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The sponge

Around the UN discussions on the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, many NGOs advocated for the inclusion of WASH-related goals. A great set of materials is now available to see the sector’s collective proposal for these WASH goals. And I hope that these goals and targets make it into the final set. But inevitably, also much advocacy was done to increase funding for the WASH sector. I always get a bit mixed feelings when I see such advocacy.

Mixed feelings because I know that more funding is needed to achieve a vision of Everyone, Forever. Regular readers of this blog know that this refers not only to more funding to drill more boreholes or build more toilets, but more funding to maintain the ever increasing asset base of WASH infrastructure.

Mixed feelings because I know that this kind of advocacy is implicitly targeted at donor countries to spend more on ODA and a bigger share of that ODA on WASH. Nothing wrong with that, but ODA of course is only a part of the financial puzzle that the WASH sector faces. Rarely does one come across an INGO advocating for households dedicating a bigger part of their income on buying a new toilet, or for municipalities investing a bigger share of their municipal taxes in WASH (as there is great new evidence that particularly municipal tax investments lead to better services, as there is more direct accountability over the use of municipal taxes to provide services).

Mixed feelings because in so many countries it is not access to funds that limits WASH developments, but the capacity of governments to use the funds effectively for WASH service delivery.

Too often do I hear anecdotes of problems related to absorption capacity: Country X lost 14 out of 100 million US$ donor funding because project proposals got stuck in central government’s bureaucracy and the money could not be spent. If it is not central government, then it is local government where things get stuck. In Country Y a reasonably well functioning WASH agency at national level put out requests for proposals for WASH project to the districts and municipalities. Only 7 project proposals came forth, as local government simply didn’t have the capacity to formulate proposals that were up to scratch. These anecdotes are also reflected in last year’s GLAAS report, where for example more than 20 countries reported that they spent less than 50% of available drinking water supply budgets. The GLAAS report concludes: “Long procurement processes and heavy administrative burdens mean that many countries struggle to efficiently disburse the limited funds that are committed”. It also found that: “Absorption of domestic capital commitments is higher than that of donor commitments, but appears to be declining”. This doesn’t come across as striking to me; probably recipient governments have to provide greater accountability over the funds generated from domestic taxes than over ODA. Moreover, ODA the WASH sector is like a sponge. If you add too little water, the sponge will absorb it all, and not release anything: there is too little money around to make an impact. If you add too much, the sponge will fill up quickly and cannot absorb more. Adding more water will just lead to water leaking away, dripping along the edges of the sponge. It requires adding a well-dosed amount.

That is just often note the case. And then, enter the NGOs. If government doesn’t have the capacity to drill boreholes or promote sanitation, NGOs can help out. But we all also know the problems of NGOs or so-called charities (what is a charity is just in the eye of the beholder) taking on the job of government. There are the risks of eventually by-passing government altogether, limited accountability, poor sustainability etc. Various bloggers have written about that, particularly Ned Breslin’s influential paper on “rethinking hydro-philanthropy”. So, does that mean that NGOs cannot be a second sponge? No. They can take up some of the water, so as to speed up the drive to increase access. But they need to do so with lots of care. And they should above all put their efforts into also increasing the capacity of the main sponge: the government. They should build capacities of municipalities and districts in planning and implementation of WASH services, they should support national governments in improving planning procedures, and hold them to account for how they spend their funding. Luckily more and more NGOs are making that shift from being a de facto implementer to a critical friend of government, helping out in some implementation, but above all in building government capacity and holding them to account.

The NGOs that are advocating for more funds into the sector are actually doing what NGOs should do: advocacy, lobbying, acting as watchdog and promoting innovation, but not – or only to a limited extent – on the ground service delivery.

In that sense, the most recent policy note of the Dutch Minister of Development Cooperation on civil society collaboration is a great read. In the Netherlands, always a sizeable chunk of the development budget was channeled through NGOs – or co-financing organisations as they are called. These NGOs are a mixed bag, carrying out an even more mixed bag of activities: indeed ranging from the types of activities mentioned above, to actual service delivery tasks: drilling boreholes, building schools and equipping clinics. In her policy note, she outlines a daring reform, in which she proposes funding for NGOs – or better said alliances of NGOs – to take up the roles that befit a modern NGO, in various thematic areas, including water (of course water, as any Dutch government, including the King, promotes water management as a key export product). In fact, she uses the water sector as an example of the various roles that NGOs play in this. There is of course a but…and the but is that there is less funding available – about 50% less than in the previous NGO funding facility. But I do hope that this funding will be better targeted, at those roles that NGOs should play: advocacy, lobbying, innovation, watchdog – and not being a service provider. The first reactions in Dutch NGO country are mildly positive. The predictable reaction of “we need more money” was not there – in fact various see it as a nice opportunity to focus funds on what NGOs should. I hope this sets the example and that the NGOs that so passionately advocate for the WASH sector think of the sponge: do not always ask for more money – ask for well-dosed amounts of money, that are being well-spent.

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