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Cautiously optimistic

What will it take to create WASH sectors that work? 

By Patrick Moriarty, Harold Lockwood, and Sarah Carriger

Over the past few months in a series of posts we’ve been advocating for a change in the goal of the WASH sector – from increasing coverage to delivering a service over the long haul; from simply building infrastructure to building infrastructure and managing it into the future to provide services worthy of the name.

And we’ve been calling for a change in approach — from piecemeal projects to strengthening the whole system that delivers services.

We’ve shown how we’ve gone about supporting this type of change in Ghana together with the Community Water and Sanitation Agency, and we’ll continue posting examples from other countries where we’re working.

For now, in the final post in this series, we’d like to talk more about what committing to this change calls for from governments and their partners in development – and to highlight what we see as some positive signs of progress.

Government and public finance – taking the lead

We’ve said that to create WASH sectors that work – sectors that are capable of delivering sustainable services to everyone – government has to take a leadership role, but what does that mean? For starters, it requires a strong apex body to unite actors behind a shared vision, clarify roles and responsibilities, and provide a framework for coordinated action. It requires funding for the change process itself, and to support and build capacity, particularly of local level institutions. All this means political and financial commitment at the highest level – often not easy to ensure with so many competing development priorities. But it’s not enough that sector ministries are enthused – in our experience they generally are. Ministries of finance, and the highest levels of the executive, also need to be on board and willing to support the change process.

Government needs to be willing to look at what’s working and what’s not from the perspective of the sector’s ability to deliver sustainable services, which can feel risky and uncomfortable, and to open that process of critical reflection to other actors. Tools that help guide stakeholders through a structured analysis help – for example, IRC/Triple-S’s principles framework, UNICEF’s bottleneck analysis tool, and WSP’s service delivery assessment. (We’ll be looking further into tools at the WASH Sustainability Forum this summer.)

As we’ve seen in the analysis of 13 rural water sectors, critical building blocks for sustainability such as monitoring, regulation, asset management, post-construction support and financial planning for life-cycle costs are weak points for many WASH sectors. In addition, there are the less tangible building blocks, such as harmonisation and learning, that enable different actors to work together efficiently and to change and adapt to new circumstances and information.

In our work in Ghana and Uganda, we found that learning – which calls for capacities and mechanisms to support knowledge management, critical reflection, and innovation – was one of the most difficult building blocks for people to get their heads around, but it’s arguably one of the most important – not just for the type of shift that we’ve been describing, but for long-term sector health. After all, you don’t just ‘fix’ the sector once and that’s it. It’s an on-going process of adaptation and improvement.

The kind of large-scale transformation we’ve described is not a pipe dream – we’ve written about our own experiences in Ghana and Uganda but these types of processes are happening elsewhere. For example, see Harold’s post on Timor Leste, where the Timor Leste government, with the support of WaterAid Australia and AusAid, is working to overhaul their water sector from top to bottom.

The change process we’ve described in these posts takes money – about one million US dollars per year for the processes we’ve been facilitating in Ghana and Uganda. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Alongside the costs of bringing about change there is the need to meet both investment and recurrent costs; and it is the latter that presents perhaps the greatest challenge as it means money is needed ‘forever’. Ultimately, unless more funding is put into the sector – and in our experience it is public finance that generally meets these indefinite recurrent expenditures – the system will remain broken and dysfunctional.

Donors and IFIs – investing in sustainability          

Development banks, multi-laterals and larger bi-lateral donors are in a prime position to help build sectors that can deliver sustainable services. They operate at scale; have influence with other actors (government, NGOs); and can finance sector change and reform via basket funds or direct sector support.

But this involves a significant shift in approach. Most importantly, it calls for donors and governments to live up to their commitments under the Paris Declaration 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 initiative:

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 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 are financing more than 850 [individual] projects, is an absurd case in point.

Donor agencies have an obligation to tax payers—to show that overseas development aid is being well spent. While the taps and toilets approach is easier to track, easier to sell to the public—ultimately, investing in creating well-functioning sectors is of greater benefit to the citizens of recipient countries and those of donor countries. And it’s worth noting that Sanitation and Water for All is itself a positive development – explicitly targeting ministers of finance and generating their buy-in for the sector.

A number of donors are starting to turn their attention to the sustainability problem and are asking recipients of funding to take a wider view of what it takes to deliver services. DGIS, the Dutch aid agency, has instituted a sustainability clause in an effort to encourage recipients of Dutch funding to ensure that infrastructure will continue to provide an agreed level of service for at least 10 years. Whether the clause will function as intended remains to be seen, but it is a step in the right direction (see Patrick’s blog post).

USAID’s new water strategy also demonstrates a shift in thinking. It explicitly states that USAID will ‘seek investments in longer term monitoring and evaluation of its water activities in order to assess sustainability beyond the typical USAID Program Cycle and to enable reasonable support to issues that arise subsequent to post completion of project implementation’ (see Harold’s blog post).

These positive steps notwithstanding, what we’d like to see from donors is greater willingness to support sector change processes of the sort we’ve described in this series: to invest in policy analysis and development; national level monitoring systems; space for experimentation and learning within programmes. We’d equally like to see them more willing to make strategic investments in some of the recurrent costs required to get services delivered: not as a permanent replacement for government (and users) – but to at least create the necessary space to work out longer term financing mechanisms that have a chance of getting off the ground

NGOs – moving from implementers to catalysts

NGOs can help build government commitment to sustainable services—taking an advocacy role towards both central and local government in pressing for adequate service provision. They can also help hold government to account. Capacity building, facilitation of visioning and learning processes; supporting innovation for new technologies and approaches— are all vital roles that NGOs are well-placed to play in developing WASH sectors that work. And we’ve seen the profound impact of NGOs playing these types of roles – for example WaterAid Australia in Timor Leste, Engineers Without Borders in Malawi, Water For People in Honduras, Plan in El Salvador.

