Sign Up for Alerts on Advocacy

More Resources

What are collective action approaches anyway?

Reflections from UNC Water and Health Conference


By: Laura R. Brunson (Millennium Water Alliance), Shawn Peabody (Environmental Incentives), Daniel Hollander (CU Boulder), Kimberly Pugel (CU Boulder)


“Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success,” Henry Ford famously said.

To explore questions of togetherness and success in the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector, the partners of USAID’s Sustainable WASH Systems Learning Partnership (SWS) and the Millennium Water Alliance (MWA) hosted a side-session at the UNC Water and Health Conference in October. The audience—including donors, researchers, and NGO staff—heard real-world examples of collective action approaches from SWS and MWA and, through an interactive game, grappled with the challenges of working collectively with partners who all have different priorities and roles.


What are Collective Action Approaches?

At UNC, many used “collective action” to refer to approaches that facilitate stakeholders within the water or sanitation sectors to share information and collaborate on solutions. Others used the term more broadly to mean “people working together” or to describe any approach that deals with what political scientists call a “collective action problem”, or a problem where disincentives exist that discourage joint action by individuals in the pursuit of a common goal.[1] Given growing interest in the field, we believe that the WASH sector needs a more specific term that will support the creation of a body of evidence about when, where, and how to apply these approaches.


We have observed a range of approaches used to address problems of coordination and collaboration among WASH stakeholders, donors, and implementers which often differ in the intensity of collaboration. In the image below, the level of consensus and accountability increase from left to right while the level of organizational autonomy decreases.

Figure 1: Range of approaches, from less intensive (left) to more intensive (right) forms.


The least intensive collaborations are informative platforms that simply improve the availability of information. Slightly more intensive are consultative approaches that aim to improve information flows (processes) and reduce the duplication of effort. Next, collaborative approaches aim to improve the way that services are delivered by building consensus on the bottlenecks and challenges that affect the stakeholders. Finally, the most intensive collaborations are integrative, which aim to mobilize members for joint actions according to a shared agenda.


By grouping and comparing similar approaches, we can more easily identify trends and lessons. Ultimately, a guiding framework of the range of related approaches could help organizations select the most appropriate approaches for their context and goals.


Within this range of collaboration, “collective action” refers more narrowly to both collaborative and integrative approaches. This definition best fits the recent wave of activities that seek to bring together stakeholders around a common vision and problem to change how WASH services are delivered.


Specifically, we define a collective action approach as: A process for improving a public service in which sectoral stakeholders regularly convene and take joint actions to address shared problems, and in which:

  • problems are complex and their solutions require deliberation and action by many actors,
  • members agree on a shared vision and shared problem definition, and
  • stakeholders clarify responsibilities for service provision and hold each other accountable for actions.


Collective Action in Practice

MWA has been using a collective action approach in Ethiopia since 2017. With their partners, they agreed to use a collective action approach to:

  • Strengthen ability for influence both within and outside of the coalition
  • Enhance learning across partner organizations
  • Increase efficiency of implementation and program progress
  • Improve utilization of the best capacities of each organization for maximum progress
  • Minimize overlapping or duplicating efforts


Already, MWA has seen that the partners are communicating more frequently, helping each other with shared challenges, and are committed to a shared vision. For example, one organization asked for help to implement a technology that was new to them from an experienced organization working in a different district. In another example, Food for the Hungry and World Vision came together to jointly implement work in the same district. The two organizations pooled funds and hired a coordinator who supports both organizations, while also engaging with district (woreda) government on behalf of the shared program.


The SWS Learning Partnership is also implementing and documenting collective action approaches in Uganda, Ethiopia, Cambodia, and Kenya. While more evidence needs to be collected, promising results have been observed in the first three years of the program. In Woliso, Ethiopia, a collective action group came together to address the shutdown of the town’s only fecal sludge dumpsite. As a result of engagement with the collective action group, the town administration identified a new site and began to acquire and develop it. In Kitui, Kenya, an SWS-supported coalition contributed to legislation that will clarify roles and responsibilities for the organizations and agencies involved in water service delivery. The legislation will formalize the collective action platform as an official county-level advisory structure and will provide regular budget to support the platform’s functions.


The Future of Collective Action Approaches

Although the number of collective action approaches in the WASH sector is growing, the evidence base is still limited. Early results from MWA, SWS, and others are generally positive and indicate that an intentional process of engagement can improve the interactions and relationships of sector actors. More specifics regarding the costs and service-level benefits of facilitated collaboration have yet to be carefully documented, and could help inform future WASH sector interventions. Moreover, there is limited experience and a lack of guidance about how to adapt collective action approaches to the context of international development and the WASH sector. For example, how should teams approach developing a shared vision? Are there ways to speed the development of trust among individuals and partners within a collective action group? What considerations should be used when establishing a facilitation hub? When is a hub more effectively led by a group member and when is it better to use a neutral outsider?


