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Aftermath of the Sanitation and Water for All High Level Meeting

By Erma Uytewaal –

Promising commitments, shallow discussions but a great depth of optimism for the sector 

Last week Friday 11 April 2014, the Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) High Level Meeting (HLM) took place in Washington DC. This third HLM hosted by the World Bank, gathered more than sixty delegations from developing countries and donors, including a new record number of finance ministers from SWA partner countries. The HLM was preceded by a sector minister’s dialogue on 10 April 2014, in which ministers for water and sanitation from more than fifty developing countries reviewed progress against the 2012 commitments; presented the new commitments for the HLM 2014; and drew-up key messages for the HLM the following day. In my view, both events were an unprecedented success. But, as mentioned in an earlier blog, both events are just the most visible happenings of the SWA partnership, the ‘cherry on the cake’ if you like.  In this case, the ‘cake’ consists of the High Level Country Dialogues (HLCDs) that run up to the HLM and a donor preparatory process. The ultimate test for the strengthened SWA partnership is sustaining and institutionalising the results of these two events in national country sector processes.

In this blog post, I reflect on the main results of both events, and the challenges faced going forward.

The HLM  2014: a real ‘force majeure’ 

With the presence of the United Nations’ Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the World Bank Group’s President Dr Jim Yong Kim, SWA succeeded in obtaining the highest political attention for existing challenges in the water, sanitation and hygiene sector. Throughout their speeches and the meeting, they both emphasized the vast health, economic, social and environmental consequences of poor water, sanitation and hygiene, and thereby considered this meeting an important step forward.

Skilfully facilitated by the UN Deputy General Secretary Mr Jan Eliasson, international development experts and government finance ministers from nearly fifty developing countries endorsed a set of 265 new commitments from 44 countries and donors. Broadly speaking, the commitments aim to improve the use of financial resources and reduce inequality in access, build capacity of institutions charged with delivering water and sanitation services, and coordinate resources more effectively, both from governments and overseas development assistance. All together they are supposed to speed up access for the 2.5 billion people lacking improved sanitation and the 748 million people without improved drinking water.

Next to the collective commitments made, the most important achievement may be the high level attention given to the challenges in the sector. Finance ministers certainly have a tough task accommodating the multiple priorities within an always limited national budget. The global high level support to the WASH sector, as voiced by the UN General Secretary and other international political leaders present at the HLM, should help provide encouragement to finance ministers in prioritising the national resources needed to tackle the fundamental challenge.

Ethiopia, for example, mentioned the importance of harmonisation of donor approaches in terms of planning, implementation and monitoring, and further highlighted the need to align interventions behind the National ‘One WASH National Program’ through a joint financing account. On the other hand, the involvement of local government, including the role of local taxation for sustained service delivery, was brought forward by the Minister of Finance of Madagascar.  Notwithstanding these and some other concrete commitments made at the HLM, the meeting lacked a more in-depth discussion on advances and ways for effective use of available resources and ensuring lasting impacts of sector investments.  This is perhaps understanding given a packed agenda.

Despite a lack of depth in the dialogue, the meeting aired an overall positive spirit. Finance ministers spoke with confidence and a clear determination to achieve their vision of a world with universal access to sustainable WASH services. This was nicely reflected in the closing words of the SWA Chair, Mr Kufuor, former President of Ghana in the following statement: ‘I am now more confident than ever, that our name – Sanitation and Water for All – will become our achievement’.  In the evaluation meeting of the SWA Steering Committee, which took place the subsequent day, this optimism was picked up as a new trend in the WASH sector, leaving behind an epoch of self-pity and an overall feeling of being a neglected and non-performing sector.

The sector ministers meeting: main take away messages  

In the 2012 SWA sector ministers meeting, the main challenges for achieving universal access in WASH were considered to be those of reaching the poor, addressing failing and underperforming drinking water systems and improving inadequate sanitary facilities. This very much contrasted with the first Sector Ministers Meeting in 2010 where the emphasis was on achieving more political commitment and funding for accelerating progress towards the MDGs, particularly in the sanitation sector. The dialogue in the third SWA Sector Ministers Meeting that took place last week largely built on the issues raised in the 2012 meeting, leading to the following two main themes of the 2014 Sector Ministers Meeting programme:

  • tackling inequalities, and
  • ensuring WASH services that last

The dialogue among the sector ministers was clearly inspired by a common vision of universal access to sustainable WASH services. Certain countries, including Ghana, Bolivia, Bangladesh and Ethiopia, shared very ambitious targets. Ghana and Bolivia, coincided in setting their target for achieving universal access to water and sanitation in 2025. Bangladesh and Ethiopia were even more ambitious, with Bangladesh aiming to achieve this by 2021, and Ethiopia committing to achieving a total eradication of open defecation by 2015. In a preview of the upcoming GLAAS report, Dr Maria Neira, Director of the World Health Organisation’s Public Health and the Environment Department, stated that to this date, 75% of the 90 participating countries in GLAAS have adopted universal access policies.

However, overcoming inequity and reaching the most vulnerable populations remain a hard nut to crack in a great number of countries. During the meeting, Catarina de Albuquerque, Special Rapporteur on the Human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, put it as follows: ‘if we do not explicitly target the left-outs and the most vulnerable, we will end up with SWS, Sanitation and Water for Some – we don’t want this- we want SWA’. Her advice was straightforward

  1. identify the left- behinds,
  2. set targets and make a plan
  3. implement and monitor progress in overcoming the disparities and adjust policies and plans when needed.

