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WASH Exit Interviews: Findings on Professional Attrition in the International Sector

Updated: Jul 2

This article was co-written with Kimberly Worsham.

A toilet's exit interview (Credit:DALL-E)

NB: We know this is a really long blog post. We posted this as a blog to ensure it was accessible to anyone who wanted to read it. If you want a printable version, you can find it here:

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Every water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) professional knows that safe and sustainable WASH underlies all healthy communities, but universal coverage remains frustratingly out of reach. The sector demands – and deserves – a highly talented, dedicated, and nourished workforce.


But there’s a problem – talented, dedicated, and experienced professionals choose to leave the international WASH sector. For an inherently small sector, this can be problematic.

Professional issues go beyond individual jobs. They reduce the sector’s ability to attract and keep much-needed talent, affect sectoral investment, and constrain its ability to lead equitable change. Our best chance at tackling WASH challenges is to have the best team working on them. So, how do we make people want to stay in the sector?


First, we need to document people’s stories and specific reasons for leaving. It’s hard to develop solutions for a poorly defined problem. We hypothesized that people leave the international WASH sector for two main reasons:

  1. Frustration with a lack of professional support and career progress causes some people to seek employment elsewhere, whether in other international development disciplines or entirely different sectors.

  2. As decolonization efforts spread, some professionals in the Global North reconsider their place in the WASH system and intentionally step aside.


Testing these hypotheses helps us better understand the trends in professional attrition, building the foundation our sector needs to take action. What we found in our interviews gave us a lot more than what we thought we’d get. This blog will explain our research on why WASH professionals exit the sector.

Who Was Interviewed

To investigate some of the reasons people leave and consider ways to help them stay, we interviewed 20 people who have left the international WASH sector since 2020. 25% of interviewees come from low- and middle-income countries: Mexico, Lebanon, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, and Kenya. The other 75% of interviewees come from high-income countries: the United Kingdom, the United States, five countries within the European Union, and Canada. These are all experienced professionals who have left senior or management positions and have a mix of gender and racial identities. 

Who We Interviewed

Female

Male

Total

African, Asian, BIPOC*, Latinx

5

4

9

White

5

6

11

Total

10

10

 20

*Note: BIPOC refers to people in the U.S. who identify as Black, Indigenous, or other Persons of Color.


Names and organizations are withheld to maintain confidentiality (maintaining Chatham House rules). Still, representative quotes are given in the text below to give a sense of these professionals' frustrations and experiences.


Before we dive in, a quick acknowledgment: These problems are not necessarily unique to the WASH sector. Some are common to other development sectors, while some are frustratingly common across many professions, development or otherwise. Having said that, we have no excuses for not trying to tackle them for ourselves, especially given how intimate our sector can sometimes feel.


We’ll discuss some suggestions for improvement further down; for now, let’s examine the problems.


Why People Are Exiting WASH

The summary findings of our research (Credit: FLUSH)

Poor Professional Experience

Our first hypothesis proved correct: Lack of professional development and bad work experiences were the most common complaints of the WASH sector. Nearly all interviewees spoke about issues such as lack of support in the workplace, needing highly specific skills and certifications to get jobs, and constraints on mobility within the sector.


Limited Leadership Promotion: Mid-career stagnation is a significant issue. Several people felt that the WASH sector has limited scope for promotion into leadership and positions of responsibility.  


One speaker observed that WASH is “a fairly flat sector” with “limited opportunities to get more responsibilities” as one advances beyond mid-career positions. Another spoke of having “gone as hard as I could in my first job”, but hitting “a ceiling” to upward movement.

People spoke not just of themselves but also of other WASH professionals who had experienced similar problems, suggesting this issue goes beyond our interviewees. One speaker spoke of colleagues who were too experienced for entry-level positions but aging out without being able to move upward into management or more senior-level positions. Another said, "The number one thing I heard from mid-level career professionals [is] that they didn’t know how to make it to the next level.”


If opportunities for promotion are limited within the WASH sector, people may choose to find career advancement in other sectors, as one speaker noted:

“I know some of my colleagues felt like they were unable to move into leadership positions or really further their careers without moving elsewhere.”


