What’s your role in building long-term sustainable WASH services in developing countries?

By Harold Lockwood

Well, here we go again. Next week – 11th and 12th of March – there will be another gathering in Washington DC of a range of (primarily) US based Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) sector practitioners, experts, policy makers and funders to discuss the issue of the day: how to make services more sustainable? This is one in a number of such meetings, but this time we have managed to bring representation and voices from Southern governments to the table which will no doubt help to ground some of these discussions.

The question for me, not for the first time, is will this just be another talking shop with platitudes and nice words but little real change? And if it’s not to be, then what are the key messages people should be thinking about when they take time out from their day jobs to attend such a meeting?  As one of those responsible for organising and hosting these two days, preparing for this meeting has got me thinking long and hard about who does what and how these various actors relate to one another, to governments of Southern countries, and to the core business of getting sustainable WASH services to everyone.

Picking up on the theme of my last blog, I’m hoping that we’ll be able to encourage all those attending to really think about the nature of ‘development aid’ and how they and their organisations relate to broader processes of development of the national WASH sectors in the countries in which they operate.

There’s such a wide range of organisations all working under the broad umbrella of improving the WASH sector; first and foremost national governments in the South and users. Then we have the huge development banks, bi-and multi-lateral government aid orgnisations, through to the large International NGOs and foundations with a global reach to smaller (sometimes tiny) foundations,  NGOs, charities and private sector contractors.  And of course there’s the newer breed of charity which sees the free market as a solution in the form of patient capital.

These organisations and the people in them (including me) are driven by a range of incentives, from professional ambition, to religious or ideological interests to viewing the development or charity business as just that, another business.

However we see it, we all have a role to play in what we call aid – but which the public in many of our countries often calls ‘charity’.  Many of us are coming to Washington DC next week. But with so many players and so many angles to aid or charity in providing sustainable WASH services, what are the relative strengths of our different types of organisations and what should our roles be in this question of supporting sustainable WASH services?

Who supports what?

In the words of the great — and recently ‘re-discovered’ — Sixto Rodriguez, let’s take a look at the cold facts.  This should be easy, but as many of us know, facts and evidence are often relatively thin on the ground in our sector.  One stream of evidence that is instructive, and relatively easy to get a handle on, is finance: who is paying for what in WASH?

Firstly, as many of us may be aware, governments are the biggest funder (other than users themselves).  Data from a recent World Bank – AFD report from 2010 indicates that over one half of all (7.6 billion US$/year) expenditure for water and sanitation is financed through the public sector.  However, that is total expenditure on the whole sector.  Further analysis by the Public Services International Research Unit, looking just at capital expenditure (paying for new infrastructure) found that official development assistance (money from development banks, bi- and multi-lateral donors) is more significant than public spending (by about 15%).

So, governments pay for more of recurrent and donors for more of capital investment. And it is the recurrent costs that really matter here – for example, we know from recent WASHCost research findings that the recurrent costs for small scale, or ‘basic’ water supply systems, over a twenty-year life span are in the order of two to three times that of capital investment.

However, it’s important to understand that buried in these macro figures are important differences.  Most important of which, is that for low-income countries, the contribution of aid to capital investment is even greater — much greater in fact, about three times as much per year as the public sector. The top ten country donor contributors over a five year average period are shown in the graph below, using data from the OECD

Top 10 donors to WASH 5 year average

These are figures for official development aid and are relatively easy to access.  Figures for spending by NGOs are much more difficult to find and can be confusing as a lot of bi-lateral aid can be sometimes channelled through NGOs and others.  OECD figures do not include funding from charitable foundations.

The USA-based WASHfunders.org collects  information about charitable foundations (grant-making institutions) in the USA and gives us an idea of the relative order of magnitude financing per year. The data from their research brief shows the following:

Year Total all US Foundations
2003 US$ 5 million
2004 US$ 6 million
2005 US$ 11 million
2006 US$ 81 million
2007 US$ 122 million
2008 US$ 97 million
2009 US$ 73 million
2010 US$ 72 million

(Source: Foundation Funding for Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene, March 2012, Foundation Center)

This figure from WASHfunders.org shows relative financing with yellow bubbles representing bi- and multi-lateral funding, while the purple ones are foundation funding (relative size of the bubbles are not to scale in terms of funding levels)

figure from WASHfunders.org

What is the point being made by this muddle of different data and various references to financing? Of course, it’s often tricky at the best of times to get these figures right, to avoid double counting and follow the thread, especially as funding is channelled through different organisations such as INGOs or private sector companies – but there is no avoiding these order of magnitude differences. The irrefutable cold fact here is that it is national government and user tariffs that provide the lion’s share of financing over the long term, followed by the major lending banks and bi-laterals. Even non-OECD funding (China and the other BRICS) is relatively small for WASH, except in (resource) rich countries where there are obvious geo-political interests.

