Inclusion in the WASH Workforce: Moving Beyond Diversity

Updated: May 21

Recently, FLUSH hosted a workshop with WaterAid America about organizational DEI. For those who haven't heard the term yet, DEI stands for "diversity, equity, and inclusion". The goal of the term is to ensure that everyone, everywhere, has the same rights and opportunities as each other. Below is a reflection of the workshop's conversations.

Why talk about workforce DEI?

Below is a framework of different system levels where DEI can be discussed – from the people benefiting from programs to the organizations that provide these programs to the sector collectively creating positive impact.

The different layers of DEI in the workforce

The WASH world has talked about equity and inclusion in recent years. However, it has often focused on the two inner-most circles of the framework that focus most on programmatic outreach – communities where we work and change agents. What's missing have been conversations about DEI in the workforce (aka within organizations) and the sector.


Maybe there isn't enough research or information for the sector to talk about the people working towards the collective impact. That's why FLUSH collaborated on its recent publication assessing diversity in sanitation leadership – we wanted to provide a baseline assessment to the sector about how diverse its leadership looks. Or perhaps there is some reluctance to talk about this work – FLUSH offered a session about our publication during the UNC Conference earlier this year and saw a very small turnout of participants.


Some sector professionals have stated that the DEI issues in WASH are more to be considered an issue with the development industry. Still, we disagree – each sector within the development industry needs to be responsible and hold themselves accountable for their own DEI issues. Otherwise, tackling DEI as an industry would seem impossible. The Racial Equity Index has done phenomenal work to address DEI issues in the development industry with heaps of data. We see their work as informative to make each sector in the larger industry look at their issues and start addressing them, so the needle moves for everyone working in development.

Why Inclusion Conversations Matter

In our conversation with WaterAid America, we highlighted some key findings from our publication on diversity. Still, we decided to start moving the conversation beyond diversity to consider inclusion. We need to think about creating inclusive workplaces – and more importantly, leading colleagues inclusively - because inclusion fosters a safe place for diversity. When diverse professionals feel included in their teams, research shows that it can majorly improve organizational performance.


Below is a great framework for inclusive workplaces we adapted from our friends at 6 Seconds. It shows how if we can better lead our teams – which means being more inclusive, it creates a ripple effect that improves staff engagement, ultimately resulting in better performance. Or, for those in the WASH sector, this results in better impact. In other words, better leadership that is more inclusive means better achieving universal access to water and sanitation. And who doesn't want that?

Inclusive Workplaces Framework (Adapted from 6 Seconds)

Key Inclusion Reflections

Which brings us back to our workshop. As part of the workshop, we anonymously shared on a MURAL board challenges to DEI they have experienced in WASH workplaces – either in their current job or elsewhere in the sector. These shares reflected how high-income country (HIC) staff could make more inclusive working environments for colleagues in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). The legacies of colonialism on hiring practices and leadership or management approaches were clear in participant discussions. The discussion was really rich, and we came out with some main themes of ways we make our workplaces less inclusive for LMIC colleagues. Below is a screenshot of our brainstorming session.

DEI Brainstorming Session with WaterAid (Credit: FLUSH)

The main themes we saw in these points were accessible HR standards, how colleagues' time is treated differently, and creating a disconnect between program designs and impact.

HR Standards

Participants mentioned that established HR practices make it difficult to include diverse voices in the hiring pool. For example, our publication noted that HR policies make it so job descriptions require having higher-education staff degrees from "internationally-recognized universities." This means that some colleagues in LMICs do not feel eligible to apply for different jobs, making the teams less diverse. Other participants mentioned similar job descriptions limiting requirements, such as "excellent writing and communications skills." It's not clear what this means all of the time, or what standard these skills are based on, but it often presumes writing skills to look and sound like white-dominant Western world culture. Creating inclusive workplaces means reconsidering what it means to be a good fit for a role.


Another inclusion challenge was compensation tiers. One participant mentioned that there seems to be a lot of HIC-based white professionals in WASH. They have generational wealth, which helps them work in international development because the pay is not as good as private-sector jobs. They can choose to volunteer in the Peace Corps (or similar volunteer programs), which colleagues from lower-income backgrounds cannot afford to accept, or those in LMICs are not eligible to join. Not joining these volunteer groups can make it harder for professionals to progress in the WASH sector. Discouraged or excluded from certain opportunities, they may choose to find better-paying work elsewhere. Inclusive workplaces mean offering more competitive compensations to open up who can apply for work – including benefits such as flexible schedules and affordable health insurance. Of course, there are barriers that organizations need to overcome, such as getting more flexible funders, or maybe even rethinking the nonprofit model in general.


Lastly, the boom of COVID-19 working-from-home mandates has been a positive shift to many, but for some colleagues in LMICs, this has made work less inclusive. Inclusive workplaces mean ensuring that all staff has the resources to show up to work, even remotely. For example, do they have internet access at home? Do their computers work well?

Taking Time

Another theme that came out was the control over LMIC colleagues' time. This ranged from more technical tasks, such as the time it takes for LMIC colleagues to get travel visas, to incorrectly assuming that certain tasks are easy and shouldn't take much time to complete. Also, cultural norms sometimes expect teammates to work extra hours for little compensation to prove their dedication to the mission. As a result, some colleagues are seen as less dedicated, but they have more personal responsibilities in reality. Inclusive workplaces mean better understanding and accommodating colleagues' ability to process information and tasks on realistic timelines.


Another time suck is expecting LMIC colleagues to compromise their personal time to accommodate and support headquarters during the later work hours in HICs. And when HIC colleagues travel to LMICs for work, there is an expectation that colleagues will sacrifice their time to take care of their guests, even picking them up at the airport at 5am. Creating inclusive workplaces means ensuring a balance of reasonable accommodations across staff in different places.

Disconnecting Impact

The biggest, probably most complicated, inclusion challenge discussed was the disconnect between impact goals and reality, dissecting the power dynamics between HIC leaders and LMIC colleagues. Often, HIC leaders who are not local to the program regions design interventions, often making incorrect assumptions about what is necessary and possible. This can also reflect having prioritized donor-led values and ideas – usually HIC ideas – that do not reflect what LMIC colleagues see on the ground. Unfortunately, some LMIC colleagues assume that donors want to speak to "their own" – meaning HIC professionals – instead of communicating with them because of these disconnects. Inclusive workplaces would allow program country colleagues' ideas and voices to be prioritized in program design.


HIC staff and leaders cannot assume that what we learn at home can apply to other contexts, either. For example, participants mentioned some LMIC country office leaders struggle to advocate headquarters' priorities – such as gender equity – because it doesn't fit with the priorities of other leaders in their region. But voicing these concerns can be hard – LMIC colleagues may not want to share frustrations because they want to avoid retaliation from headquarters, such as getting fired, losing much-needed funding for their teams, or other unpleasant consequences. Moreover, creating inclusive conversations take time to develop in the workplace. Still, it may be necessary to make sure impact goals are aligned with the realities that LMIC colleagues struggle with daily.


It's a good start that HIC teams can reflect and be self-aware of their contributions to privileges that make work less inclusive. That said, to affect change, colleagues from LMICs need to be central to inclusion conversations. For inclusion work to be effective, HIC teams need to have their changes led by the experiences that LMIC colleagues have, and what they might need to see changed.


Special thanks to Kay Crider, McKenzie Hanlon, and Emily Haile at WaterAid America for their inputs and feedback on this blog post!

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