The Agenda for Change Global Hub supports its members to deliver systems change and document and share their experiences in the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sectors. As part of that overall effort, the Hub contracted a team from the Springfield Centre and Aguaconsult to test an approach to assessing systems change by applying it to three WASH cases. This case tests the approach by applying it to Water For People’s work in the rural water sector in Perú.


Programs that try to facilitate systems change do not intervene directly to improve service delivery levels – for example, by digging wells or building toilets. Instead, they focus on addressing the underlying issues that have prevented the system from working well. The idea is that if the performance of key system factors – things like finance, monitoring, coordination, and information – can be improved, it will lead to improvements in WASH service delivery levels.

There are two ways of improving the performance of key system factors. One is a program doing something themselves to directly improve the performance of a factor, whilst the other is trying to get permanent public, private, and civil society system actors to change their behaviours to enable better factor performance. To achieve more sustainable change, most system change programs take the latter approach. In effect, this leads to a chain reaction of performance and behaviour changes: a program’s support leads permanent system actors to change their behaviour, which improves the performance of key system factors, which in turn triggers further behaviour changes, which improves service delivery.

The approach being tested addresses five key questions which together tell the story of how effective systems change programs’ work has been.

  • Changes: what has changed?
  • Depth: how much have things changed?
  • Scale: how widespread are changes?
  • Sustainability: how sustainable are changes?
  • Attribution: why did changes happen? Did the programme credibly contribute to the changes? What else in the system contributed to changes?

It captures the depth of key system changes by assessing how much performance has changed (both in key system factors, and at service delivery level). It captures the sustainability and scale of system changes by assessing the ownership, scale and resilience of the behaviour changes that drove performance changes. It assesses attribution by examining the relationships between changes, and by looking at what else might have caused changes that occurred.


Water For People has carried out diverse activities addressing various underperforming factors in the water system in Asunción, Perú, over the last nine years. However, this case study will focus on assessing the system changes achieved through its work on planning and financing universal services, finance for operations and maintenance (O&M), and skills of both district WASH offices and service provider operators. These factors have been prioritized because an initial assessment of Water For People’s work suggested that much of the system changes that have already occurred and can be logically mapped against a theory of change to contributing to improved service delivery levels, have resulted from these areas. Systems are complex and evolve because of the interaction of changes across many actors and factors. Nonetheless, changes in some factors and by some actors are more significant than others (for instance because they are more widely adopted, or more sustainably adopted, or because they have a greater influence on other parts of the system). At this point in the process of achieving sustainable water services, these three areas have yielded more significant changes than Water For People’s other activities, in systems change terms.

Water For People has been working in the predominantly rural district of Asunción, in northern Perú, since 2013. Baseline analysis showed that 17% of rural households did not have access to improved water services. Water committees existed for most rural water schemes, but only one third had a trained operator, and, although tariffs existed in 98% of systems, they did not cover basic O&M costs. The district government had one person allocated to water management, and planning for extending services or supporting service providers was limited and reactive.

To extend services to households who remained unserved, Water For People advocated for the district to collect information on unserved households and to plan and finance for extending services to them. Having already reached relatively high levels of coverage, leaders in Asunción were interested to close the coverage gaps and invested in understanding where unserved households were located, why they remained unserved, and what technological solutions were most appropriate. This behaviour change at the district level led to better information on unserved households and was used in allocating more finance for closing the coverage gaps. Signs of ownership by the district are strong, as it invested its own funds in the data collection exercise, allocated funding for new infrastructure, and secured additional public finance to extend services. Having demonstrated this process at district level, Water For People is now in the process of scaling up this process with 13 additional districts in the Cajamarca, Lambayeque, and La Libertad regions of northern Perú. How resilient these changes will be remains to be seen, in particular in the scale up districts, which are testing replacing the role of Water For People staff with regional government support.

Increasing the knowledge and skills of both service authorities and service providers have been other factors targeted by Water For People, as well as advocating for increased finance for sustainable services through higher tariffs and ongoing support to service providers. These activities – management and technical training and mentoring to the district WASH office personnel, training and mentoring to service providers, and sharing information with SUNASS (the national regulator), on setting rural tariff regulations – contributed towards increased knowledge and skills of the district WASH personnel and evidence-based rural water regulations.

These changes then led to a series of other improvements in the WASH system, such as the district providing better technical support to service providers; representatives from SUNASS and the district providing better information on why and how to adopt revised tariffs; communities and service providers agreeing to increase tariffs; and paid, trained operators carrying out O&M. These changes have reached good scale in the district of Asunción but are still underway in the scale up districts. Signs of ownership are also strong, with various indicators of community and district investment. The greatest threat is in the resilience of these changes and if or how Water For People’s eventual exit will have a material impact on planning, finance, or skills to support sustainable service delivery.

Performance changes in planning, financing, and skills – of both district WASH offices and service providers – have all contributed to key behaviour changes at the service delivery level – more people accessing sustained services. There are two important distinctions at this level; firstly, previously unconnected households access improved services and secondly, previously connected households continue to access improved services.

By the simplest metric, more water services are being delivered to more people. From 2013 to 2019, the percentage of unserved households decreased from 17[1]% to 3%. Overall service delivery levels have been maintained at either an intermediate or high level. 100% of communities had either intermediate or high levels of service in 2021, up from 12% basic in 2017, 64% intermediate, and 23% high. Households with intermediate service decreased from 41% to 9%, whilst households with high levels of service increased from 35% to 85% over 2017 to 2019.

Exogenous factors, such as Perú’s national policy of universal coverage and a performance -based incentive scheme for local governments to deliver ensure quality and sustainable services that provides various sources of public finance for direct support, capital maintenance, and capital, have created conditions in which a focus on planning, finance for O&M, and skills has led to better service delivery outcomes. Put another way, pre-existing political will at national and sub-national levels, manifested in regulations that specify institutional arrangements and sufficient finance to implement that will, have been important contextual factors in this case.

In addition, Water For People’s approach has been a contributing factor to the results achieved.  Committing to support local actors to manage and provide sustainable access to water services has had important implications for how Water For People has chosen to work and evolve over time. Recognizing that their own exit is based upon service authorities and service providers having the requisite knowledge, skills, and finance to ensure water services continue to provide adequate levels of service over time has guided their interventions and subsequent monitoring efforts. Monitoring changes in both service authorities, service providers, and levels of WASH services has provided Water For People key data over the years. Lastly, the district wide approach that Water For People implements, as well as the scaling up efforts underway at regional level, demonstrate active collective action intent with the diverse government agencies responsible for various aspects of service provision. In this case alone, there is evidence of collective action between the district WASH offices, the decentralized regulator’s office, and water committees.

In practice, committing to supporting first a district[2], and then multiple regions to implement such an approach has important timing implications. Water For People signs multiple year memorandums of understanding to demonstrate their commitment to partners and document how changes in district behaviours contribute to universal and sustainable services. Underlying the institutional commitment over at least a decade is an organizational business model that by necessity prioritizes unrestricted funding.

Two key positive service delivery results have been assessed in this case: an increase in the number of people with access to an improved water service and sustained service delivery levels for previously connected consumers. Reconstructing the theory of change and examining the evidence available confirms that Water For People has significantly contributed to changes in the planning and finance functions that enabled previously unserved households to access water. Similarly, reconstructing the theory of change for the skills and finance for O&M, and examining the evidence alongside it, shows that Water For People’s system strengthening efforts are contributing to sustained services over time.

[1] 2013 baseline access figure.

[2] Water For People currently works in three of the 1,869 districts in Perú.

Leave a Reply