Even allowing for data collection errors and gaps in the information, it is clear that charitable foundations taken together represent a relatively insignificant level of investment, and certainly do not have the kind of mandate or leverage of some of the other players. The same would be true I am sure for Europe – we are talking tens, possibly a hundred million dollars per year at most as oppose to the billions invested by others.

Back to Washington D.C.

So coming back to thinking about what this means for the various groups that will attend the sustainability forum next week: what are the implications of this and what are the messages that I’ll be bringing with me? Big spending power doesn’t automatically equate to better interventions, but there are differences between what these actors can and can’t do in practice.

For the likes of the World Bank, other development banks and major bi- and multi-lateral donors to the WASH sector, I will be challenging them to use their unique positioning, official mandate and ‘big bucks’ to make a much stronger push for sector reform, institution building and a focus on the delivery of permanent services, particularly for rural areas. There have been a lot of valuable lessons from the urban sector around improving formal utility performance over the last two decades that can apply here.

It is time to be much bolder. Why should poor rural and peri-urban people have to live with shambolic and sub-standard services?  Several times in the last few years my colleagues from the Triple-S initiative and I have gone to argue this case at the World Bank, the African Development Bank and other centres of sector influence.  And of course, the people we meet there, being good sector professionals, recognise the problem well. However, some – but by no means all – simply shrug their shoulders saying: ‘well, it’s our government clients who ask for these type of loans for the rural sector and at the end of the day, we don’t really have any power beyond the end of the loan agreement period’.  In essence, justifying or explaining lending programmes that are still based on the ‘build it, run away and hope’ model. This is akin to a retail bank manager agreeing over and over again to a loan for someone with a half-baked business plan, that he knows won’t work; this would not be tolerated on the high street (main street that is), so why for rural water and sanitation?

The Banks and the major bi-lateral donors have a seat at the sector high table, they have influence and leverage over governments and sector change processes; they are core partners and share a mutual accountability with them. So the ask here is to push harder on the issues that we know matter most such as sound maintenance regimes, proper asset management, funding for long-term capital maintenance and replacement;  and to push governments to improve their own monitoring and regulation. We know that a number of these big players are already working on these issues, but they must do more to improve investments in the sector, particularly for the rural sub-sector.

For the smaller foundations and NGOs attending the forum, it is time to reconsider. They need to ask themselves whether their work as currently implemented is sustainable, or indeed taking place at a scale to make a difference?  What happens when the systems they’ve created fall into disrepair?    What are the implications of working directly with communities and by-passing local governments who are struggling and under-resourced  – and that are often undermined by the ‘gifts’ that suddenly appear with entirely different tariff schedules, management arrangements and so on?  Acknowledging the admirable desire to help, and the right of people to spend their money as they see fit, I will at least be lobbying these organisations to be more aware of other ongoing efforts in the areas where they intervene – especially of sovereign governments – and to align themselves as best they can with these.

The larger international NGOs should, in turn, also take a long hard look at themselves and where they sit in this equation. Unless the country in question really is a failed state or has completely ineffective government, should they really be laying a role in direct provision of services?  Or should they rather be working with mandated service providers to work through problems, find innovative solutions, and test models that work?

All of us should think ahead and look to the future. As Robert Picciotto (King’s College, and former Director General, Evaluation, World Bank) implies in his excellent talk on the country led paradox to M&E: many of us are missing the point – it is ultimately public sector investments and improved public administration systems that will make the difference for support to and regulation of services such as water and sanitation, especially at the level of decentralised or local government. As low-income countries grow economically and develop, this will increasingly be the case.

So for all of us, but especially NGOs, we need to re-evaluate our roles, particularly our relations to government (local and national).  My feeling is that the best approach in the medium term will be to stop building stuff as a direct service provider and rather, where we continue to build at all, to do so as an innovator and builder of capacity. Another excellent way to influence the WASH sector of the future is to support emergent civil society watchdogs and pressure groups who can monitor and advocate to government from the outside, as well as to strengthen government itself (through parliamentary audit or oversight groups for example). A case in point is the work of WASH Advocates, an organisation that advocates towards the US government and increasingly is seeking to raise the capacity of similar advocacy groups in developing countries too.

Another alternative role for the smaller foundations and NGOs – and one that we are actively seeking to fill ourselves through our work in Triple-S – is to provide the space and conditions for innovation and learning, but in cooperation with government and other sector stakeholders by creating in-country  ‘innovation labs’. These could focus on rigorous testing of new innovations and solutions, from the adoption of technology and telemetry, to novel financing instruments such as insurance schemes for financing of capital replacement.

I am sure we will have plenty of good debates and discussions next week – and change never happens on the basis of just one meeting – but I do hope those attending will think hard about what they are doing, why they do it and what they can do differently to make sustainable water and sanitation services a reality in the countries that need it most.

Harold Lockwood

7 comments on “What’s your role in building long-term sustainable WASH services in developing countries?

