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The Global Handwashing Partnership

Event Summary: Big Ideas at the 2016 UNC Water and Health Conference

October 17, 2016

Earlier this year the Global Handwashing Partnership hosted its Handwashing Think Tank. This event aimed to explore current knowledge about handwashing with soap, spark collaborative thinking about handwashing, and drive the sector forward. We looked at the current state of hygiene in three thematic areas: integration, settings, and scale/sustainability.

One of the aspects that I appreciated about this event was that it allowed us to look at how people are approaching big challenges in new ways. Given the wealth of knowledge at the UNC Water and Health Conference, we felt like it would be interesting to explore big ideas at this event, too. And, so, that’s how I found myself standing in front of a room full of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) experts at 8:30 on a Thursday morning.

Despite the early hour, we had a lively discussion about the challenges that those of us working in hygiene face, as well as potential ways to drive forward the sector.

Our first panelist was Megan Williams with Splash, an organization that works on delivering innovative WASH services and behavior change programs. Megan described how their team tested an approach for improving handwashing in 20 schools in Kathmandu that included nudges. (If you are wondering “What’s a nudge?” I’d encourage you to read Robert Dreibelbis’ work on this topic.) Splash’s intervention had both child- and teacher-focused components as well as three visual cues: mirrors at handwashing stations, painted footprints on the ground leading to handwashing stations, and posters promoting handwashing. Among other findings, they found that there was a preference towards handwashing stations with mirrors, which reminded me of the Mrembo handwashing station. One of the big takeaways from Megan’s presentation was her statement that: “We aren’t academics, but we wanted to learn what might work for us and continue to improve our programs”. I think that this perspective is both refreshing and essential if we hope to truly drive forward the sector. Download Megan’s Splash UNC Presentation 2016 to see more of their results.

Geoff Revel with WaterSHED described how a handwashing challenge faced in Vietnam was due to the fact that there is high knowledge about hygiene but very low practice. They found that infrastructure (i.e. simply having access to soap and water) wasn’t enough to encourage habitual handwashing practices. To address this challenge with a market-based approach, WaterSHED introduced the Happy Tap, an aspirational product designed to make handwashing accessible and fun for children. I have a sign in my office that says “Better design is part of the solution” and the HappyTap echoes this sentiment. When a product, in this instance a handwashing station, is designed with the user in mind—when it is useful, attractive, and aspirational—it can act as a trigger and help facilitate the habit of handwashing. Download Geoff’s WaterSHED UNC Presentation 2016 WaterSHED Asia UNC Presentation 2016 to see more of their results.

The last big idea that we heard during the session concerned a significant shift in the way in which organizations approach WASH. Fabrice ­­­Fotso from UNICEF spoke about their work to change how the entire healthcare system views and incorporates WASH. He empathized that their work is not just to change people’s behaviors (i.e. to increase handwashing), but to also change how WASH is included in healthcare systems. While this work is just beginning, I particularly appreciated that it views WASH from the perspective of quality care. I think that this can help build ownership of programs and promote integration. We look forward to hearing how this work progresses over the next few months. Download Fabrice’s UNICEF UNC Presentation 2016 to see more of their results.

At the end of the session we asked the audience to use our framing questions to examine their own work:  What is a big challenge you face in hygiene or WASH promotion? What are some big ideas you are excited about? How can you take a first step toward solving your big problem in an innovative way? After group discussion, attendees made commitments about the first step they will take going forward.

While I think the challenges we face in hygiene promotion can be daunting (How can we ensure handwashing becomes a sustained habit? What is the best way to measure handwashing behavior?), there are many organizations that are approaching this work in new, innovative ways. I’m excited to see how innovation will continue to play an important role in spurring on the sector.

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