Building Poltical Will for Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene

Building Political Will for Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH)

There is quite a bit going on in the world of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) right now.  Not only did World Water Day recently highlight the importance of managing and recycling wastewater, two big things happened in the area of political will.  One, the 2017 GLAAS (UN-Water Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-Water ) report highlighted the fact that although funding is increasing in the sector, 80% of countries report inadequate funding for the sector.  Two, the Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) High Level Meetings (HLM) of ministers recently met to discuss how to build solid WASH sectors, with effective institutions, capacity, planning, policy, and financing.

In terms of institutions and capacity, I would urge anyone to read the recent IDS Bulletin on decentralization and service delivery.  While discussions of service delivery governance can get quite academic, there are numerous articles in here that speak to practical, concrete issues that face institutions that facilitate WASH service delivery.  Specifically, I would suggest reading the two papers on metropolitan and municipal district authorities (MMDAs) in Ghana- one on taxation and clientelism and the other on staff quality.

Finances, as you might expect, are just as critical as strong institutions.  When I speak of finance, I am talking about more than just donor and government funding, including the taxes and tariffs that support effective operation and maintenance of WASH facilities.  There are countless examples of failure in the sector due to lack of cost recovery (feel free to ask me, and I could send you dozens of examples).

While there is always talk of the separate worlds of academics and NGOs (and I learned this all too well during my PhD thesis on urban water governance)  effective discussions of and improvements in institutions and finance are what is needed right now.  In a recent article at WRI’s City Fix blog, I make the argument that accountability and affordability are the main drivers of access.  Simply put, poor people in Africa and Asia often do not have access to water or sanitation services because they are either too poor to afford the service or the government does not provide (using tax revenues).  Water, for example, is neither equally distributed across the earth nor is drinking water handed out to people.  It should be thought of as a service, rather than a good in most cases.  What is needed are more serious political economy analyses of water and sanitation that bridge the gap between academics and the policy crowd (here is a good example).

call from Matt Damon for more funding in the sector is helpful, in that a celebrity is able to reach a wide, global and general audience.  Nevertheless, banging one’s fist on the table and saying what should be done is not enough without an understanding the systems of institutions and finance that drive change.









Hear No Evil: Not Listening to Stakeholder Feedback Stakeholder, accountability, governance, transparency, learning from failure

Hear No Evil: Not Listening to Stakeholder Feedback

Recently I read a few articles that made me feel quite disheartened about the willingness of NGOs to design, develop, and evaluate projects based on stakeholder needs.  I want to believe that these are exceptions to the rule, rather than being common, but they are worth mentioning either way.

At the World Bank ‘Development Impact’ blog, one blog post that is part of Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel’s “Learning From Failure” series noted the unwillingness of NGOs to participate in an SMS-based stakeholder study by IPA and Global Giving in Guatemala, Peru, and Ecuador.  More than half of the ‘treatment’ sample – 13 out of 18 NGOs in a total sample of 36 organizations refused to participate in the study.

Main reasons for not participating included

1) a belief that the work was too sensitive.

2) the study would take too much time from the NGO.

3) some feedback might jeopardize donor funding.

The first reason is understandable and the second is arguably so as well, but the third is all too depressing.  Until and unless development projects learn to accept failure and learn from it, projects will never improve.  


Another blog post that I read recently was an article in The Conversation that described a sanitation project in Laos in which failure to listen to stakeholder needs resulted in continued open defecation and the use of the newly-built latrine to store rice!

Again, I am not naive enough to think that this is the only failed project or that it will be the only project to fail.  I just think that these examples serve as reminders that beneficiaries and their needs have to be part of project design.


I am not here to bash NGOs and CBOs.  I am just citing these examples as reminder to be circumspect about what is done in the name of development.  Additionally, it is worth noting that I could just as easily come up with examples of how local, district, or central government is neglecting its citizens  OR how the private sector, for various reasons, is not functioning well and thus neglecting potential customers in the context of service delivery.


Past project successes and failures, along with contextual information on a development sector’s enabling environment, are just part of the overall puzzle that should be analyzed before projects are designed or money is spent.  I’ve done this sort of analysis in the WASH sector, and I believe in its value.  If you do as well, and have any particular needs in this regard, feel free to send me a note.


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.  



water, sanitation, hygiene, WASH, USAID

#WhatWouldMagufuliDo : Does Social Media Give Voice to Tanzanians?

After being sworn in as President of Tanzania in November 2015, President John Magufuli directed funds that would have gone to celebratory events towards efforts to battle a cholera outbreak.  Furthermore , he urged citizens across the country to make efforts to clean up their cities and towns and even banned government offices from giving Christmas cards at the taxpayers’ expense.

All of this thrifty behavior didn’t just gain plaudits but also earned him a meme on the internet:


This resulted in a rash of hilarious photos across the internet. These are some of my favorites:

























As someone who has known Tanzania reasonably well for the past twenty plus years, from my semester in Arusha with School for International Training to my extensive field research in access to water in Dar es Salaam while based at King’s College London to my recent work on rural sanitation with the World Bank Water and Sanitation Program, I am trying to put all of this in context.  This is a country where the urban private sector has been marginalized by the “Weka Jiji Safi” (Keep the City Clean), electricity outages and associated cholera outbreaks have occurred in the slums of Dar es Salaam, and the Tanzanian Parliament was dissolved in response to the Richmond Electricity scandal.

Don’t get me wrong- Tanzania is not the most corrupt country in the world.  Heck, some say that Kenya is jealous.

The main question I would like to ask is

Has social media played a positive part in improving the Tanzanian democracy and has this improved water, sanitation, health, or electricity service delivery?”

I am going to share this with as many Tanzanians as possible, because I would love to hear thoughts on this.

Asante sana.