Over the last year and a half we have been doing a lot of work with various international donors and other development partners like NGOs who support investments in rural water in developing countries. We have organised a number of high level meetings, have attended and contributed to many more and published a book, various briefing notes and working papers. All of this effort is to try and influence – persuade, incentivise, bully – organisations and people into changing the way they approach their work and to take steps to address sustainability in their programmes and investment strategies. We have also been tracking some of the policy or strategy statements of these organisations over time and we are starting to see the right language and even explicit objectives being put down. So it starts to look promising … at least on paper.
We were at it again in London two days ago – it was an interesting group and some good discussions. People all agreed that sustainability is a ‘no brainer’ – we all smiled wryly at the mention that this same discussion has going on for years, decades even. So why is it that we are still only talking about this? And why is it that in reality a lot of things haven’t changed and that many NGOs and private companies working on donor-funded projects are still doing the same old thing? What is really stopping this shift from policy to practice?
It’s the money, stupid
Listening to some of the discussions and questions it became apparent to me that one of the big reasons for this is the incentive around money, plain and simple. A lot of the NGOs, from the mega-ones to the smallest that are hardly known, put a lot of emphasis on donor demands, both formally through grant agreements and informally from expectations of their individual givers. The private sector companies and consultants were very clear – if it isn’t in our terms of reference from the donors then we don’t do it ….. and potentially vice versa. The donors themselves were demanding more clear evidence of what works, but they too have to put their money somewhere and if it doesn’t move and show results it’s a hard case to put to the treasury for more next year.
So it seems to me that all of us, in our own way, are incentivised – and will only perhaps change through a change in this incentive structure – by money and professional ‘reward’ in the broader sense. To paraphrase a famous ex-President, ‘….it’s the money, stupid’. In different ways all of these groups are driven by money – some for personal profit, some for extending their social cause and professional profit, some by largesse.
A sustainability dividend
The other interesting thread that came out of the discussions that was also linked with the issue of money is the idea of some kind of delayed payment or which only gets made at some future point in time and – most importantly – only when it can be shown that services have been maintained.
Just like the furore about the banker’s bonuses in the UK financial system and the suggestion that the whizz kid bankers should only be allowed to get their fat bonuses a year or two after the fact to avoid short-term deals and artificial spikes in share prices, why don’t we not hold back a share of the final payments for a few years in rural water programmes? A delayed payment, or sustainability dividend that only gets paid after a few years. This would really incentivise the recipients of grant aid money – the NGOs and private companies – to make sure things keep working? And why not sovereign governments through loan mechanisms as well? Why not turn this on its head and offer them a sustainability discount by way of reduced interest and capital repayments on their loans if they can show that services have really been maintained? The principle of longer-term checking back has already been taken up by the Dutch government and UNICEF as part of their One Million Initiative in Mozambique which uses a sustainability check to look back at the performance of investments over time. Some NGOs have also committed to long-term monitoring such as WaterAid with their new Sustainability framework and Water for People which has committed to monitoring & evaluation for a period of 3, 6 and 10 years. But what if we were to link real money to these types of check-ins? Would that be the incentive that people really need to put policy into practice?
Blog post by Harold Lockwood (@haroldlockwood) working on the international programme of Water Services That Last