  1. Hello,
    I’m just a lowly WASH sector consultant here in DC, and although I enjoyed attending this WASH sustainability conference, the content seemed somewhat unstructured. Much of the content can be conceptualized in terms of WASH governance and/or service delivery models, and therefore 2004 WDR (Making Services Work for the Poor) framework would be relevant.

    This framework essentially has two ways in which people access water – purchase or provision (“short and long route accountability), so anything that moves towards sustainable systems in this framework enables purchasing power, enables public and private capacity, government voice, strengthens government capacity and commitment to its citizens. The broad categories of stakeholders (Donors, NGOs, etc) were certainly part of how the conference was organized, but I thought that the ways in which each of the handful of innovations fit in was somewhat lacking. What are the incentives to cooperate? For example, I found myself wondering with all of the innovations in reporting water point functionality or water quality, what are the incentives for it to get fixed? The idea of using public pressure across municipalities that was alluded to in Ned Breslin’s ‘everyone everywhere’ scaling up was one good example of enabling citizens and strengthening voice… So, are the sector-wide ‘enabling environment’ initiatives and/or project-by project multi-criteria sustainability scorecards are the way to go…?

    Perhaps I’m too much of a pessimist, but I spent too many years in Dar es Salaam, where, as far as I could tell, minimal citizens voice or purchasing power, woefully inadequate capacity, and even less cooperation results in chronic dysfunction and deficiencies in access to water and sanitation.

    Hope these ramblings didn’t come off as naive or muddled.

    Ed B.

    • Dear Ed,

      Thanks for your thoughtful and honest comments. I don’t see why you would describe yourself as a ‘lowly consultant’ however, or to say that your ideas are muddled, which I don’t think they are at all. Every point of view maters. And as far as I can tell, blogs are supposed to promote/provoke debate and get people thinking, so your views are most welcome and valid.

      Your final point about public pressure is an important one for sure and links to the latter part of my blog suggesting a revised role for NGOs – precisely in supporting civil society organisations to galvanise and enable such citizen-based pressure. It would be interesting to hear more of your Dar es Salaam experiences to understand why you feel that this situation prevails and how it could be addressed. This probably could be done by trying to change the business as usual approach and putting more emphasis on the strengthening of the enabling environment as you say, but it also probably has a lot to do with government transparency and its ability to be open to criticism from its own citizenry. This is certainly the case in my country, with a so-called ‘mature’ democracy, but a lot of time I also wonder how much this government really listens!

      Thanks also for your feedback on the (lack of) structure of the day. All I can say to that is with 5 or 6 organisations invovled in the design and roll out of such an event, there is always compromise and probably trying to squeeze too much into one day.

      I hope you stay engaged with this debate and bring more of your own experiences and views.

      Harold Lockwood

      • Harold,

        Thanks for your thoughts.

        I guess I consider myself ‘lowly’ because I am relatively new to international water (4-5 years doctoral WASH research work plus 3-4 DC consulting) and speak as an individual, rather than for a CSO , a multilateral, or even a private firm.

        For broad, citywide water governance in Dar es Salaam, I would partially defer to the analysis of Cooksey and Dewaal of REPOA and WaterAid (http://www.wateraidamerica.org/includes/documents/cm_docs/2008/c/city_water_report_online_version.pdf ), as my research zoomed in more locally geographically to one particular slum settlement. Very roughly speaking, party affiliation seemed to hamper vertical accountability, and limited cooperation and turf battles horizontally hampered some relatively simple remedies (i.e., World Bank installed kiosks allegedly not turned on for ‘managerial’ squabbles, deep wells being unusable and without backup power- and often coinciding with shallow well use and cholera outbreaks). I really think that citizen voice is best enabled by connecting them to the utility at a faster rate through finance and empowering them through small business development in water and sanitation services(taking advantage of a market they know well). Political accountability is slower and less reliable than “short route” economic based governance. This route also speeds up cost-recovery theoretically– one thing that both everything from a small-scale provider to a big city utility with very few connections could appreciate.

        By the way, I’m partially in between contracts and will be filling my time starting up my blog “Watery (not) Domestic” here at WordPress. I’m currently trying to structure my thoughts on how best to make it useful, and would appreciate your ideas.

        I’d love to hear more about Aguaconsult, by the way. Are you London-based? I do miss the city, as my PhD was based at KCL.

        Please feel free to contact me on Twitter @edbourque or at edbourque@hotmail.com



  2. Great & clear thinking on the relative benefits of different stakeholder roles and responsibilities in WASH sector sustainable financing here. It would be interesting to think through how this plays out beyond financing also. Who has the real (and relative) influence, the political will, the institutional capacity, etc at which level to really make a difference? Thanks for the food for thought Harold!

  3. […] WASH sustainability forum in Washington DC and as the dust settles, it is time to pick up on the blog I wrote in anticipation of the two days of discussion, reflection, and sharing. How did it all go? […]

  4. […] de l’AEP  je dépose à peine mes bagages, qu’il est déjà temps pour moi de reprendre le blog que j’ai commencé en préparation des deux jours de discussion, de réflexion et de partage. […]

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