Despite agreeing with her advice, I couldn’t help but feeling that the debate and the commitments fell a bit short in terms of determining concrete approaches towards tackling inequity, including questions on how such a plan would look, and what the implications are for the current approaches and service delivery models.  Moreover, critical issues such as willingness to pay, affordability and financing service delivery to the poor, and reaching remote rural areas or other vulnerable groups, were hardly addressed. In short, it is clear that there is still a way to go.

The dialogue on sustainability highlighted a trend moving away from an emphasis on infrastructure to one on services, thereby giving consideration to long term financing and investments. This includes bringing in local governments into the financing of service delivery, fiscal transfers to the local level and the professionalisation of service delivery. An emerging need is to think about the long term planning in the sector. It’s about going from projects to programmes – taking up a programmatic approach that is systematically applied – requiring long term commitments from donors and governments and linked to results. In summary, long term engagement, long term planning and agreements on long term financing.

A first quick scan of the county commitments for the HLM shows that at country level, the sector is moving ahead in addressing some of the most structural and fundamental blockages that have been obstructing a lasting WASH service for all. At least twenty countries prepared HLM 2014 commitments in which sustainable service delivery was explicitly addressed. An example is Rwanda, which is now committed to allocating 60% of the total investments to the implementation of the national WASH plan, to maintaining the drinking water and sanitation systems, and to ensuring the sustainability of the WASH services. Moreover, Rwanda aims to clearly spell out the responsibilities between national and local governments in which local governments are expected to generate resources for asset management and other maintenance costs. A more in-depth analysis of the commitments in the context of each country’s reality will be needed in order to understand the level to which the commitments are designed from a holistic point of view – i.e. to make the entire sector work, rather than being isolated patches with limited long term impact.

The way forward: embedding country dialogues and donor agreements on more effective aid

In summary, I believe that both events were a great success and an important step forward in the SWA partnership. The political commitment from world leaders and the concrete commitments made towards achieving universal access to WASH services are clear steps forward. The commitments, in general, have been formulated in realistic and traceable terms, thereby addressing crucial bottlenecks in achieving sustainable services for all and herewith going beyond the more generic statements pledged in former years.

Towards a SWA donor compact?

Many countries highlighted their ‘demand’ to the donor community for better coordination and harmonisation of  approaches and for aligning their support behind national policies and plans. This is not surprising in light of the figures presented by Mr Serge Tomassi, Deputy Director of the Development Cooperation Directorate (DCD) of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Developmen (OECD) in which he highlighted that in 2010-2012  87% of ODA in WASH went through project-type interventions and only 10% consisted in sector-based aid (including technical assistance, budget support and direct support to NGOs). The example of Mozambique, where the donors together are financing more than 850 projects, is an absurd case in point.

It was quite striking that the request from finance and sector ministers, pleading for more effective aid, remained mainly unanswered by the donor members of SWA. A quick glance through the available HLM donor commitments shows that some individual donors such as Sweden and the USA do make explicit pledges to strengthen elements of country sector systems, including the improvement of sector performance monitoring. However, a collective vision and statement, at a global level, on coordinated support and making aid at country level more effective is lacking.  In my view, the next mayor challenge for the SWA partnership is to prove its value by encouraging the member donors to work towards a global framework for effective aid in the WASH sector. This will be about further specifying the Aid Effectiveness principles (agreed on in Paris, Accra and Busan) into a common set of agreements – perhaps in the form of a global SWA compact. In order to make aid more effective in support to country leadership and sector capacities, agreements on the way aid is delivered at a global level, and clear indicators on donor behaviour at the country level, are urgent. After all, countries with strong sector systems are in a better condition to provide lasting WASH services to all and are better equipped to maintain and improve service delivery, even in a post–aid world.

Embedding the High Level Country Dialogues      

No one wanted to pour cold water on these great meetings, but while you have to commend the country commitments for being ambitious, realistic and traceable, we need to be aware that the implementation of the wide array of commitments is not guaranteed. This risk, as discussed in my previous blog post,  is particularly present if the commitments have not yet been embedded in a national budget, sector policies or other specific plans. Therefore, the main challenge today is to hold on to the momentum of the HLCDs and the HLM and to seek the institutionalisation of the country dialogues by embedding them – where existent- in the national planning, monitoring and reporting cycle.  Only this way can the SWA commitments be translated into specific goals, tasks and responsibilities integrated in annual sector plans. However, in countries lacking an inclusive system for sector dialogue, planning and performance monitoring, SWA partners should collaborate in supporting national governments in building these sector capacities. Although the HLCD should not be a goal in itself, it certainly helps in filling the gap in countries lacking an inclusive sector dialogue and planning process, simultaneously triggering and boosting national ownership for the implementation of a structured approach to sector dialogue and planning.

Well done to all involved!

One comment on “Aftermath of the Sanitation and Water for All High Level Meeting

  1. […] to harmonise more effectively in support of government. As our colleague Erma Uytewaal reported in her recent blog post on the third high-level meeting of the Sanitation and Water for All […]

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