Overly Competitive: Many people talked about WASH being a “strangely, overly competitive”, “bizarrely cutthroat”, and unfriendly sector to work in, where “egos get in the way.”


Lack of promotion opportunities can create competition and tension between colleagues. One speaker noted that promoted people tend to be “more cutthroat”, while another spoke about jealousy between colleagues over promotions. One observed that competition between colleagues negatively impacts the work by impeding collaboration.


Closed Ranks: Newcomers felt that “water specifically seemed to be a hard industry to break into” compared to other sectors such as urban resilience or planning. One person spoke of the sector welcoming new professionals so long as new ideas don’t threaten “how it’s always been done.”


Some people feel that our tight-knit sector can feel like “an old boys’ club” that protects its own, even when bad behavior in the workplace should lead to dismissal. As sectoral thinking develops, particularly around issues such as diversity and decolonization (more on that later), old-guard protection results in the sector “keeping a lot of the wrong people with the wrong motives.”


Low Pay: Several people discussed salary as an issue. One respondent commented that WASH may provide opportunities to grow as a professional, but the chance of career stagnation is high, with associated limitations on pay. Therefore, if salary is a motivating factor, the speaker recommended that practitioners “look at other options.”



One speaker noted that the applicant pool for entry-level positions is very large. High competition may lead organizations to think they “can easily pay someone lower because someone else coming out of school will take that job.” This situation exacerbates perceptions that the WASH sector generally doesn’t pay well, such that people realize “it’s not worth it and they get out.”


The developing gig economy also impacts employment. One speaker in the U.S. noted that employers can hire consultants without providing benefits. In the U.S., employee benefits most frequently include health insurance, which can be expensive to purchase independently. Given the extremely high cost of healthcare in this country, not having health insurance can be debilitating and may be a significant factor in choosing where and how to work, dissuading qualified professionals from sticking around in hopes of more stable roles with benefits.


Lack of Workplace Support: Many felt undervalued and unsupported within their organizations.


Some felt that workloads were unreasonably high, resulting in a sector that is “just churning people out.” Others described an impersonal working environment where “I don’t think anyone really cared about you” and “it’s very hard to know whether you’re doing a good job.” One speaker described lacking the resources “needed to get the work done,” resulting in unfair expectations.


Workplace environments matter hugely for employee satisfaction, regardless of passion for the work. One speaker described “feelings of defeat around lack of support, lack of results, lack of helpful resources.” Only so long can a person feel defeated before they seek success elsewhere.


Lack of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Interviewees who identified as women and/or people of color (African, Asian, Latinx, or BIPOC in the U.S.) consistently discussed how the ongoing lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the WASH sector negatively impacted their professional experience.


Poor Representation: If the WASH sector wants to improve inclusion in its workforce, it must also diversify its leadership. One speaker testified to the positive impact of representation, stating that mentoring other women of color has been “one of the most rewarding parts” of advancing in her career.


However, several people described being discouraged by a lack of diverse representation. One speaker observed that the sector needs to change the narrative used in discussing WASH to increase the “diversity of stories,” noting that “stories often coalesce in very much the same way.” When conferences feature “an all-white panel, a panel of all men of the same age,” attendees can feel unwelcome and excluded.


We note that representation issues are well documented in non-profit and development organizations beyond the personal perspectives of our interviewees. For example, a study of 105 key global sanitation stakeholder organizations found that men accounted for 60% of all sanitation leadership positions and 65% of all board member positions, while white people represented over two-thirds of leadership and board positions.  Black, Indigenous, and other Women of Color were the least represented group, emphasizing that people with intersecting marginalized identities are particularly affected by lack of representation.


Misogyny and Bias Issues: As happens in far too many places, various forms of bias impact professionals in the WASH sector. One speaker related a story of asking other women how to respond when older men wouldn’t listen to a woman speak, but being told that “you can’t expect them to.” People with intersecting marginalized identities experience multiple forms of bias at the same time. One person described facing “the sexism, ageism, the gender inequality, the misogyny, and the patriarchy, every day” as a woman of color in a leadership role.


Working in an environment where bias is tolerated forces people to develop “coping mechanisms.” This is an exhausting, unhealthy, and unacceptable expectation in any workplace. It’s especially egregious that our sector – one that emphasizes support for women and marginalized communities – should perpetuate these issues.


