Learning and Adaptation

Learning involves the exchange of information, knowledge and views to improve the response quality by drawing lessons learned from past and current interventions. It takes place at different levels and for different purposes such as participatory learning, project-based learning and learning that informs policy and advocacy.

Key Actions
  • How can we learn and use the knowledge generated by communities to improve our response?Plan learning strategically. Key questions to ask for each project include:
    • What do we need to know about this area?
    • What are we curious about and why?
    • How will we document, share and use the evidence and information generated?
    • What are the best approaches to use?
    • How can we best communicate with populations to reduce WASH-related risks?
    • Why is this a priority?
  • Budget for learning as part of the planning process of a sanitation programme. Include both individual and organisational learning in the budget.
  • Use a Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability and Learning (MEAL) framework to ensure that the knowledge generated at an individual, programme and organisational level is integrated and coherent.
  • Consider and adhere to ethical standards wherever learning requires data collection.
  • Integrate learning into the capacity strengthening plan of the WASH team to ensure that staff apply current sectoral learning.

Sharing knowledge and building on lessons learned is important both within humanitarian (and development) organisations and between them.

Establishing learning systems for the humanitarian WASH sector at organisational, national and international levels will help improve the overall quality and effectiveness of WASH interventions. Organisations must drive the process and provide an enabling culture for learning and knowledge sharing. Sanitation responders need to make it their responsibility.

Learning and knowledge-sharing require a culture of behaviour change in individuals, organisations and systems so that initiatives to improve learning, knowledge sharing and communication are given greater support and investment. Investment in good information management is required at all levels as well as its promotion. The production and dissemination of guidance and recommendations is important as well as its inclusion in inductions, handovers and training.

Research and Knowledge Management are two important components of any learning system to ensure that learning is rigorous and shared across the sector. Research is important to guide and strengthen evidence-based decision making in the design, implementation and evaluation of humanitarian WASH programmes and helps to understand its risks, benefits and consequences. It can also help to develop and test innovative sanitation interventions in humanitarian settings. Trying out new and innovative approaches is important to broaden current knowledge and to improve effectiveness.


The Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action defines learning as the capacity for continuous, collective, interactive and inquisitive review by knowledgeable and trained staff (ALNAP 1997). Organisations implementing WASH programmes must therefore create this capacity by establishing a corresponding learning strategy.

Collective learning in the sector is derived from collective experience. This is an implicit basis of Sphere, where standards, indicators and key actions are derived from learning in the humanitarian WASH sector. WASH coordination mechanisms are also important contributors to the learning process at the national and global level, as are research initiatives that carry out research and learning for the humanitarian sector.

Learning processes can be difficult to establish in humanitarian contexts, particularly during the acute response phase. However, it may be possible to gain knowledge through Monitoring and Evaluation, but with additional or more focused analyses. In addition, specific research can be undertaken to complement the monitoring and evaluation findings. The main goal is to learn what works or does not work and why. Being able to acknowledge mistakes and failures can contribute significantly to learning and building trust. For example, identifying why a significant proportion of the affected population is not using the implemented latrines can provide essential learnings with which to adapt the overall sanitation programme. The assumption however that learning is universal and can be applied in the same way in every community is a mistake, as learning must be contextualised.

Knowledge Management is a crucial element of learning and includes the documentation, centralisation, comparison, synthesis and sharing of information and guidance. There are various ways of disseminating knowledge and experience – not just through the written word but also through interaction such as personal communication, meetings, videos or workshops.

Learning within the humanitarian sector is difficult without individual learning by practitioners. Investment in continuously developing the capacity of WASH professionals at every level is essential. Organisations need to develop learning strategies and provide adequate resources for the learning and knowledge needs of all staff.There are many ways to generate evidence, such as case studies, reviews, field research, action research, Monitoring and Evaluation and anthropological studies. Evidence can be generated at a local level and used locally or more widely. What is important is the dissemination of findings to the humanitarian and academic community to continuously improve the WASH response to affected populations. Findings may be disseminated through scientific articles, published technical guides, external communication and joint local or international learning events.

Author(s) (1)
Rob Gensch
German Toilet Organization (GTO)
Reviewer(s) / Contributor(s) (2)
Catherine Bourgault
Center for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology (CAWST)
Thorsten Reckerzügl
German Toilet Organization (GTO)

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