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Is the GLAAS half full or half empty?

While the dust of the announcement of the achievement of the water MDG, and the interpretation of its implications, had hardly settled, a new global water and sanitation report has come out: GLAAS (Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-Water). It is truly a rich source of information and insights into the institutional and financial capacity of countries to achieve WASH targets and the support from external agencies they receive in this. Yet, there are important gaps in the report. Moreover, some of the conclusions of the report are worrying. So, in analogy with my previous blog post, we can ask ourselves whether the GLAAS is half full, or half empty?

First of all, many more countries have contributed data to this report. Apparently, they see value in reporting on their institutional and financial performance and not only on the end result of improvements in access to WASH services. This is commendable, because it shows that some countries are not meeting their commitments in these fields. For example, in 2008, 30 African countries signed the eThekwini declaration, committing them to spend 0.5% of their GDP on sanitation and hygiene. However, only 4 of them reported on this commitment, 3 of them complying it. The sections that report on the extent to which countries have progressed in for example policy development, target setting and institutional development provide a good and honest read.

Another area in which this edition has improved compared to the previous one is that it puts the reporting countries, and their own contributions to WASH upfront, and not the external donors, as in the past version, where data on donor support were presented before countries’ own contributions.

The report’s biggest gap, which it also openly admits, is in presenting consolidated financial data. Of the 74 participating countries, only 4 reported data on the 3 T’s (taxes, transfers and tariffs), and another 13 on taxes and transfers only. This in itself is a telling sign. Apparently, it is not straightforward to provide consolidated data on WASH investments. Investments come from various sources of funding, including different national government agencies, local governments, utilities, households and external donors and NGOs; it may be difficult to come up with standardized definitions of categories of spending; and there is always a part of funding that does not get captured in the books. But the fact that so little quantitative data were obtained on funding is symptomatic for the lack of emphasis on financing in the sector. This is also echoed in the Public Expenditure Review of water and sanitation undertaken by the World Bank in a number of Sub-Saharan Countries, which states: “We found incomplete or contradictory data in many countries, compounded by the fact that “water and sanitation” is not a distinct stand-alone sector that would enable international comparison of government finance. Additionally, a large part of donor resources are off budget, leaving sizeable holes in the bigger picture of public expenditure for WSS”. After an intensive dedicated process, only for a few countries datasets were obtained on public expenditure, and even those miss data from some years. This means that regular expenditure reviews by the governments themselves are probably only happening in few countries. This then also means that some of the conclusions in the GLAAS report need to be taken with a pinch of salt. For example, the report states that countries funding levels for WASH are reported to remain insufficient. But this is based on countries’ perceptions, rather than consolidated data. Likewise, spending on operation and maintenance is reported to be insufficient. Whether that is true or not can only be concluded once also user contributions are analysed in detail, as they tend to bear the bulk of those costs; the sample of 4 countries reporting data on user contributions, is probably too small for that.

One could also argue that the 13 countries that did provide detailed data on expenditure could be representative for a range of countries, as it ranges from LDCs as Lesotho and Madagascar to middle-income countries as Colombia and Thailand. So, let’s assume that. The report then provides some trade-offs, on which it takes an ambiguous position. For example, it states that much more funding goes to water than to sanitation, even where water coverage is already high. At the same time it points to the fact that too little is spent on operation and maintenance of existing infrastructure. A funder would be left with the trade-off between investing more money in water to maintain earlier-developed water supply assets, or shifting investments away from water supply to sanitation to extend coverage there. Besides, one could ask whether it is a bad thing that relatively little public investments go into sanitation. Under the CLTS paradigm, it should mainly be households themselves that invest in sanitation. Maybe the per capita costs of sanitation are lower than the per capita costs of water supply? This points to another omission in interpreting the data on expenditure: the report doesn’t provide unit costs, nor the number of units provided. Sure, the data show that more financing goes to urban water supply than to rural water supply, while rural coverage is still below the urban one. But, without knowing the unit costs of an urban water connection compared to a typical rural water system, such an imbalance doesn’t say much. As the urban population has grown much more rapidly than the rural one, probably also more money has been needed to keep up with population growth and maintain the assets in urban areas. The conclusions of the report now read as a case of mis-targeting: segments that are somehow covered (urban, water supply) receive more money than the ones less well covered (rural, sanitation). However, without looking into unit costs, units served, nor user contributions as third source of financing, such conclusions seem too early to be drawn.

In all fairness, the GLAAS report does recognise the severe financial data gaps. And it is therefore laudable that it proposes a methodology for standardised tracking of financial flows. Getting such data for a couple of countries, preferably different types of countries (different regions, different levels of economic development, more or less aid dependent, on-track and off-track countries), would be extremely helpful to go beyond the commonplaces on insufficiency of funds or poor targeting. I hope that the recognition that the GLAAS report is half empty when it comes to financial data, has triggered this initiative and that the next edition is more than half full.

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