These are the questions that the SWS and MWA teams will be working to answer. Over the next two years, SWS will publish its findings (as webinars, research briefs, academic articles and a synthesis report) on USAID’s Global Waters. Among other updates and learning documents, MWA will soon publish a learning brief about partnership development within an alliance. Current and future documents and news are available on the MWA website.

[1] Dowding, Keith, Encyclopaedia Britannica., s.v. “Internet.” Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2013.




Learning Papers

#1 Learning from Piloting Dispensers for Safe Water

#2 The Kenya RAPID Project Facilitation Approach: Progress, Challenges and Lessons Learnt with County Governments

#3 The Facilitation Approach at USAID: A Discussion Paper

Position Papers

#1 PlanningDifferently-DevelopingWASHPlans-MillenniumWaterAlliance-2019

#2 Service delivery models for universal, safe and sustainable water services in Ethiopia

#3 Government-Led WASH Monitoring Systems

#4 Financing Universal, Safe and Sustainable Water Services in Ethiopia

#5 Capacity in the WASH Sector of Ethiopia

Self-Supply Resources

See this major 2018 evaluation of self-supply acceleration underway in Ethiopia:

Self-supply End-line Evaluation

Self-supply in Ethiopia – Endline Briefing note -March2018

Strategic WASH Publications

GLAAS Report

The United Nations and World Health Organization’s assessment of sanitation and drinking water conditions and programs


2013-2014 & Main Findings





UNICEF WASH Annual Report

UNICEF’s annual update on its global WASH program

Strategy – 2016-2030









Safeguarding the World’s Water

Annual report on USAID water sector activities








A Review of U.S. Efforts in Water and Sanitation

2011 Working paper by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions on the U.S. Government’s WASH efforts.

Click here


The Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act

A series of documents analyzing implementation of the 2005 legislation.

International Housing Coalition report – 2011

CARE/NRDC/WaterAid Report Card – 2012

NRDC, WaterAid, CARE et al. report – 2010


A Silent Tsunami

2006 Aspen Institute and Nicholas Institute report on water and sanitation challenges, goals, and solutions.

A Silent Tsunami – 2006

A Silent Tsunami Revisited – 2011


ONE Data Report – 2011

A statistical analysis of the G8 and EU’s development commitments to sub-Saharan Africa.

Interactive Data

PDF version of the report


Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review

USAID’s evaluation of global trends and U.S. responses in diplomacy and international development.




World Water Day Advocacy Guide

World Water Day’s guide to improving advocacy and action for water and food security.




Raising Clean Hands – UNICEF WASH in Schools

WASH in Schools is UNICEF’s effort to improve health, school attendance, and equality though improved water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities.

Joint Call to Action – 2010

Communications Strategy – 2010

Advancing Health, Learning and Equity through WASH in Schools -2012

Maintaining the Momentum: Advancing Health, Learning and Equity through WASH in Schools -2014


Global Waters – Archive

USAID’s update on several global WASH development projects.

Click here



Collective Impact Study on MWA Ethiopia Program, 2004-2012 – Susan Davis, Improve International

Assesses whether, and how, the collaborative work under the MWA structure adds value to the process and outcomes of the program.

MWA Collective Impact Report External December 2013


WASH Fact Sheet- 2015

WASH is a Key Ingredient in Tackling
Poverty in Kenya- Global Waters Newsletter


WHO Achieving Quality Universal Health Coverage through Better Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Services in Health Care Facilities

A Focus on Ethiopia- 2016


U.S. Government and multilateral WASH websites



U.S. Department of State

World Bank

UN Water

World Bank – Water and Sanitation Program (WSP)


WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program

World Water Day

Inter-American Development Bank


Member Sites

CARE                                                                          Catholic Relief Services

The Desert Research Institute (DRI)          El Porvenir

Food for the Hungry.                                                HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation.

IRC International Water & Sanitation Centre.    Living Water International

The Mortenson Center in Global Engineering     Pure Water for the World


WaterAid America                                                     Water4 Foundation

Water For People                                                      Water Missions International

World Vision


 Technical Designs

WASH in Schools Monitoring Package – UNICEF

A resource for WASH and education professionals
designed to strengthen and improve program monitoring



A group of the IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre that aims to bring innovative technologies to Africa to increase access to improved water and sanitation


Water Point Mapper – WaterAid

A free tool designed for WASH organizations to produce
maps displaying the status and location of water services, incorporating GPS, Excel, and Google Earth software and designed for use in locations not connected to the internet



A resource open to editing that includes technical and strategic approaches for water and sanitation projects



WHO and UNICEF have developed the Water and Sanitation for Health Facility Improvement Tool (WASH FIT) to assist facilities in systematically addressing risks associated with WASH and continually monitoring and improving services.


Rural Water Supply Network

The Rural Water Supply Network (RWSN) is the global network of professionals and practitioners working to raise standards of knowledge and evidence, technical and professional competence, practice and policy in rural water supply and so fulfill the vision of sustainable rural water services for all