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Who is your biggest competitor? The MDGs.

This week, I had to pleasure to present a scoping study we did with IWMI on multiple-use services (MUS) in 5 countries to the client, the Rockefeller Foundation. During the meeting, there was the opportunity for staff of the Foundation to ask critical questions about the studies. One of the most intriguing questions I got was “who or what is the biggest competitor to the MUS approach?”. It took me a while to think about an answer to that question.

But eventually I had to conclude that it would be the MDGs, which we also see as one the main raisons d’être of the MUS approach. The key premise of this approach is that by providing water not only for basic domestic uses, but also for people’s productive needs, more impact can be made on both people’s health and livelihoods. In that sense, it goes beyond the MDG 7 on reducing by half the percentage of the population without access to safe water supplies, but can also contribute to some of the other MDGs. Yet, that is also where the problem lies and why the MDGs are a competitor to MUS. In the WASH sector, the MDG is often interpreted in a narrow way, whereby agencies seek to provide people with the basic level of service, as also stated in the definitions used for example by the JMP. Whereas that is a big challenge in itself, there is a risk that service provision remains limited to that basic level of service. Research on MUS has also shown that at that level of service, there is only limited scope for users to use that water productively. So for MUS a big competitor is the effort to provide everyone with that basic level of service, without considering the opportunities that can be brought about by providing a higher level of service.

Just to be clear, I am not arguing that the incremental costs of these higher levels of service need necessarily come from public budgets for investments in WASH. In fact, a stronger MUS approach could lead to interesting forms of pooling of funds between WASH and irrigation sectors, or between public investors and households themselves. In some cases, households might be interested in contributing a bit more to the costs of WASH facilities if that means getting a higher level of service. Yet, the reality is that users are hardly given that choice, because most WASH agencies have that focus on providing everyone with that basic level of service.

Reflecting further on it, I also thought that the MDGs are one of the biggest competitors to the approach of sustainable services at scale, and for a very similar reason. The MDGs have been great in mobilizing public investments for WASH. One could argue that it is not enough, but as shown in various studies at least they have represented a rise in ODA funding for the sector, and maybe also in domestic funding. However, the focus on increasing coverage makes it also difficult to fund all the other life cycle costs of water supplies, such as replacement of assets or post-construction support. In that sense, there is a competition brought about by the MDGs on whether to invest in coverage or dedicate funds to the sustainability of services. We would argue that both are needed, but that there are trade-offs between them. Therefore, a careful balance is needed in investing in that, a balance that even shifts over time.

Whereas the MDGs have been able to mobilize most of us in the WASH sector to the laudable goal of increasing coverage with basic services, and great strides have been made in that, at least for water supply, it is time to think further now that 2015 comes in sight. From this week’s experience, I would argue for two key issues to be included in new targets to be set for after 2015: the need to gradually improve service levels, so that not only basic health needs are met but also productive needs, and to establish clear sustainability targets. If those issues are not included, the MDGs (or the country-specific targets derived from them) become a competitor, rather than an ally.

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2 comments on “Who is your biggest competitor? The MDGs.

  1. […] and capital maintenance expenditure as coverage levels increase. Stef Smits recently reflected on the contribution of the Millennium Development Goals to this tension: … the MDGs are one of the biggest competitors to the approach of sustainable services at scale […]

  2. […] water services that last talking sustainability Skip to content HomeAbout ← Who is your biggest competitor? The MDGs. […]

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