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Stockholm syndrome

For obvious reasons, Sweden and Stockholm have inspired several WASH bloggers this month, drawing analogies between the WASH sector and Swedish smörgåsbord and the Vasa ship. As a Stockholm resident, I can only be very satisfied with such inspiration. But, I must admit that initially I was not very inspired by this year’s World Water Week in Stockholm; looking at the programme, I felt it would be an event with the same speakers, talking about the same topics, and with the same participants as in previous years. Still, I didn’t want to miss out on any of the discussions, in case exciting new developments would be presented. Was I also trapped in the WASH sector’s syndrome of actually enjoying the Stockholm Water Week (or other global conferences for that matter) whilst knowing they keep us hostage for the better part of August and rarely deliver tangible results? Though it would be too easy to hold a rant about global water conferences, I readily admit I was completely wrong in my existentialist angst about their added value. Conferences are not there to achieve progress, but to showcase the results of what has been achieved in between two events. And this year’s water week made me realise that progress is being made in breaking out of several paradigms that has held the rural water sector at ransom for so long.

In the 1980s, community management was seen as the liberator that would overcome the limitations of government service delivery. Most of us have worked under this paradigm and have loved it. And sure, community management has brought many benefits, probably the most important of all empathy amongst us as water professionals with user communities: getting a better understanding of what they demand (and what not); of what their needs and obstacles are; and what their capacity to manage water services is.

However, our love for community management has often gone to such an extent that we cannot see its limitations. One of the main limitations has been the fraught financial model behind it. The original thinking was that governments do not have the funds for public service delivery (at most only for initial hardware development), so let’s develop low-cost systems and “hand over” these system to the community (often only ceremoniously but not formally), and then communities can put in their own time and labour to run the systems. We know the results. Indeed cash expenditure by users on service delivery may be low, but so are the levels of services delivered.

Moreover, community management has often become like an IKEA cupboard: it is applied in much the same manner across the globe, assembled in a routine manner based on some simple instruction manual. As a result, a water committee for a complex piped system in Latin America does not look very different from one for a handpump in Uganda – while obviously the management requirements and capacities in these two different contexts vary a lot. Or worse, the cook-book mode of setting up community management leaves many water committees only to exist in name and water systems in a bigger mess than the kitchen of the Swedish chef.

The sector’s unconditional love for community management is turning into a more professional relationship, as debated in a session organized by the Rural Water Supply Network’s (RWSN) Management and Support Group. This started by recognizing the importance of community-based management and the many benefits it has brought, but then went on to state that it is no longer enough. There is ample need and scope to professionalise community management. Some understand this to refer to the contracting out of specific tasks related by the water committee to a paid for professional (like a plumber, operator or administrator) or company. Others take a broader perspective referring to the adoption of good business practices to manage services both by the community- based organization as well as by the entities that support them.

Compared to last year’s meeting at the SWWW, and a second one held in October 2012, above all progress was seen in case studies that highlighted how professionalization could be done. A year ago we talked about the potential of service-area-based contracts for professional organisations. This year, Christophe Leger of Vergnet did an excellent presentation of how such a service contract works in Burkina Faso. But he also highlighted the problems are encountered, particularly in terms of lack of specificity in the contractual arrangements for responsibilities for asset renewal, accounting rules for overhead costs and performance indicators of the service providers. It made Patrick Moriarty of IRC remark that professionalization of rural water supplies entails being able to specify all those issues. These are not devilish details but should be seen as the core of service provision. WSP’s Jemma Sy presented lessons on jump-starting community water businesses in amongst others the Philippines, and the role of domestic private investment in water supply.

The discussions that followed showed a wide acceptance of the need to professionalise, but according to the specific context. Just like community-management, professionalised management is not an off-the-shelf solution. What is needed and what is possible is again different according to the type and complexity of the technology, the type of settlements, its poverty status, etc. Moreover, I felt there is no longer a taboo in discussing those, or falling back in the polarization of the outdated privatisation debate, that has kept the sector hostage for too long time. The current webinar series of RWSN builds on this session and presents even more examples of professionalised management going onto some of the details-that-are-not-details, such as market-based financing mechanisms for rural water supply and professional monitoring.

Does all the talk about professionalization mean that there is no role for community management anymore? Is it facing its Waterloo, to paraphrase that other Stockholm institution – ABBA? The answer to that is a clear no. There always remains a role for community-based organisations –in supervising the work of the professional service provider and strategic decision-making. The balance between the direct work of the community and the professionals is a topic of research in the recently started Community Water Plus project in India, in which I am involved. This project starts from the premise that successful rural water supply service delivery requires a combination of a meaningful level of community management with a “plus” of professional support. The balance between the two may differ for example by type of technology or the size and capacities of the community. At a stakeholder meeting to inaugurate the project, various examples showed how such a balance can be reached, such as some well-documented case of  WASMO in the State of Gujarat, where an agency not only supports communities in developing their systems, but also in ongoing support.

A particular challenge for the research will be getting to grips with the resource implications of professionalization. Our earlier work showed already that support comes at a cost. But it is not only the financial resources. The discussions in India showed that it is above all a matter of having well-skilled staff who provide quality support, who have the right attitude of facilitating community processes and who understand the politics of service delivery. In short, it requires professionalism of the support organisations. Still, it is the costs of professionalization and support that hold the water sector at ransom. A recent paper by Stephen Jones in the special issue of the journal Water Alternatives which we edited, brought back home that message once again. He found that support work by WaterAid to rural service providers in Mali typically costs 0.5-1.5 US$/person/year. This is not an insignificant amount and if the kind of support is to be institutionalised, it will somehow have to be covered from somewhere. And most probably this somewhere is public finance. As Patrick Moriarty also noted in his blog, public finance is no longer a dirty word in the water sector. As “full cost recovery by communities” is being unmasked as unrealistic, wrong and insufficient, an implication is that a large part of the support and professionalization costs will have to come from public finance.

As old paradigms get dismantled, others emerge. The new one seems a pragmatic combination of strengths of communities’ local management capabilities, the private sector’s professional skills and public finance to pay for a big chunk of service delivery. Maybe that is ideological less appealing and more fuzzy in its boundaries, but gives a better response to the messy and diverse sector we work in.

Hej hej,

Stef Smits

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