Monday, August 9, 2010

Toward universal coverage of water and sanitation - a proposal

A few early Monday morning thoughts:

Given 1: Most (70%) of the political, financial, and technical resources that have gone, are going, and will go to the global safe drinking water and sanitation (WASH) sector come from a combination of public sector finance in developing countries and loans from global and regional development banks. In most cases this balance is heavily weighted toward developing countries’ own budgets. Only 10-12% of WASH resources come from the international donor community.

Given 2: That is a good thing.

Given 3: The international donor community, including bilaterals, private foundations, corporate philanthropies, civic and faith groups, and well-meaning citizens from all over the world, has a choice. It can position its limited resources as a cherry on top of what developing countries are doing: “Hey – let’s poke some holes in the ground – everyone likes water!” Or it can position its resources as a catalyst, a driver, a primer, standing on the shoulders of what developing countries are already doing: “Hey – let’s build on what the government of X (fill in the blank with a developing country of your choosing) is already doing, and let’s figure out a way to complement that commitment rather than muddy up the water with tactical, short-term projects.”

Given 4: I recommend the ‘catalyst’ approach.

So now that I have given away the punch line, how does the world get there? How can the international donor community best catalyze, best complement, best ‘stay out of the way’ in many instances? How can we instead offer political and financial support to the work prioritized, underway and supported by developing country governments while encouraging them to do more?

To be able to more highly prioritize water, sanitation, public health, and other basic development challenges in budgets, political leaders in developing countries need two things:

- they need to hear about these challenges from their people, and
- they need to understand how they can solve these challenges.

If served up, that combo platter will lower the risk that a senior political leader (Head of State, Head of Government, Finance Minister, Governor, Mayor) takes when she makes political and budgetary commitments to these challenges, but might not see the rewards of such investments within her electoral cycle.

The international donor community can help deliver those messages in a number of ways by continuing to prioritize safe water and sanitation in its development assistance and philanthropy.

But the most important way to deliver the messages to politicians in each country of the importance and the solvability of this challenge is to equip indigenous organizations in each of those countries to do just that. Strong advocacy and lobbying organizations are needed in each developing country to lower the risk for political leaders.

I am not suggesting a global WASH advocacy campaign, regardless of how important those are and the gains many (WSSCC, EWP, FAN, ONE, Avaaz) are making. I am not even suggesting a regional advocacy campaign, although there are a number of those and they are also making gains. I am suggesting one nitty gritty, indigenous, in-the-trenches advocacy campaign in each developing country supported financially and technically by savvy international donors.

What do I mean by “in-the-trenches”? I mean that no one outside of that particular country (Guatemala, India, Sierra Leone, etc.) will hear of these groups or their messages. The only persons that need to hear from these indigenous groups are those who need to - their own political leaders at different levels.

What do I mean by “indigenous”? The leaders, operation, approach, and the legislative asks will be customized country by country, province by province, municipality by municipality. The asks will be for more funds, for better and more open governance, fewer un- or under-funded federal mandates, for more sustainable programming, for water and sanitation to be included as constitutional rights, for more wastewater treatment plants to be built, to provide rural communities with safe water, and so on – all to be determined locally.

A lot of this is underway currently, but no one says the current state of affairs is sufficient either quantitatively or qualitatively.

This is not revolutionary. This sort of approach has been pursued in many countries on behalf of many development challenges. It is an incremental approach, building on the broad shoulders of many other individuals and organizations. It still might fail (in fact can almost be assured to fail in many instances), but this is the approach most likely to sustainably move the needle from 1b people without safe water and 2.6b without sanitation and hygiene down to zero. It is the approach most likely to get the mortality toll from fatal waterborne diarrheal disease down to zero. It is the most difficult sort of development assistance work out there, but if we in the international donor community are serious about two things – scale, and decentralized ownership leading to true sustainability – we have to take indigenous advocacy seriously. It’s a painstaking, laborious “short cut” to the end game. It is also one of the most effective ways to increase the quantity, quality, and complementarity of WASH funding coming from the international donor community.

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