By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

Melissa Leach, director of the STEPS Centre and several of the Centre’s members, opened the third and final day of the CLTS Conference with a session giving some insights on CLTS and the key issues going forward from a STEPS perspective. Photo: Gerry Bloom / Julia Day

STEPS has been interacting with the CLTS research team here at the Institute of Development Studies for the past couple of years, thinking about how water and sanitation issues interact with dynamic environments and how diverse people in different settings on the ground, as well as policy-makers, think about and understand the different systems at play.

“CLTS is an example of a successful approach, but as a system it is a complex one,” said Prof. Leach. “So we need to think hard about what uncertainties might be around the corner and what perspectives are being overlooked that might not be apparent in some of the success stories we have heard about over the past two days… As this fantastic idea beds down what are some of the unintended consequences?

Lyla Mehta is the lead researcher on CLTS at IDS and also the STEPS Centre water and sanitation convenor – a role that puts her in an ideal position to cross-pollinate ideas. Dr. Mehta said within the worlds of water and sanitation it is now considered mainstream to look at issues of culture, politics, power and history. A lot of disciplines come together to make that disciplinary convergence happen. But although a rich body of work on the role and understanding of institutions exists, this aspect is often much neglected, she said, as are the interlocking systems between how technology and society co-evolve and produce different pathways.

“The on-going process of reflection has been the key strength of what CLTS has done. Going back to communities after research and seeing exactly what is happening on the ground,” said Dr Mehta. “But there are a whole host of unknowns, and we may have been a bit glib about that.” She also floated the idea that the framing of sanitation may be grounded too solidly in CLTS researchers and practitioners’ own framing of the issues, rather than taking on board other people’s framings: “We are coming with a certain knowledge, but are we sensitive enough about people’s own framings of problems?”

Synne Movik, a STEPS Centre post-doctoral fellow, presented an overview of her new STEPS Centre working paper, Dynamics, Sustainability and Governance of CLTS: Some Perspectives (available soon on the website). There has been a tendency in policy circles to ignore the fact that social, ecology and technological systems are inherently dynamic. And the assumption is that everybody knows what sustainability is about. However it is important to highlight STEPS notion of Sustainability, said Movik, that it is a normative concept dependent on individual perception of what functions, structures and goals are important which alters according to who you talk to. There is a need to be explicit about this in describing CLTS and its successes, she said.

To apply dynamic system concept to CLTS we need to highlight how social, technological and ecological systems are dynamic and how they dynamically interact to produce particular pathways, according to Movik. In a lot of CLTS literature it is very evident that favourable conditions to help the implementation of CLTS include communities that are quite small, homogenous and where no ethnic conflict exists, she said.

But issue of culture and religious norms also shape dynamics – such as, in sanitation, religious notions of pollution and purity – and it is important to be aware of how norms and practices shape social dynamics. In the realm of ecological dynamics, one debate in CLTS is that a visibly filthy environment makes it easier to trigger the sense of shame and disgust that CLTS is dependent on. In technological dynamics, might CLTS’ emphasis on shame and disgust actually be an obstacle for adopting other technological options, Movik asked? Might it go against other technologies that look at shit not as waste but as a resource? There are questions she believed should be explored.

A notion not explored so far over the course of the past two days, said Movik, is idea of resilience, which is very much associated with sustainability because it looks at how systems copes with internal and external disturbances, short and long-terms shocks and stresses. “The key of CLTS is the focus on social change and triggering behavioural change,” said Movik, “Which is related to how to make systems durable and stable – that lasts and endures. But it is important to look at technological and ecological resilience and sustainability issues. The notion of uncertainty and risk – how do we deal with the things that we do not know? – has not been fully explored yet. “There are risks for CLTS that we do not know about – how it is going to impact on ecological environment in the short and long term – so we need to devise strategies for those unknowns.”

Movik concluded: “If there is one word that sums up last couple of days it is diversity. The simple and understandable CLTS approach has evolved into range of different packages and approaches dependent on settings. One of the key challenges is to devise institutional frameworks – at local, district and national levels that help us exchange knowledge and learning from different settings and engage with other approaches. Emphasis must be on accommodating uncertainties so that CLTS becomes a flexible approach that works in different settings and complex environments.”

Gerry Bloom, IDS fellow and STEPS Centre health convenor, took over from Movik to give his take on the challenges ahead for CLTS, from his experience working on health issues.

“Why is CLTS so exciting for me? Because a little idea has spread rapidly and triggered lot of action in very short time,” said Bloom. “When lot of pessimism around, this is an exciting thing to see – how a little idea has a big impact. But will the idea keep spreading? And how does the idea and its expressions change as it spreads? What happens to it in different places?”

And he posed another interesting question for CLTS practitioners to consider: “Do we accept that many different ideas will come out of CLTS as it evolves and that it is no longer pure? The originators may not like where the idea goes. So how do you keep influencing where the idea goes?”

And he sounded a note of caution about the CLTS method of creating natural leaders for the within communities based on his experience of training village doctors in Zimbabwe in the 1980s. “Something very disappointing can happen,” said Bloom. “The main outcome of training village doctors was that new markets were opened up for western drugs and the people we trained became drug traders. So a very good idea can have unintended consequences.”

More food for thought came from Bloom’s experience in other health arenas. He said that increasing focus on chronic disease have brought a deluge of many sources of knowledge and information and attempts to influence peoples’ decisions. Where does CLTS fit in and what other messages are people getting about shit, he asked? It would be good to situate CLTS within this larger context, he suggests, particularly as the issues around CLTS and sanitation are are very powerful.

“On work we have done, we have radically underestimated the amount of information going to people – importance of markets, advertising, village doctors. But it is difficult to get sustainable solutions going if governments don’t take responsibility. So we need to work towards different kinds of partnerships for taking responsibility in sanitation.

A lot of papers on CLTS talk about success and good things happening. But if an idea is to be really powerful and important it must make mistakes and big ones. No ideas only have had good outcomes, but how do we look for bad outcomes and how do start to think critically about the pathways CLTS is taking. The next step might be not just to promote the idea of CLTS, but to influence its evolution,” Bloom concluded.

In the question and answer session Kamal Kar said Movik’s paper was very exciting and added that macro social, technological and ecological issues need to now be engaged with now in order for CLTS to survive.

Ingrid Nyborg added that the ideas in Movik’ paper could shift CLTS from achieving a sanitation ‘goal’ to a way of thinking about using a framework to encourage institutions to be able to manage diversity and dynamics. “This STEPS perspective could lead to a very important shift for CLTS,” she said.

Nisheeth Kumar agreed that more work needed to be done to understand CLTS in respect to other approaches, adding that CLTS is a technology and that there are other triggers to the process, apart from disgust and shame, that needed to be looked at.

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