Inequitable Professional Development: Several interviewees discussed inequitable access to professional development and networking opportunities. In particular, opportunities for learning and networking often happen in spaces that can be exclusionary. As one speaker noted, “What does that professional development look like that is inclusive?”


One speaker was frustrated that large sectoral conferences and events, such as World Water Week in Stockholm, typically host job fairs and social networking events. However, “the people that are able to go to those conferences are the ones who already have money.” Conference attendance can be challenging since “it’s difficult to go and take that much time off of work, or spend that much time away from your family.” These events privilege people who might already have access to professional development opportunities by virtue of their location or position, and who can take time away from daily work to attend special events.


One speaker asked whether an effort is being made to bring networking and professional development events to local counterparts rather than hosting them in privileged spaces. For example, “making your local or regional WASH entity accessible to the community and to folks who may want to work in it,” or “going to your local universities and trade schools, showing people these are the jobs out there.”


Being intentional about who can access opportunities is crucial to improving equity across the WASH profession and central to the decolonization process, which we’ll discuss more in a minute.


Weak Support Network: Several people commented on the importance of a supportive professional network. One interviewee with good mentoring experiences spoke of their impact as “practically supportive in terms of letters and references, but really kind of emotionally supportive of finding what I was looking for and finding what I needed.” Another person observed that mentors can help lift people into “different responsibility levels” and build connections that are “probably not possible” without a mentor. This person didn’t have mentor support and found it “really tough to build networks.”

Supporting all WASH professionals with opportunities for growth and advancement will be essential for retaining the great workforce that WASH needs.


Seeking Support Elsewhere: One person talked about leaving the WASH sector to look for “a career path that allows more flexibility, more diversity in terms of gender, but also professional backgrounds.” Distressingly, two women of color said they would actively turn away prospective WASH professionals based on their experiences:

              “If I really liked the person, I’d tell them to run away.”

              “Don’t bother, just go do something easier.”


A fair amount of optics currently exist around workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion. However, as these examples show, change will not happen without being intentional about tackling these issues. Many other professionals may seek more supportive work environments if this trend continues.


Decolonization

Our second hypothesis proved correct: some WASH professionals are leaving the sector in response to decolonization efforts.


Questioning Motivations: Intention matters greatly when working in a sector fraught with inequitable power dynamics. Decolonization demands we question why and how we insert ourselves into this space.


One speaker rebuked “volunteers that pop into Uganda from the middle of nowhere…and think they’re helping.” To avert such problems, one person said they would ask newcomers to the WASH sector about their motivations, to “try to catch early any kind of white savior complex [and] help them reflect a little bit on their motives.” Another said newcomers should ask themselves, “What could they bring that isn’t really there, and whose job would they be taking if they did it?”


Discomfort With Own Role: Several people talked about rethinking their privileged positions in the context of decolonization. One person felt that they “shouldn’t be doing this direct support” but rather should take a back seat to use their skills to support others. Another speaker talked about “feeling very guilty about working in the sector” and wondered “whether we, as white people, should even be there.”


Others spoke about the power dynamics between WASH practitioners in the Global North and those living closer to communities where work occurs. One noted that “a fly-in-fly-out consultant” is “given more respect and power than locals.” Another criticized the hypocrisy of such dynamics, noting that they “wouldn’t be acceptable in the Global North.”


Slow Pace of Change: Many find the slow pace of decolonization discouraging. Some question whether real motivation exists to change the status quo, with one person describing it as “just a lot of lip service and very little action.”


Another speaker talked of a “generational clash” between people who started working in the development sector several decades ago, in “a completely different state of world politics” that didn’t discuss decolonization, and who are therefore reluctant to change their practices now.


Some people tied the slow pace of change to economic power. One speaker noted that funders are reluctant to truly decolonize because “the status quo is how they made all their money in the first place.” Another speaker commented on the power held by those receiving funding in the Global North. When “donor projects financed a lot of Europeans and did not finance a lot of locals,” the incentive is high to maintain the existing power dynamics.


We’ll discuss other funding challenges in more depth further below.


Lack of Collaboration

Many interviewees expressed significant frustration about a lack of collaboration at multiple scales within the WASH sector: between individuals with different skill sets working on WASH issues, between WASH-focused organizations, and between WASH and other sectors.


