliance approach by putting in place a sustainability plan. This meant having members take on leadership roles early on. So SWS conducted member training on conflict resolution, neutral facilitation, and leadership. After two training sessions the learning alliance and SWS worked in tandem with town sanitation officials to handle the logistical and administrative duties to keep collaboration and systems running smoothly.


Navigating Challenges

The CLA approach enabled several aspects of this initiative to thrive. First, the SWS activity was intentionally designed to test different WASH approaches to ultimately inform future USAID investments. SWS had a dedicated  learning team composed of researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Environmental Incentives who serve as CLA thought partners for all SWS members. These researchers and monitoring, evaluation, and learning  specialists helped plan and facilitate pause and reflect events, conduct regular partner capacity and training, and synthesize learning around priority topics. 


The activity did experience obstacles to learning. First, written guidance or case studies on collective action approaches in WASH are few and far between. This inhibited wider uptake and application of the model in Debre Birhan. However, SWS is supporting the development of a toolkit to help future teams learn from its experiences. Additionally, occasional turnover made it difficult to harness accumulated institutional knowledge and consistently share lessons and guidance across the learning alliance. Last, COVID-19 restricted travel and in-person learning activities. Washington-based staff could not travel to Ethiopia, SWS partners could not convene in person to share lessons and reflect on progress, and the learning alliance could not meet for a period of time. At the partnership level, this was partly ameliorated by pivoting planned in-person meetings to virtual platforms. However, poor internet connections and other logistical challenges occasionally affected participation.


Development Results

Stakeholders in Debre Birhan now regularly convene to improve sanitation issues in the town. The learning alliance held its ninth meeting in July 2021. Twenty members represent multiple levels of public administration, NGOs, the private sector, donors, and academia. Despite some turnover within organizations, institutions have remained committed and consistent. One tangible outcome was that the town government allocated 68 percent more funds to sanitation activities between 2020 and 2021.


The learning alliance’s biggest win, however, resolved the long-standing conflict regarding the location of a new FS facility after the municipality closed the town’s disposal and treatment site in 2018. Following the construction of a temporary FS dumping site to address immediate needs through sustained discussions and consensus with town decision-makers, the learning alliance continued these conversations and secured appropriate    land for one permanent disposal site and identified land for a second permanent facility. Moreover, the learning alliance also helped usher in new operational mandates that include guidance on which entities (residential vs industrial) are allowed to use the sites.


In a promising sign of continuity and sustainability, the learning alliance held its first meeting without SWS support on October 28, 2021. All the original members participated, including the town land administration head who had only sent a representative to the previous meeting.


To learn more about SWS’s experience applying collaborative approaches to WASH challenges, read Collective Action in WASH: Lessons and Findings from 11 Collaboratives Approaches.




Brittany Ajroud serves as SWS’s chief of party and is a senior associate at Environmental Incentives with more than 10 years of experience in international development, with a focus on water resources management and collaborative, cross-sector efforts.



Kimberly Pugel is the primary researcher for the SWS research area on collective action. She is a Civil Engineering PhD Candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder. 


Lucia Henry is an associate in the Water Resources and Infrastructure sector of Tetra Tech. She is a water and sanitation professional who collaborates with the SWS team and manages the small-town sanitation work in Ethiopia.