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Community Contribution

Science, Silver Bullets, and Sanitation: How Operational Research Improved Plan’s Global Programming

Ashley Bishop

Plan International is a pioneer of the Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) approach — a method that triggers community-wide behavior change on sanitation practices, ending open defecation, and stimulating household investment in toilets. We tested, implemented, and evaluated the relative effect of different CLTS facilitation methods to examine how scalability and sustainability improved under alternate models. This comparison was coupled with “deep dive” evaluations in Ghana, Ethiopia, and Kenya, complemented by seven rapid evaluations worldwide to compare and contrast the findings.

CLA Approach

  • Knowledge Management: Our project design focused on structured activities aligned with a Learn, Capture, and Share framework, which incorporated applied research through experimental pilots in Kenya, Ghana, and Ethiopia; structured knowledge collection and analysis; and comprehensive knowledge sharing throughout the life of the project.
  • Adaptive Management: During implementation, our Plan practitioners met regularly with researchers from the University of North Carolina to review, refine, and correct approaches. For example, the project team revised the Kenya pilot and received donor approval for a new design after identifying confounders that weakened the original research design.
  • Pause & Reflect: Every six months, our practitioners review process-based learning from implementation to address common bottlenecks, proposed solutions, and share perspectives on preliminary findings as they were released.

Lessons Learned

  • Applying the CLTS approach can have a major impact on increasing latrine adoption and reducing open defecation, but it works well only within a known “performance envelope.”
  • Engaging local actors is important in driving toward more effective outcomes. How we engage at the community level and in local government can influence the effectiveness of CLTS programming, as can the setting.


  • Our water, sanitation, and hygiene staff have translated the main results into a set of operational standards and recommendations for the organization.

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