Focusing on the Technical: Many people criticized the WASH sector for overemphasizing technical skills and infrastructure, with an attitude of “let’s build, build, build,” to the detriment of other necessary, “softer” skill sets and system elements. They also observed that too much funding is focused on infrastructure, so communications and other project components don’t receive the necessary resources.


One spoke of frustration in working with engineers who didn’t value “the soft work”. Others spoke of being undervalued because they didn’t have a technical background, noting that “people don’t get credit” for non-engineering work. One speaker with a public health background felt that there are few opportunities for “people with soft skills” in the WASH sector, and would only recommend the sector to engineers and those with technical backgrounds.


Despite years of discussion about systems thinking, interviewees felt that systems sustainability will remain out of reach until the sector fully incorporates different kinds of expertise, including professionals in public health and finance.


Working in Isolation: Several people discussed issues with overlapping organizational strategies and projects within the WASH sector. Although “the sector talks about collaboration,” some observed that this talk doesn’t often translate into action: most organizations “forget about this” and “just go back then do [things] the same old way.”


Some felt that organizations focus too much on their success, “as opposed to success of projects and initiatives.” Prioritizing individual success results in “a lot of actors in the sector…trying to do similar things.” This kind of repetition and overlap is not efficient when trying to reach our WASH goals, and more could be achieved “if programs would be more aligned to each other or building upon each other.”


Siloed Sector: Many people expressed frustration that WASH continues to be a siloed sector. Some people noted that “doing pure WASH isolated from the rest just doesn’t work,” and we should “work jointly [with other sectors] to have a better impact.”


Several speakers described the WASH sector as “an echo chamber” with limited learning from outsiders. One benefit of cross-sectoral collaboration is exposure to methodologies and practices that can enhance WASH work. For example, one speaker noted that behavior change work “existed for a really long time [before being used in WASH]…it could have been incorporated sooner if you had brought on the right people.”


One observed that water issues are inherently interdisciplinary, touching resources, urban management, sanitation, water quality, coastal zone management, and other areas. With such a reach, “there’s something to be said about understanding the different ways of approaching problems.”


Others noted that water and wastewater are intimately linked to environmental issues and climate change impacts, so neither should be tackled in isolation. However, WASH is “perceived very much as either an engineering sector, or a poverty sector, or a pathway to health.” Not portraying WASH as integral to environmental and climate issues is a missed opportunity to bring greater attention to WASH issues and magnify the impact of collaborative work. Since “water is so foundational” to many other sectors, WASH should be part of a broader conversation to “get the recognition it deserves.”


Some people also spoke about leaving the WASH sector to find more cross-disciplinary work elsewhere, such as in urban development or climate change. One speaker said they have “greatly enjoyed the more cross-sectoral work I have been able to do since leaving.” Another spoke of wanting more interdisciplinary work, but “didn’t see a path or an immediate path to do that within the water sector.”


Repeating Mistakes: Many people spoke about repeated mistakes in the WASH sector, largely due to these issues with collaboration.


One person felt that “everyone has to almost relearn the same problem for themselves.” Another commented that collaborative learning is missing from the WASH sector. In contrast, in their previous job, “we were really, on a regular basis, sitting down and learning from each other’s work, not reinventing the wheel every time again.” One speaker suggested that failure to learn from each other may be intentional when organizations hide impact evaluations that don’t support their objectives.


Repeating mistakes creates “a lot of misunderstandings and frustration.” One person even suggested creating a “global rule that no more reports are going to be produced if it’s just going to say the same thing as 10 years ago,” perhaps a sentiment more of us would support.


Money, Money, Money

The WASH sector, particularly the sanitation and hygiene components, has historically been deeply underfunded relative to the scale of investment needed to achieve universal, safe, and sustainable access. Every sector professional has battled that problem. In addition, the question of how to shift donor-recipient dynamics to place programming decisions in the hands of those on the ground is finally gaining more attention, though change is currently very slow. For some WASH professionals, frustration with current funding practices is too great to continue working in the sector.


