The end of aid

By Ton Schouten –

I was asked to convince a Texas businessman to support investing in government water systems. I tried:

The evidence shows that more than 30% of water systems in Ghana are not functional and that only around 20% of the functioning water systems provide a basic level of service: water of WHO accepted quality, flowing 90% of the time and at a reasonable distance from the house. Meaning that 80% of the water systems in Ghana provide a bad service!

Over the last decades huge progress has been made in providing first access to water. Billions of dollars have been invested. But when countries reach 60-70% access, coverage stagnates and slips back. Like on a conveyer belt: infrastructure gains are undone by losses at the end of the belt. That not only happens in African countries but also in India.

Stagnation and slippage show that something very fundamentally is wrong in the system that delivers water. For decades that system was driven by providing first time access. Now that system needs to provide permanent water services and it can’t.

Providing first time access is a matter of aid: fighting extreme poverty. But developing permanent services is a different ball game and it needs to be led by government. It needs to develop the systems for O&M, for support after construction, for spare parts, for circuit riders, for repairs and it must plan for replacement. Government should not do that all itself; communities and private sector are better equipped for doing the job – and per country their roles may be different. But government regulates it all, through policy, legislation, guidelines, subsidies to reach the ultra-poor and more.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. That government role is played in the US*, in Europe in any country in the world that has a certain level of wealth and where public services are being taken serious. And that is how it should be. Africa, Ghana should not be aid dependent for the rest of our times. No country should. And it won’t. Ghana has become a middle income country, it has stable economic growth and it is a stable democracy. The public systems need a lot of improvement, but the trend is irreversibly going in that direction and not only in Ghana. Many other African countries are moving in that direction. Experts say that by 2050 Africa will be the China of the world (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2K-P7Hv_Zwg). The aid industry, IRC included, better be ready for that and start shifting the focus of its work from providing first time access to supporting the delivery of permanent services.

We are in a transition phase. But the end state is clear: permanent services for all. Under the leadership and regulated by government as in any country in the world. Both government and aid must get their act together. Government, also government in Ghana, should stop leaning and depending on good willing aid organisations. It should show leadership, vision towards the aid industry, stimulate the private sector and its citizens. Aid organisations should also get their act together and stop running around in parallel projects each with their own manual, technology, guidelines and philosophies and cooperate with local government, challenge it and at the same time align with it (http://www.waterservicesthatlast.org/media/videos/what_if).

In our opinion that is the future and what we do is helping countries to gradually make that future come true. With respect for all stakeholders, aid and government, but in the first place boosting government to develop the systems and take the leadership to deliver permanent services to citizens. Aid will stop one day and it should stop one day. Aid organisations should be confident that they have supported water when it was desperately needed and can leave the country with the systems in place to provide long term access to water for all. 


* The US has a very well regulatory rural water sector and in the US as in many other more sparsely populated countries rural water is subsidised. The unit costs for a rural water connection are a magnitude of the unit cost for an urban connection. Cross subsidy is one of the things that a government can and should do to make water equally accessible.

4 comments on “The end of aid

  1. Good post. Aid dependence and development project failure are valuable topics always worth discussing.

    I’ve said this before on this blog, and I’ll always believe that service will fail whenever the underlying service provision governance is malfunctioning. Even the most basic model of access and provision (see p.49 of the 2004 WB World Development Report) depends upon relationships between the household, the government, and the private sector. How does one get/access water?– through purchase or provision. Households need more purchasing power and governments need to be more accountable.

    As external agents, the aid community can and should suggest great government involvement (subsidies, etc), but that is not substitute for citizen voice. Developing the small private sector in water and sanitation services and providing micro finance options to enable access are also huge.

  2. The end of aid may be in sight, but will this mean the end of dependence? Canada, Australia and The Netherlands all now each have a combined ministry for aid and trade. For bilaterals it is pay-back time for decennia-long development aid. Will NGOs transform into “social entreprenueurs” and consultancy firms?

    One of the targets mentioned in the Netherlands Multi-Annual Strategic Plan for Ghana 2014 – 2017 is that “by 2017 35 Dutch companies are active in the drinking water and sanitation sectors in Ghana”. Is this a mere swap from dependency on aid to dependency on foreign expertise?

  3. […] But we are convinced, through our experiences and those of others, that such an approach does, in the long-term, deliver results in terms of adoption, scale up and indeed impact. More importantly we consider that this approach is really the only game in town in terms of providing an exit strategy for aid (see Ton Schouten’s earlier post on the end of aid). […]

  4. […] self-reliant, country leadership and sector capacities are crucial game changers. In his blog  End of Aid Ton Schouten argued that development aid should focus on improving a country’s rural […]

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