Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Practical example: Aquasan the story of a remarkable community of practice addressing water supply and sanitation in developing countries

An example! Marc Steinlin from Helvetas mentioned in the km4dev list that Urs Egger has written down the story of Aquasan. Though I often visit the km4dev website, I had never traced it, so there are probably many more examples out there. It is so easy to overlook something on the web! When I started reading I was first disappointed that the story is about a community of practice amongst northern (Swiss) development workers, but it is a good story because it highlights a lot of critical success factors. (and I printed another one by Etienne Wenger, which I will blog later.)

The Aquasan CoP was started in 1983 by a small group of Swiss experts working on water supply and sanitation issues. They continued to meet four times per year for one day for knowledge sharing- up to the present date (23 years!) and organise a yearly annual workshop of five days in one of the developing countries. The founding members still form the core group, strongly commited to Aquasan. The passion of the professionals- for their work and the theme water and sanitation in developing countries- keeps the group together, members are always looking forward to meeting their colleagues and some consider each other as friends. The circle seems quite closed and has even been refered to as "water maffia", but there is an outer circle of participants that attend meetings only irregularly, and guests are invited for presentations and topical discussions. The organisations making up Aquasan more or less took their hands off and gave their representatives free rein to exercise their creativity. Private consultants were not invited because the group was afraid of competition. The group's constituents are financially supported so that the community does not have to show a direct impact resulting from their participation, whereas SDC has always funded the workshops.

At the regular meetings, there are recurrent issues like the mission reports, presentation by researchers, the annual workshop, SDC policy and some long-running topics like the development of a household water disinfection system.

So what is the impact? If there had not been a benefit to its members, they wouldn't have continued to participate. But more specifically, the community of practice has provided a place to solicit informal feedback, has acted as a multiplier, and has helped with coordination in the sector. There are hardly any identifiable outputs (like publications, website, etc) as the output constitutes of learning for the individual members.

Questions I still have at the end are about the growth of the community (numbers), how new members are recruited, introduced etc. and whether the employers of the members never asked for any outputs (what a luxuoury, or what a vision to allow for this space for the practitioners!). It would also have been nice to hear more about the actual domain innovations stimulated by the community of practice, and the homogenous/heterogenousness of the professionals.

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