Insufficient Resources: Several people described a general lack of funding for the WASH sector. These perceptions are reflected in data on total official support for sustainable development. For example, in 2022, water and sanitation received 69% less funding than health and 29% less funding than education.


Speakers noted that lack of funding hurts projects when “some people work with less money than what they should,” even to the point of having to work “on a pro bono or nonprofit basis.” This resource gap also creates significant competition between organizations and what one person described as “a toxic environment.”


Funder Power: Many people expressed frustration that funders are “too influential, too powerful.” Because “the money talks,” organizations sometimes have to go “where the money is,” jumping on opportunities as they become available rather than focusing on “what the country needs or what the people need.”


Some speakers feel that too much money and time is spent on administration and reporting, “managing the logical frameworks and their theories of change” rather than “actually doing the work.” One person noted that unrestricted funding may help by freeing up resources for projects “that could actually shift the needle on something.”


Another repeated comment was that some donors expect funding to be spent too quickly. Funders have unreasonable expectations about a project's length and don’t appreciate the time needed to build relationships, engagement, and capacity. This is a particular problem with large budgets and perceptions that throwing a lot of money at a problem will solve it quickly.


The Slow Pace of Progress

For most interviewees, the slow progress on WASH issues is a significant factor in their decision to leave. They noted that “we’re still seeing the same challenges, the same kind of solutions” even after many years of working in the sector. Trying to remain motivated when change is so slow is “difficult to do week in and week out.”


WASH is a Slow Sector: Some interviewees felt that WASH is a particularly slow sector compared to others, such as renewable energy and agriculture. Those focused on sanitation were especially frustrated, observing that “so little progress has been made on global sanitation” and it is not given the attention it deserves.


The slow pace could certainly be tied to the issues described above. Duplicated work, repeated mistakes, an echo chamber that resists collaboration, and too few resources would all slow down the change we hope to see. Maybe these issues exist across development sectors, and quicker progress elsewhere is due to factors beyond our control. But maybe other sectors are more cooperative, share learnings more regularly and transparently, and better align their programming. Perhaps we could learn from other development colleagues so that WASH doesn’t have to be such a slow sector.


Talk Over Action: For many, lack of progress is related to a disconnect between talk and action. International conferences were a specific target of criticism, with speakers describing them as places for people who are “not on the ground” to “be seen” and network (professionally and/or socially).


These comments relate to our earlier discussion about conferences and other gatherings in the context of equity. International events – especially those held in high-income countries in the Global North – can be challenging for many people to attend. This is a significant problem when those events should be opportunities to listen to communities, connect with local organizations, and brainstorm new ideas.


Conversations at large events can be driven or even hijacked by larger organizations with bigger budgets. This makes it difficult to focus on “conversations that are happening on a smaller level,” discussions around changing paradigms making radical shifts, and listening to different perspectives.


Several people feel conferences don’t lead to tangible action, even when conversations are meaningful. One observed that events often have “no real teeth behind any of the words.” Another noted that conference discussions can be insincere – places where people talk about change but are happy to maintain the status quo.


WASH gatherings should be forums for building new energy and motivating action. But when they’re both exclusionary and places where “nothing happens,” it’s no wonder seasoned professionals are driven away.


The Good News

Amidst all these negative experiences, you might wonder if people leaving the WASH sector have anything positive to say about it. Fortunately, they do. Almost everyone described elements that made their time in the sector enjoyable.


Community Feeling: Many interviewees described the WASH sector as a community, “an oddly close-knit group,” with professional relationships being one of the best aspects of their experience.


Although being a relatively small sector can have its drawbacks (see: Closed Ranks issues above), the benefit of a small workforce is that “the longer you stay in the sector, the more you become familiar with it.” One speaker felt that the sector’s intimacy creates “one big family.” Another felt that – perhaps like other families – “when I did feel support, I felt really supported.”


A Dedicated Workforce: Most agreed that the WASH sector benefits from a highly dedicated workforce. As one person said, “people in WASH are deeply passionate and they deeply care.”


Moving forward – What can we do?

The WASH sector can be a tough place to work with diversity and inclusion issues, persistent siloing, slow visible progress, and ongoing funding problems. One interviewee said, “It’s going to take a lot out of you, and you’re going to have to be patient and persistent.”


