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T.28 Observation

Observation gathers information about hygiene practices and WASH facilities and is often used in conjunction with other methods such as Transect Walks [T.52], Household Visits [T.18] or surveys ([A.8] or [T.24]). It can be structured using a questionnaire or Checklist (e.g. [T.2]) or be open and unstructured.

Observations can gather information in public areas or people’s homes observing, for example, water collection points, storage of drinking water, communal washing areas, latrines or handwashing areas. It is helpful to agree on the criteria before doing an Observation (e.g. what is ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’?) and important to agree on where and who will be observed (e.g. homes with young children < 5 years of age). A structured survey (A.8 or T.24), may require a sampling system to select which homes to visit. Observing during different times of the day will yield different information. For example, early morning is often a good time to observe hygiene practices. Observing a situation can help cross-check and triangulate other information. Nonetheless, it is a snapshot and the context may change rapidly in an emergency. It should be used with other methods such as Key Informant Interviews T.23. There is the potential for bias as people may change their behaviour if they know they are being observed. Notes should be taken on what was observed and how it was done (e.g. if a checklist was used). The information should be collated and analysed as soon as possible and included in a shared assessment or monitoring report. Observation is a key skill for all hygiene promoters. Training and supervision may be needed to do Observations correctly. Hygiene promoters should be supportive and sensitive to local concerns and customs and be aware that Observation can appear intrusive.


Observation is applicable to all response phases and contexts. It is a key method to use in assessments or, if carried out repeatedly, as part of a monitoring system. Observation can also be used to monitor staff performance, their effectiveness and how they are working with the community.


  • Be sensitive to the context, ask permission before taking photos

  • Be curious; do not only look but listen and smell

  • Be aware of bias


  • Do not have preconceived ideas about what to expect

  • Do not observe without recording and using the information

  • Do not make people feel uncomfortable or intrude on their privacy

Practical Example

Observation is used as part of the Wash’Em F.22 Handwashing Demonstration Tool and can illustrate how people interact with e.g. soap and containers when handwashing and what makes the process inconvenient and undesirable in practice. The demonstration is filmed on a mobile phone with the consent of participants and without revealing their identity. The data is analysed using a ‘decision making table’ to help identify what helps and hinders handwashing.

Key Decision Critria

Response Phase
Acute Response
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Protracted Crisis
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HP Component
Preconditions and Enabling Environment
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Community Engagement and Participation
Assessment, Analysis and Planning
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Social and Behaviour Change
Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability and Learning (MEAL)
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Target Group
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Older People
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Persons with Disabilities
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Local Leaders
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Society as a whole
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Application Level
Individual / Household
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Community / Municipality
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Example training exercise for observing

GWC (2009): Hygiene Promotion. Training for Community Mobilisers

General description and practical tips on how to do observations

IFRC (undated): Direct Observation. EVCA Toolbox

Ferron, S., Morgan, J. et al. (2007): Hygiene Promotion. A Practical Manual for Relief and Development, Practical Action Publishing. ISBN: 978-1853396410

Example MHM Observation checklists for latrines, bathing areas and solid waste facilities

IFRC (2019): Addressing Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) Needs. Guide and Tools for Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (Available in different languages)

Outline of how to do observations

ACAPS (2011): Technical Brief: Direct Observation and Key Informant Interview Techniques, for Primary Data Collection During Rapid Assessments

Examples of how observation can be used with monitoring indicators

UNHCR (2017): UNHCR Hygiene Promotion Guidelines

Wash’Em handwashing demonstration tool

Wash’Em (undated): Rapid Assessments