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In 2023, members of the SuSanA Secretariat, Global Steering Committee, Forum Moderators and the Africa Chapter met during the Policy and Practice Forum organized by the Center for Sciences and Environment (CSE). The Secretariat conducted an interview with some SuSanA members on the theme of "Decolonizing the WASH Narrative". This interview touched on the shift in knowledge ownership, representation and collaboration between the global North and South in the WASH sector.

Article written by

Chaiwe Mushauko-Sanderse is an international development WASH professional with over a decade of experience. She has collaborated with prominent organizations such as GIZ, AfDB, Plan International, SNV, and others as a Technical Expert and consultant. Chaiwe is the CEO of CaDev - Capacity Development, a social enterprise dedicated to fostering strong local capacities for sustainable and inclusive growth and development. She also serves as a Forum Moderator and African chapter co-coordinator for the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance Network (SuSanA).

Sareen Malik Executive Secretary

African Civil Society Network, Kenya

Sareen Malik is executive secretary at the African Civil Society Network on Water and Sanitation. ANEW and its members work on behalf of the hundreds of millions of people in Africa who lack safe water and those forced to migrate because of climate breakdown, as well as the women who together spend millions of hours each day collecting water and whose daughters will be locked into poverty if the water crisis is not addressed. 

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Hi Chaiwe and Sareen, can you introduce yourself? 

Chaiwe: Hello, my name is Chaiwe Mushauko from Zambia, and I am a moderator of the SuSanA Forum as well as a co-coordinator of the SuSanA African chapter. 

Sareen: My name is Sareen Malik. I am the Executive Secretary of the African Civil Society Network on Water and Sanitation and the Vice-Chair for the Sanitation and Water for All. I am from Kenya, and it's a pleasure to be here today. 

Can you tell us what do you understand by decolonizing the WASH narrative?  

Chaiwe: Decolonizing the WASH narrative is a term that portrays how we intend to look at the WASH sector going forward to ensure that knowledge is owned or disseminated by the intended beneficiaries and stakeholders. We should look more at the Global South’s ownership of their own narrative in the sector, in different respects. In the way that projects are implemented, how they share knowledge, how they implement activities, and how they make decisions. 

Sareen: It is several things, the first one is how knowledge that is generated in the Global South is managed across the Global North and South. On a practical note, it's rare to see the names of the individuals who truly own this information when reports are generated or when images are presented. There is also the issue of whose voice is used to share the results. There has been a push and a level of improvement in terms of ensuring that it is the Global South that takes the lead in presenting the challenges they face. Lastly, there's the dimension of ideation. How are these concepts approached? Is it a top-down approach, or is there a commitment to a partnership that enables all parties to contribute their unique strengths to the discussion and the contextualization of WASH initiatives? 

Do you think there is an issue with the terminology? 

Sareen: I think the term is supposed to "shock" people at first, to get the emotions out, and when the dust has eventually settled, we can approach the issue itself. However, it can sometimes lead to misunderstandings. Let me clarify that advocating for the decolonization of the WASH narrative doesn't mean we reject support from the Global North. We see ourselves as partners, emphasizing cooperation and teamwork, and we've made significant progress over the past decade in this regard. But a critical point, which may be somewhat provocative, is the issue of governance and the distribution of power from the Global North to the Global South. 

What are the implications of decolonizing the Knowledge Management in WASH? 

Chaiwe: Decentralizing knowledge is about preserving different contexts and avoiding isolation. It aims to connect different contexts globally, such as Africa, India, Latin America and the North, in the global sector to promote harmonization, sharing and coexistence. This approach also emphasizes ownership: the more control we have over our narrative, the more accurate that story will be, which in turn will have a better impact on our context-specific sector. This is definitely the way I perceive it. 

Sareen: Decolonizing WASH knowledge management would increase visibility and legitimacy while providing momentum to context-specific issues. By fostering equal partnerships and bringing everyone onto the same stage, improvements can be expected. 

As active members of SuSanA, how is the Network contributing to this effort?  

Chaiwe: SuSanA has been in existence for many years; it's over a decade old. During that time, there has been a shift in the way that knowledge is disseminated, processed, and packaged, and it is driven more towards the Global South. This shift ensures that the Global South has ownership of and control over how knowledge is shared within their respective regions.  As a moderator from Zambia, I am a direct representative of this context, providing valuable insights into the specific knowledge management needs of the region. It's encouraging to see a similar trend in Latin America, India, Southeast Asia, where regional representatives are driving this positive change. This marks a crucial step toward decolonizing WASH sector knowledge.  

Sareen: The Africa SuSanA Chapter started during COVID when we were all working behind our computers. We first conducted a survey among SuSanA members in Africa, which highlighted a critical need for knowledge sharing, not only for success stories but also for failures, so we can learn from them. We aimed to take ownership of our experiences and outcomes. This knowledge-sharing initiative gained traction across the continent, with civil societies and member states expressing a similar need for discussions and knowledge exchange. It's been great to see the knowledge exchange flourishing among different chapters, promoting diverse local perspectives and contexts in water and sanitation topics. 

Can you provide specific examples of initiatives in Africa aimed at decolonizing the WASH narrative? 

Sareen: During the last decade, the continent has been consistent in trying to play a more significant role in the water sector. This is evident through events like the African Water Week, the AFWA Congress, and AfricaSan, which provide valuable insights into the continent's water and sanitation landscape. Notably, hosting the World Water Forum in Africa last year was a significant milestone in advancing the decolonization of the WASH narrative. If we can continue to attract more global-scale forums to the Global South, it would greatly encourage this mission and enhance visibility for sector stakeholders. 

Chaiwe: Organizations like the African Ministerial Council of Water (AMCOW) and the African Water and Sanitation Association (AfWaSa) are actively driving a robust knowledge management agenda on the African continent. Their efforts are shaping a strategy for Africa, empowering the African context to take charge of its knowledge management while influencing governance and fostering cross-country communication, learning, and collaboration. With this momentum towards ownership and change, we anticipate significant positive shifts in Africa. 

Looking at the current situation, what further steps and upcoming measures do you believe are essential for advancing the initiative of decolonizing the WASH narrative? 

Chaiwe: I believe there is a lot that needs to be done, and we are at the infancy of this conversation. We need to kickstart the process of decolonizing knowledge management. It's vital to explore new funding avenues, particularly context-specific funding. The Global South has struggled with this due to the lack of allocated resources. Once we unlock this funding, it opens up numerous opportunities for us to take charge of our interventions, narratives, and strategies while sharing information more widely. 

Sareen: We know the issues with resources in the sector. To push the decolonization agenda and ensure it gains traction, we need to back it up with resources. The civil societies and the member states should also collaborate more so that the Global South can own its information. While I don't have all the answers, I firmly believe that these issues and their ties to globalization will become even more significant in the near future.  

Thank you very much for your insights and valuable perspectives on this critical topic. Your input has really opened our eyes to the significance of promoting ownership and diversity to reshape the sector. We're truly grateful for your time and wisdom. 

Chaiwe: Thank you, it's been a pleasure. 

Sareen: Thank you too! 


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