The WASH sector can’t afford to rely on people’s passion for solving WASH challenges when they can seek out more supportive career paths elsewhere. Let’s build on what’s already great about working in this sector – smart, creative, talented people dedicated to making change – and create a community that supports everyone to do their best work. We have organized the recommendations below based on the priority of our interviewees, including making a more diverse sector, prioritizing professional development, and becoming a more dynamic sector.

A summary of some action items below (Credit:FLUSH)

Commit to a Diverse and Inclusive Sector

We owe it to our sector to provide platforms for a diversity of voices and we must make more equitable changes intentionally; they don't come as a byproduct of “business as usual.” We can start by ensuring that our sector walks the talk on inclusivity and supporting marginalized peoples by taking actions such as:


  • Commit to creating an equitable and inclusive workplace. Workplace environments are the sum of individual, organizational, sectoral, and societal norms and behaviors, which means that actions must be taken at all levels. As a starting point, Water for Women has put together an interactive database of over 180 gender equality, disability, and social inclusion initiatives from organizations around the globe, including WASH utilities, government departments, civil society organizations, and the private sector.

  • Build mentor support networks. Provide professional sponsorship opportunities for people sharing similar identities and challenges to support creating a family-like feel for all professionals. One speaker said, “It could be as simple as if you’re an established independent consultant, bring on a junior colleague and let them shadow you.”

  • Build better organizational hiring practices. Hiring practices should eliminate bias in recruitment and diversify representation at senior and management levels within organizations. This may include giving leadership positions a time limit. The Coalition for Racial and Ethnic Equity in Development (CREED) is working on exploring similar concepts and providing case studies and examples of these efforts.

  • More intentionally recruit and promote professionals with diverse backgrounds. Suppose we were more intentional about who was included in this sector, how they were supported, and equitable decision-making power. In that case, we’d likely see better progress because we'd have a more diverse set of ideas, experiences, and skillsets going into decision-making and program design. This means that organizations need to:

    • be more open to different kinds of hires with diverse experience, especially those who don’t come from engineering and heavily technical backgrounds – maybe they don’t fit your specific job requirements, but maybe they don’t need to; and

    • promote only those who have shown the ability to manage or have been trained to, not just those with the longest tenure.

  • Obliterate the culture of white and male panels. Conferences should reject any session that is not diverse. Ensure that speakers and leaders at events, conferences, panels, etc., represent the full range of diversity within the WASH sector. There are tons of libraries of speakers to ensure diverse representation, including WaterHub’s Color of Water Directory.


Prioritize Equitable Professional Development

To create professional opportunities for all, we could:

  • Make conferences accessible. Provide more support for people from LMICs or lower-level roles to attend in-person events so that they’re not just accessible to those with the means to attend.

  • Move conferences. At the same time, host more events outside North America and Western Europe, closer to where local counterparts work, can more easily travel, and are more affordable.

  • Support broader professional development and leadership opportunities. This should particularly focus on skills that go beyond traditional technical career paths. For example, FLUSH is starting to offer communications and presentation skills courses to the WASH sector.

  • Recognize the true level of resources (human and financial) required to get the work done. Budget accordingly; don’t try to shortchange and overstretch employees. This includes busting the myths about overhead being a dirty word for NGOs and funders.


Become a More Dynamic Sector

And to build dynamism within the WASH sector, we could:

  • Encourage a solutions focus. At events and conferences, headline local and community presentations and tangibly successful activities rather than broad generalizations or problem statements. The U.S. WASH Convening did this very well in 2024.

  • Implement working groups in practical action. Consider holding working group sessions at conferences to develop new ideas, teams, and potential resourcing options; divide conference time between presentations and active working sessions. For example, wastewater-related conference conveners Water Environmental Federation thrives on working groups led by members.

  • Consider learning events. Either sessions within conferences or standalone events should also include the primary goal of sharing lessons and reducing repetition.

  • Build collaborative networks with each other and complementary sectors. This could be with urban planning, climate action, agriculture, and land management sectors to start.

People are drawn to working in the WASH sector because of their passion, commitment to helping others, and need to use their skills to solve great challenges. We can and must create an environment that attracts and retains such talent.


A thousand thanks to the 20 interviewees who participated in our research and the many others who were interested in our research.

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