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Toward a New Water Paradigm

People play by a newly installed hand pump in Jedane, Ethiopia.

Michael Lindsey / U.S. Navy
Apr 18, 2018


Good intentions are not the same as good results – as much as half of all water and sanitations systems in developing countries fail after five years. To reduce widespread inefficiencies and duplication of efforts, and measure what matters most to vulnerable communities, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation recently awarded a four-year $1.9 million grant to Stanford’s Program on Water, Health & Development (WHD). The grant renews a partnership aimed at making the influential foundation’s strategy for accelerating access to safe, reliable and affordable water services as efficient and effective as possible.

“Taking an interdisciplinary approach to global water challenges could have a powerful impact on the development sector as a whole,” said Chris Field, the Perry L. McCarty director of the Stanford Woods Institute, which administers WHD. “WHD is uniquely positioned to help shape that approach.”

Intended to be a flexible, responsive instrument, the Hilton Foundation’s 2017-2021 Safe Water Strategic Initiative sets out to engage local government, private sector and civil society in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Ethiopia and Uganda to develop concrete plans for expanding water services to all residents within a target district. Guided by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, the strategy focuses on three key areas: advancing proven and promising innovations for quality water services, improving water governance and facilitating high-impact collaborations, and building evidence to validate best practices.

The annual funding gap for water services in low- and middle-income countries is estimated at more than $50 billion. To address that gap, the Foundation is focusing on opportunities that can catalyze new investment or get more value out of existing investments. For example, the Foundation is prioritizing investment in institutional and human capacity. Whereas in the past the Foundation might have trained community volunteers to operate and maintain water points, now it seeks to build up monetized, professionalized water systems.

The Foundation is incentivizing development partners to collaborate more effectively with one another and with government, to develop, test and implement different approaches for systems strengthening and water service delivery at the district level, which will generate powerful proofs of concept.

“If that groundwork can be laid successfully, it will help ensure that other funding—whether from the public, private, or international development sector—can be used much more effectively,” said WHD faculty director Jenna Davis.

Along the way, WHD – in partnership with the Dutch nonprofit organization IRC – will evaluate the approach, suggest revisions, test assumptions and monitor progress based on feedback from grantees and larger sector stakeholders. Davis and her Stanford colleagues have already developed a draft theory of change and a strategy assessment framework.

WHD researchers will work to link monitoring, evaluation and learning activities in each of the six countries with learning and assessment frameworks they are developing with the Foundation. The team is also developing collaborative research projects with grantees, tackling topics such as innovations in water sector finance and improving water and sanitation services to health care centers.

“We are grateful to have the Stanford Woods Institute as a thought partner,” said Chris Dunston, Senior Program Officer for International Programs at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. “We are confident this partnership will not only help guide the Foundation’s investments and research priorities, but create a learning environment for our partners and the sector at large that is intentional, strategic and aligned towards impact.”

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