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Heading for the exit

Next week, the Dutch parliament will discuss the multi-annual collaboration plans for its bilateral development cooperation with some 15 partner countries. This could be a pretty dull and technical affair, were it not for the fact that these plans give an interesting insight into what the end of aid may look like. But, it also raises some questions on how to exit partnership relations that have evolved in some cases over several decades.

As Simavi and IRC, two WASH NGOs, we have reviewed all these plans and looked for the main trends and issues, as far as its concerns one sector the Dutch have supported heavily: water and more specifically water and sanitation.

A first striking point is the speed with which in some countries (like Ghana, Kenya and Bangladesh) all bilateral aid is expected to end. All these countries are all aiming to become (lower) middle income countries in the period 2020-2030 and no longer be aid dependent. Preceding that shift, the Netherlands seeks to move from a traditional development cooperation relation to one where trade and investment is central. That is a cause for celebration, as the aim of aid is to become redundant. The multi-annual plans for these countries will therefore see a sharp decline in funding from 2017 onwards, aiming to end by around 2020.

Support to the WASH sector follows this general trend. For several of the ongoing WASH programmes, like BRAC WASH II or the Ghana Netherlands Water Programme, it is stated explicitly when they will end and that there is no next phase intended. This is not only driven by the end of aid, but also by a shift within the Dutch support to the water sector from rural WASH to urban WASH, water resources management and water for agriculture.

Yet, even by the most optimistic scenarios, most of these countries will still have significant water and sanitation challenges by 2020. At the moment, 45% of the Bangladeshi population doesn’t have access to sanitation, and even if it would double the pace of increasing access, some 25-30% will not have adequate sanitation facilities by 2020. The Ghana plan has ambitious targets around urban water supply, which will undoubtedly be of huge developmental benefit. However, it only contributes a drop to the ocean of the real problem: that 21 million Ghanaian don’t have access to adequate sanitation. Sustainability problems plague the rural WASH sector, and these will not have been fully addressed by 2020.

For sure, it is not all up to aid to address these issues. Aid cannot be expected to be there until the last person has her tap or his toilet. As countries achieve middle income country status and aid reduces, they will have to increase tax spending on WASH, so as to fill the gap left by aid in order to keep the pace of increase in coverage. Alternatively, they may source the needed finance through loans from banks or from the private sector – though the last part of the population is likely the most difficult to reach, and where the private sector may have least interest to invest.

We would be happy, if these plans would indicate, for example, the Government of Ghana would commit to increase its funding to WASH by 65 million Euros over the next years, as the Netherlands reduces its WASH aid to Ghana by 65 million. We would be happy if the Government of Bangladesh would keep the pace in increasing access to service that was developed with, amongst others, Dutch support. We would be happy if the plans would make reference to the commitment to ensuring sustainability of services, as demanded by the Sustainability Clause that the Netherlands has been spearheading. Yet, that is not the case.

The plans are full of good intentions, indicating hope and expectations that the partner governments will be able to have an adequate investment climate for WASH by 2020. But, these good intentions are not always supported by a more profound analysis of scenarios for sector finances, nor by reference to the political dialogue between Netherlands and partner countries to define clear commitments, nor to the use of the sustainability clause as a mechanism to ensure sustainable service delivery. These and other elements would probably important elements of a much-needed transition and exist strategy. The letter explaining the exit strategy from, amongst others, the education sector in a number of other countries (Bolivia, Nicaragua and Tanzania) indicates that in a number of countries no other donors would step into the gap left by the Netherlands, with sudden financial shortfalls as a result. When USAID left the WASH sector in Honduras a decade ago, it left a big gap, that was not immediately filled by other donors, or the national government, leading to set-backs in sustainability of service. We should avoid that this happens to the great achievements that have been obtained in the collaboration between the Netherlands and its partnership countries in WASH.

The Minister has an ambitious policy to “get to zero”: eliminating absolute poverty in one generation. For WASH getting to zero would mean having no unserved families, everyone having access to water, sanitation and hygiene. We recognize that this can and should not be achieved by aid only. Rather, we welcome the ending of bilateral aid to the WASH sector in partnership countries, as these achieve (lower) middle income status. But, it is clear that by 2020 it is unlikely that these countries will not have achieved full WASH coverage and probably still face important challenges in terms of sustainability of WASH service delivery. We therefore hope that the debate will lead to a commitment to develop a comprehensive transition or exit strategy that goes beyond finalizing the current investment programmes; but one that contains a solid plan to reach the last mile of the unserved population beyond 2020, supported by a strong financial (sector) analysis and political commitments to sustainable service delivery. In that way, we can be sure that we are not heading for the exit in bilateral WASH aid, but entering the phase of finally getting to zero.

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