By Harold Lockwood
Recently I have been on a continent-hopping tour through a different range of meetings and events, from which I have seen a pattern emerging, or at least a series of questions in my own mind, as I carry out my work in the WASH sector at an international level.
My first engagement was in Africa in early October to facilitate a three-day learning convening on behalf of a major foundation, which supports WASH investments. This brought together a range of partners, mainly international NGOs, to share experiences about learning and WASH issues. It was noteworthy that the organisers made an explicit effort to reach out to government, inviting five different senior country representatives to the meeting. The requirement to work more closely with government in terms of better understanding policy, norms and guidelines was a common theme in the convening and a mantra that was repeated over and over again during the course of the three days. My sense is that this is new – that we were not seeing this kind of call for alignment, certainly not ten years ago, and maybe not even five.
The second major event I attended was a three day South Asia regional meeting in Kathmandu in the middle of October organised by the World Bank (with financial support from AusAID), entitled ‘Rural Water Supply and Sanitation: towards long-term sustainability’. This was a meeting dominated by the public sector – big government, from (mostly) big countries – showcasing what can be done at scale. And because this is Asia some of the scale is truly impressive – programmes affecting millions of rural lives – with innovation and real impact. And most importantly in my view, because it is government taking the lead in these innovations they are much more likely to ‘stick’ and to go to scale.
The third leg of my autumnal odyssey took me to Chapel Hill in North Carolina to the UNC Water and Health 2012 Conference for a gathering of a mixed group, but one dominated by the sector in the United States of America, with many NGOs and charities, small and large – and as may be expected a fair few academics and post-doctorate students about the place. Our numbers were depleted somewhat by the arrival of Super Storm Sandy, which also forced me to leave early. But from the few sessions I attended my overwhelming impression was that many in the audience – and on the podium for that matter – seemed to have a blind spot when it comes to developing countries governments. Instead the refrain I heard most often was of ‘our projects’ and ‘our reporting’ and ‘our beneficiaries’. There seemed to be a general dismissal of the fact that developing country governments can and do function, albeit with major problems, constraints and issues around accountability and transparency.
Finally, a couple of weeks later, I was part of a team facilitating a training course to a group of largely public-sector officials from a range of countries on service delivery at the decentralised level. We had a lot of interesting discussions during the course of the week about the role of government, of leadership and ‘aid effectiveness’ at the local level. A comment by one of the officials from Uganda seemed to sum it up when he said ‘the NGOs come along (to Uganda), drill ten boreholes and then make a lot of fuss and noise’; his point being that compared to the thousands of boreholes being installed by government, what is done by ‘not government’ in this space is actually pretty limited and yet grabs a lot of the headlines.
Water charity – who’s it all for anyway?
So in the end what did I learn from all this traveling around, talking to and interacting with people from a very wide range of organisations and viewpoints?
My overall reflection is about the nature of ‘charity’ and who is it all really for in the end. A lot of people in the NGO sector quite rightly try and hold governments to account, both in the developing world and in the north. But when it comes to actually delivering services, a lot of the NGOs and charities that I have come across recently really seem to have a blind spot in their critique of government particularly in African countries. The assumption seems to be that governments there are either so inherently inefficient and/or corrupt (or both) so as to be incapable – or un-willing – to take steps to improve services for the poor. Whilst there are no doubts elements of this to be found – and so called ‘anti-developmental states’ do exist – this likely says more about the people espousing these views than about developing country polititics.
But I would go even further and posit that there is a fundamental difference in view about the role – and importance – of the state between those I meet in the USA and those in the UK and Europe and elsewhere. There are now hundreds of organisations working on WASH in developing countries in the USA and it seems to me that they are making – just as described by our Ugandan government colleague – a lot of ‘white noise’; filling up the twitter and blog-sphere with messages about often trivial (and at best unproven) interventions, whilst displacing the real focus of the debate.
To put this into perspective I think it is worth going back again and again to the history of our (rural) sectors and how they got to where they are. In the USA itself rural water supplies only came into existence with significant infusions of federal government grants, which began in the 1930s and continued in the post-World War II era with infrastructure investment. This was significantly complemented in the 1960s and 1970s with funding for technical assistance and research. Even today it is estimated that user tariffs in small and very small size systems (essentially rural communities) only cover less than 50% of all recurrent costs, with the rest being made up from a mixture of state and federal budget transfer mechanisms, debt forgiveness and a small proportion of private loans. In the end, this is money from taxation that gets recycled and re-distributed and not development aid transfers, and it only works because people earn enough to be taxed in the USA and the tax system works (relatively well) and that there is political will to recycle money to these kind of communities.
Of course we don’t live in a black and white world and it is certainly not a case of ‘all government good – all non-government bad’. Certainly it is not a case of all USA NGOs bad either – there are plenty such organisations from Europe who also work in this way. But what is clear for me is that there must be an absolutely central role for government in the provision of WASH in setting out the vision, the policy frameworks and the general ‘rules of the game’ and very much supporting the involvement of domestic private sector and private capital. I am not arguing that NGOs and charities should all shut-up shop and leave, but I do think that there should be a serious debate about what their role is and how they interact with government in a way which can support its development and capacity, rather than actively displace it with endless cycles of relatively miniscule scale interventions. Non-governmental organisations and charities have an important role to hold government to account, innovate and to support improvements in local government capacities especially. But other than in the extreme emergency situations, their role as providers of primary services has little legitimacy, less scalability and almost no sustainability in the long run.
Maybe it is because I am essentially a European social welfarist at heart, but I believe passionately that we should do more to support government – at all levels – in the developing world to do their job better and put less emphasis on the squeaky wheels of non-government organisations who repeatedly rush in to save the day.