NGOs that are involved in implementing WASH infrastructure projects should, at the very least, ensure they are operating within government norms and standards – and if these don’t exist encourage and support government to create them! But, ultimately, NGOs need to transition out of their implementer role (except in the case of failed states and humanitarian crises). We’re aware that this is not a popular view. But the reality is that NGOs contribute a small fraction of the total investment in WASH services. They frequently have  an outsized and often ‘noisy’ influence in terms of advocacy and visibility – and have contributed to perpetuating the unsustainable cycle typical of WASH projects: installing infrastructure but not building the system of institutions and support needed to keep it running.

We’re not naïve, and we know it’s tough. It’s difficult to get funding for ‘soft’ interventions, particularly with calls for ‘value for money’ in aid investments. And for those organisations dependent on contributions from individuals, happy kids in front of a gleaming new pump is a much easier sell – even if that means, in effect, selling a lie. But as we’ve said, WASH services should be a given not a gift. We need to work towards a climate where all actors understand that, ultimately, it is a government’s responsibility to ensure citizens have clean water and adequate sanitation. Helping does not mean stepping in and doing the job for them – which in effect actually undermines them and perpetuates a sort of ‘learned helplessness’. Rather it means supporting them in getting to the point where they can keep that promise to their people.

The Catch 22 – why nobody can do it alone

For donors to be willing to provide direct support to WASH sectors they want to see governments demonstrating strong leadership behind a concrete plan, but for governments to get to that point requires years of patient support. We are all, to some extent, caught in a web of mutually reinforcing relations and incentives – incentives that are pushing us to do what seems to be the most expedient, but often the wrong thing and that are leading to failure on a massive scale.

It’s this web of interdependence that makes driving sector change so hard. It’s not enough for any one actor to change their way of doing business. For this process to work, to produce the kind of results we’re talking about, everybody has to make changes.

It’s not going to happen overnight. There are thorny realities around interests and incentives that need to be dealt with, and the enormous energy that it takes to shift huge bureaucracies from well-worn paths into uncharted territory has to be acknowledged. But we do see signs of change and we do have a growing number of positive examples. Many are still baby steps at this point, but at least they are moving in the right direction.

About Sarah Carriger

I work with international development and research organizations to put knowledge into the hands of policymakers, practitioners, NGOs, and communities. My job is to help people understand more than just the science, but also how it benefits them—the possibilities it opens up, how it has relevance for their work, and ultimately how it can improve lives. I have served as a strategic communications adviser to over half a dozen international organizations and programs and have worked with individuals and teams of researchers to develop hundreds of communications products over the course of the past 15 years.

4 comments on “Cautiously optimistic

  1. Reblogged this on Rural Water Supply Network and commented:
    More useful analysis from the Triple-S team

  2. Thank you for sharing your vast experience and the opportunity for discussion. Working for an NGO I’d argue provocative and comment on “But, ultimately, NGOs need to transition out of their implementer role (except in the case of failed states and humanitarian crises).”: People not having access to save water and sanitation and dying for that reason is a humanitarian crisis and doesn’t need a failed state. Therefore NGO’s continue to have a vital role to play not only as implementers but in addition need to move towards sustainable service deliverer.
    Your comment “But the reality is that NGOs contribute a small fraction of the total investment in WASH services.” does not speak at all for or against NGO’s. Furthermore with their small fraction in investments NGO’s can NOT be blamed for the vast majority of the often stated 30% to 60% of boreholes not working.
    But who did this big unsustainable investment?? Maybe it can be avoided next time using an NGO or social enterprise or another governmental organisation.

    • Dear Andre. Thanks for your comment – and fair enough point. Thinking about your comment, I’d probably nuance our original point by saying that it is not so much who actually provides the service as the source of finance (and the length of commitment) that is important. There’s no reason at all why (local) NGOs shouldn’t do so. Indeed, when phrased as you do – NGOs, social enterprises or for that matter (local) entrepreneurs are all perfectly capable of providing services.

      But, its also clear to us that International NGOs operating using externally sourced charitable financing should be looking beyond meeting the needs of some community or individuals to a more meaningful transformational role. Perhaps what we should have said was that “INGOs operating using externally sourced charitable finance should transition out of …..”. Why? Because, INGOs that rely on charitable finance for their work simply don’t provide a realistic (or cost effective) solution to service delivery that is either at scale, or sustainable – for the reasons set out in the blog. To be relevant and useful, we believe that they should, therefore, be seeking to define their role in terms of seeking to find solutions that are both scalable and sustainable using locally available resources – and hence seeking to withdraw themselves from direct implementation to encourage other (local) actors to take it up. In the longer term, if Governments (and users) see a role for local NGOs, local entrepreneurs or indeed local governments as service providers – and if they’re clear about how this will be paid for from a combination of users tariffs and direct governmental support (taxes) then great.

      In short, the role of (I)NGOs needs to go beyond solving the immediate problems of one or other individual or community (however laudable) – and seek to trigger transformational change so that all communities are served. Which in a way is simply a re-framing of the traditional aim of most aid of “working ourselves out of a job”.

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