In early October, Stanford’s Program on Water, Health & Development welcomed Rachel Cardone as its first Deputy Director. Cardone will work as part of a team to manage all WHD staff and administrative duties, and will work directly with the program’s faculty leadership to develop and implement strategy and initiatives to advance the WHD mission.
Cardone has deep experience working in the public, private and nonprofit sectors on issues of water economics, policy and development, as they relate to sustainable development and corporate social responsibility. Most recently, she ran RedThread Advisors, a consulting practice focused on water- and sanitation-related investments and programs. Earlier in her career, she was brought on as a sector expert to help create the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Water, Sanitation & Hygiene program and “Reinvent the Toilet” strategy.
Cardone spoke about her priorities for WHD and her perspective on the water, sanitation and health field.
What attracted you to working with WHD?
All around the world, we're in the early days of staring down water security - whether caused by drought and floods, pollution or politics, often combined with weak governance. Twenty years into my career, I feel an urgency to cultivate new ways of working and new ideas to address these challenges. I also think it's important to cultivate students and early-career professionals who are interested in water issues to have a mindset that is open and inspired by advances in science and technology. They should grapple with the underlying ethics, social dynamics and humanity that is required when tackling water security threats. WHD felt like a strong fit.
What role can a program such as WHD play in helping bring safe, adequate water, sanitation and health to people around the world?
The core water issue that I think we all can agree on is whether people, communities, businesses and political systems get their water needs met. Do we have water security? What’s less clear is how we go about achieving that. I believe that people around the world, including low income and marginalized communities, should be empowered to tackle their own water, sanitation and health challenges, without needing 'experts' from other countries telling them what to do or how to do it, or worse, doing it for them. This charity model and mindset has dominated the water sector for the last several decades and resulted in more failure than success. Over the last few years, an appreciation for systems thinking has taken hold in the sector. At its best, a systems approach creates an opportunity to take a step back from the ego-driven ‘I'm helping a beneficiary’ approach, and embrace an approach of ‘We're all in this together – let’s get the feedback mechanisms right,’ and then doing just that. And of course, at its worst, we encounter complex-looking analyses that don’t really say much that’s useful, or we encounter the abandonment of action as we try and figure out what we all mean by “systems.”
I believe WHD has a clear role as a research center to support donors and investors, as well as organizations seeking funding, to help design and assess those feedback mechanisms. This could include assessing and evaluating existing practices, or to test, experiment, and iterate alternatives within the system of actors that are responsible for water, sanitation, and health. I think that's extremely exciting. WHD also has a strong opportunity as a respected, independent convener, where we can foster discussion, debate and collaboration among non-traditional actors from the West Coast and the global community, so we can keep pushing the boundaries of what is possible, to get to that water secure future.
What do you think the WASH field is getting wrong?
I think the WASH sector has two core challenges. First, while the WASH acronym is clever, it’s most appropriate as an advocacy tool for international agency fundraising. It is worth questioning its effectiveness over the last 10+ years: funding for WASH continues to not be a priority. WASH in low-income communities isn’t a priority within the water sector, and it’s not a priority relative to social sectors (e.g. education and health). So there’s that. But the other pressing challenge is that on the ground, the actual delivery of water and sanitation services are typically separate, especially for lower-income communities. As a result, it’s a challenge to translate WASH to the field level, and from the field level back up for the purpose of making a business case, or raising funds. It’s often suggested that WASH needs billions if not trillions of dollars a year to meet the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. That may be, but it’s not clear where that funding would go in practical terms.
Governance is widely understood as the bridge between these two challenges. Based on the sessions and meetings I attended at this year’s Stockholm Water Week, governance is the sector's clarion call at the moment. The thing is, it's been a clarion call for as long as I've been working in the sector, and it presents a bit of a trap for sector professionals. First, it's not clear if institutional space exists to do something about it, particularly among the organizations in the sector which have the financial and human resources to act. What would it look like for a funder, who has only just (and possibly belatedly) arrived at the strategic funding game, to give up control over their water budget to a local government agency? What would it look like for a government ministry to consider donor funding as additive to their own resources, and not a replacement? What would it look like for an NGO to admit that their underlying model is a failure despite its ability to fundraise, and put itself out of business anyway? And, for those whose professional careers are staked on a development or charity model, taking the personal and professional risks to figure out a more suitable model is, perhaps, untenable.
What gives you hope for progress in the WASH field?
I'm excited by the advances in data and information as it relates to water resources management, and excited by emerging opportunities to use that data in decision making around water and sanitation services. I'm hopeful about what might emerge if we can bridge discussions about advanced technology with ethics as it relates to water, and back it up with solid research that is accessible and meaningful for decision makers. Sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly optimistic, I wonder if cracking the challenge of water security is a way to create a more socially equitable and environmentally restorative form of capitalism. In light of all of the above, I'm excited to join the Program on Water, Health, and Development and see where and how we can make lasting contributions to the field.