Connecting across contexts: learning from All Systems Connect 2023

A systems strengthening icon in tones of blue

WaterAid's Fraser Goff reflects on his time and insights from All Systems Connect 2023 

Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) systems do not work in isolation – we need WASH systems to connect with health, financing, climate and social justice systems. This was the message of the All Systems Connect symposium in May.

Over three session-packed days in The Hague, The Netherlands, 700 global WASH practitioners from government, civil society, rights groups, private sector and academia connected and shared experiences of what works, and what doesn’t, to strengthen the systems that provide WASH services.

It was excellent to hear so many organisations talk about shifting their vision beyond the infrastructure of taps and toilets to thinking about what else needs to be in place to keep taps running, toilets flushing and hands clean. There were great examples of government-led planning for universal WASH access, discussions about leveraging climate finance to strengthen WASH resilience to extreme weather, and local communities holding service providers accountable for service improvement. I was particularly excited about the theme running throughout the symposium on social justice in which human rights advocates shared often-overlooked messages about the need to challenge the exclusion within WASH systems which entrench marginalisation.

But the key takeaway for me came in the closing 15 minutes of the symposium.

Throughout the symposium groups of young people had been pulling in expert opinions and advice from among participants to workshop solutions to systemic challenges facing WASH. As they shared their results from the stage, the final group admitted that — in spite of our collective wisdom and their optimistic persistence — they had not been able to come up with solutions to climate change-proof WASH services.

This in itself is not surprising — if climate change was simple enough to be solved in three days it would not have waited until now! The surprise was this group’s willingness to come back with questions rather than answers. In a symposium full of people sharing solutions and successes, their humility was refreshing.

Their experience is a lesson that we can all take forward in our work.

Connecting with systems, with humility

Despite the often-used framing of ‘building blocks of the WASH system’, systems are made up of people and exist to benefit people. As Gabriel Gustavo Belloni Rocha, the Organizing Coordinator at Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Project (ProDESC) in Mexico said in the opening panel of the symposium, “Systems connect as people connect”.

The people in a system don’t always share the same ambitions or even the same vision. The way resources, information and decision-making power are distributed among different people and institutions can get in the way. Everyone needs access to clean water and decent toilets, and (hopefully) everyone knows this – the challenge is usually mobilising diverse people to ensure WASH services function, and are sustainable, equitable and climate-resilient.

Excellent policies, plans, monitoring systems and budgets will not be enough to reach everyone with WASH services unless the people who are involved come together – connect – to build on each other’s strengths and to put policies, plans, data and budgets into action. Because the actors involved vary from country to country and community to community, so too do the challenges and opportunities. As funders, designers and implementers of WASH systems strengthening projects we cannot start with answers, and we cannot expect to control project outcomes. We must engage with the people in the system with humility – as listeners rather than leaders – to support locally-owned and locally-responsive solutions to local systemic challenges. There can be no ‘one-size fits all’ approach to strengthening WASH systems.

Water for Women contributions to global WASH systems discussion

Water for Women is enabling locally-responsive WASH and research projects to strengthen the sustainability, equity and climate resilience of WASH systems across 16 countries in the Asia-Pacific region. The first five years of the Fund have generated valuable lessons the global WASH sector needs to hear.

Through Water for Women’s Learning Agenda, we have explored how different civil society and research organisations engage with WASH systems, and how systems change happens.

Some of these lessons, captured in the learning brief, Strengthening Systems for more Equitable, Sustainable and Climate-resilient WASH, were shared at the symposium.

We have learnt that:

  • Systems strengthening is not only important to improve WASH service sustainability, but also service equity and resilience. Many issues related to gender equality, disability and social inclusion need to be addressed at a system level to resolve and prevent inequalities in WASH service provision and access.
  • When we consider that systems are made up of people we cannot ignore dimensions of power, capacity and prevailing social norms and mindsets. There are lots of ways to define and understand ‘the system’, but thinking about the people involved and the political economy helps us to understand how change happens, and why sometimes it doesn’t. Unless we deliberately address these dimensions in our work, we risk strengthening systems that perpetuate harmful attitudes and practices.
  • Addressing barriers to inclusive WASH requires us to move beyond policies, plans and budgets to focus on shifting entrenched power imbalances and harmful norms. Diverse systems are strong systems. Water for Women has highlighted many examples of how bringing rights groups, such as women’s organisations and organisations for persons with a disability, into WASH decision-making can begin to shift attitudes and lead to meaningful contributions and leadership by these groups.
  • Civil society and research organisations have roles to play in systems as convenors who broker new relationships, technical WASH, gender and monitoring and evaluation specialists, innovators and advocates. Through collaborative, participatory and empowering approaches that are grounded in local efforts and contexts, civil society and research organisations can demonstrate the kind of change we seek to see in the systems we engage. In systems strengthening, how we work is as important as what we work on.

As practitioners working to strengthen WASH systems we must not lose sight of the people in the system. Through organisational humility, participatory approaches and active listening, we can connect and empower the people in local systems to lead systems change for more sustainable, equitable and climate-resilient WASH services for all.


 Access all of our systems strengthening learning below!

A blue graphic featuring our Systems Strengthening resources

Water for Women acknowledges Fraser Goff of WaterAid Australia for his leadership of this collaborative Learning Agenda initiative and the authorship of these resources.

All Water for Women partners contributed extensively to this initiative in terms of scoping, sharing learnings and the synthesis of findings. We also recognise their leadership and support for progress towards strengthening inclusive, sustainable and resilient WASH systems across Asia and the Pacific.

This work was supported by the Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Special thanks to the members of the advisory group for this Learning Agenda initiative, who guided the initiative’s development, coordinated and led learning events and helped to synthesise the lessons learnt: Anwar Zeb and Junaid Khan of IRC Pakistan, Gabrielle Halcrow of SNV, Juliet Willetts of the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures, Lien Pham of Thrive Networks/East Meets West Foundation; and Tom Rankin from Plan International Australia.

Thanks to WaterAid Australia colleagues who have supported the Learning Agenda initiative: Chelsea Huggett, Clare Hanley, David Shaw and Edmund Weking. Thanks also to the members of the Water for Women Fund Coordinator team, who played a substantial role in the development and delivery of the initiative and this learning note: Kate Orr, Matthew Bond, Alison Baker, Joanna Mott, Mia Cusack and Bianca Nelson Vatnsdal.


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