water, cities, political economy, governance, access to water

Apples and Oranges: Acknowledging Intra-Urban Complexity of Access to Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH)

I recently read an excellent paper on comparisons of infrastructure within cities (as opposed to the more frequent between/among city comparisons that are made in both the academic literature and the policy world.  As someone who appreciates water policy discussions at the intersection of academia and the real world, this was an enjoyable read.

In this paper, Colin McFarlane, Jonathan Silver & Yaffa Truelove discuss some of the factors within Delhi, Cape Town, and Mumbai that drive access to infrastructure services.  Many of these factors come as no surprise to a human geographer- political connections, gender, religion, ethnicity, class, and income.  Inequality of access within a city is certainly what I saw in my doctoral research in Dar es Salaam. In fact, I have seen situations in my hometown of Everett, Massachusetts (Greater Boston) where the ability of local businesses to contest chronically overcharging of water and sewer bills is dependent upon favoritism and access to the right people in the city public works department.

So, what are the implications for the real world?  

I believe that water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) professionals should look to this “radical shift”  that was recently highlighted on the World Bank’s Water Blog that calls for the policy world to think about WASH within the context of urban governance and city-level service provision, address issues of accountability and transparency, improve supply chains, train city leaders, and provide clear roles and responsibility.  

This is, of course, not an easy endeavor, not only due to weaknesses in the factors above, but also since city-level leaders in many countries still operate in a very centralized power structure in which ministry/cabinet-level decisions dominate.  What I see, therefore is a disconnect- between the need for local accountability and transparency in service delivery and the decentralized and empowered municipal governments who would be able to do this.


I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences on this.




WASH Decentralization, water , governance

Is Decentralization the Solution to Accountability and Improved WASH Services?

I have written posts about failed water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) governance, but in order to be more constructive one must go beyond what does not work and try to learn about what does.  In this post, I would like to talk about decentralization- both fiscal and administrative, cite a few examples of how this process has helped or hindered improved access to WASH services.

It may be a reasonable premise- in the WASH sector, and in any service delivery regime generally, that the closer the decision makers are (government or private sector) to households, the better the chance of accountable, representative, or transparent decisions are made.  It’s not that simple, however, as a recent OECD paper suggests:

“Theory suggests that local governments’ proximity to citizens gives the latter
more influence over local officials, promotes productive competition among
local governments, and alleviates corruption through improved transparency
and accountability relative to more centralised systems. At the same time,
decentralisation can generate negative effects if local political dynamics
undermine accountability or local governments have inadequate capacity
or face weak incentives to act as the theory predicts. “

In addition to the questions of accountability, the clarity of roles and responsibilities, levels of capacity at all levels, coordination, and the role of politics come in to play when discussing potential effectiveness of any WASH sector decentralization efforts.

Essential roles can include everything from being the institution with statutory authority for service provision (water supply, water quality regulation, etc), having the financial resources to carry out management activities, being the strategic and/or policy body with decision making powers, or a whole host of other relevant tasks.  Capacity development is also highly relevant at all levels of management, from the national/ministerial level, all the way down to the local level.  Coordination- before , during, and after decentralization processes- is also critical.  Specifically, there needs to be horizontal coordination across ministries or national-level agencies, vertically (in up and down directions)  through governmental institutions.  Also, locally, private / public sector and household market and non-market interactions are additional sources of chaos. Lastly, one cannot ignore the role of politics- strategic political choices and political will, generally.

I’ve just discussed much of this conceptually, but, what about examples of where decentralization worked/ did not work?

Porto Alegre is the classic case of participatory budgeting, which is based on the simple concepts of accountability and transparency in decision making processes. At a national level, however, blanket decentralization is not that simple.  For example, recent reports in Indonesia show that uneven local level capacities have hindered decentralizing efforts towards SDG goals.   Additionally, a recent study of decentralized governance efforts in Sri Lanka faced challenges of local government corruption and mistrust.

…And do we know why?

These examples and their contexts are too few to draw any blanket conclusions, because individual situations and context matter.

Understanding the ins and outs of service delivery institutions where WASH projects are undertaken is critical to the success of each and every project in that context.

Compounding this with an inadequate assessment of recent and preceding projects can significantly reduce the chance that the next WASH project succeeds and sustains.

I have experience providing WASH sector assessments.  I would love the opportunity to help you make your next project more successful.  Contact me if I can be of assistance.