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

Corruption in the Water Sector: Do ‘Water Mafias’ exist?

Given the Hollywood treatment through the movie Chinatownwe see the California ‘water wars’ in action.  Conflicts between private landowners, municipalities, etc. exist to some extent or another, as does the general issue of sectoral (urban, agricultural, industrial) use and allocation.  While, there are varied perspectives on how this issue plays out (“whiskey is for drinking. water is for fighting over” ? ) on the large integrated water resource management (IWRM) level (‘Big Water’) [and I often defer to those with IWRM expertise, to people such as David Zetland at Aguanomics or one of my PhD supervisors (2008 Stockholm Water Prize Winner) Dr. Tony Allan],  this post focuses on what I like to call ‘Small Water’, or water at the level of the provision of and access to water.

At the level of household drinking water, water can perhaps be considered a (continuous, flowing) service if it is delivered though a utility service connection, but the reality for many in developing countries is water purchased in discrete units.  Many of us have seen the ubiquitous 20 liter jerry cans in which water is sold and re-sold in urban areas.

Since water is therefore a product, rather than a service, it is not unreasonable to look at corruption in water as a market imperfection and/or something that happens as a result of poor market regulation.  Water mafias have been documented in Nairobi, Delhi, Karachi, and many other places.  Water mafias aim to collude, control markets, restrict supply, and keep shortages high.

I will always think back to this failed water supply initiative in the Kibera informal settlements of Nairobi as a classic case of the water mafia.

“The attitude and behaviour of city godfathers [emphasis mine] was considered by many to be the greatest hindrance to private sector participation in Kibera. It has been difficult to pass decisions aimed at improving distribution networks, billing, metering and putting together a coherent and sustainable system involving the various interested parties. In addition to this, it is known that City Council workers collude with unscrupulous persons to frustrate officially recognised connections…

In Kibera, there are power structures within the community that benefit from the opportunities for rent-seeking associated with the existing water supply system [emphasis mine] . There are vested interests within the local administration, to some extent embodied in the positions of the village elders. Political parties have also contributed to the form of the current water system, and people’s positions on water issues are influenced by party affiliations….

water sellers in the settlement are often linked to these power
structures [emphasis mine]…

Since water vendors and kiosk owners are private enterprises, it can be said that there is private sector participation. However, the relationship between these private enterprises and local officials is not the kind of public-private partnership envisaged by proponents of private sector participation [emphasis mine]…

Viewed as a whole, the project did not work. The objectives of the project have clearly not been met. There has been virtually no improvement in distribution, and water prices have not fallen. What remains is a sense of failure and frustration that may well undermine future initiatives.[emphasis mine]…

It might have been better if the project had never been started. [emphasis mine]”

What does this mean in terms of practical purposes for any new water supply initiative?  The complete terrain of formal and informal participants in the supply, management, and distribution of water must be known and the government must be doing something to address any theft, control, or collusion. The Water Integrity Network (WIN) is a great resource for further reading in this area.

water, sanitation, hygiene, WASH, USAID

Sanitation and Hygiene Institutional Policies in Africa: Review of SEI Report on Rwanda, Uganda, and Tanzania

Rather than stay up at the 10,000 foot level of analysis of some of my previous posts, today I’d like to focus down on a recent report from the Stockholm Environment Institute that highlights some major concerns that exist in terms of the enabling environment in Rwanda, Uganda, and Tanzania for investments in sanitation and hygiene.

The report assesses enabling environments in each of these three countries in terms of institutional roles and responsibilities, legal frameworks, effective targeting of populations in need, service levels, environmental and health issues, and in terms of finances.

Institutional commonalities of all countries surveyed in this report include a general tendency towards centralized/ministerial policy development with limited local capacity.  Horizontal coordination across ministries was noted as a concern in all three countries, as there sometimes were confused roles and responsibilities.  Vertical coordination down to the local/community level was also identified as an issue.  There were some bright spots in the report, as institutional strengthening, decentralization, and a general movement towards community level ownership and operation.  Furthermore, each of the three countries have made recent moves to clarify policy through Sector Wide Approaches, or SWAps.

Perhaps the most salient point in the whole report was the recognition that in all three countries there was no clear separation between service delivery and the regulation, monitoring, & evaluation.  This is of critical concern, as the presence of separate regulatory bodies can, at least in theory, hold feet to the fire, so to speak.

On a related note, there was a noted disconnect in all three countries between stated targeting at the policy level and actual budget allocation.   The identified a lack of legal framework specifically focused on sanitation and hygiene in all surveyed countries muddies the waters further.

Lastly, the report correctly notes that technical specifications were often identified, without a particular focus on functionality or effectiveness.

While I have not worked in all three of these countries, much of this is quite consistent with what I learned while reviewing sanitation and hygiene policy in Tanzania last year with the World Bank Water and Sanitation Program (WSP)’s Scaling up Rural Sanitation initiative.   There, I saw a country that is making strides in terms of clarifying roles horizontally and moving towards decentralized responsibilities.

Reports like this that focus on the enabling environment in water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) are critical to the effectiveness any and all sector programming.  Global efforts that help countries improve sector coordination and implementation, such as the Sanitation and Water for All program, the Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-water (GLAAS)  program, and the Tracking Financing to Drinking-water, Sanitation and Hygiene (TrackFin) initiative, are critical pieces of WASH sector policy effectiveness.

water, sanitation, hygiene, WASH, USAID

What is ‘Water Governance’ …and Why Does it Matter?

I tend to think about the concept of water governance quite often… in fact, I did a whole PhD on the topic. To me, it makes a lot of sense and, at least at the 10,000-foot level of analysis, can explain why some have access to water, others don’t, and why this matters to the challenge of increasing access to water, sanitation… or any other good or service, really.

In general, I like to think of water governance as being the political and institutional framework that essentially defines access. At the most basic level, ask yourself, “how do I access water?” For most of us, we access it as a service in our houses and buy it as a product in discrete units (gallons)… and even, tangentially, embedded in the food that we buy. For residents of countries with non-existent, barely or non-functional infrastructure, access to water is a high stakes game. It is arguably a function of affordability and accountability—either they can purchase whatever they need and/or they can nudge their governments to provide it as a service.

What governance looks like can vary greatly, and changes over time. One can find examples of water governance everywhere in history, from the dirgiste or top-down ‘hydraulic states’ that Wittfogel spoke of, where the ministers and presidents decide all (peasants be damned!), to the intermixed central government, local government, and private interests and conflicts in the American west (Cadillac Desert has great stories about this), or even the local-level dysfunction that I documented during my graduate work.

Does any of these mean anything beyond academic posturing? I’d like to think so. I often point to the 2004 World Bank World Development Report ‘Making Services Work for the Poor’ and the work of the Water Integrity Network. These sources provide numerous examples of how the water governance and the overall enabling environment can have a major effect on project effectiveness.
IIED has one excellent example from way back in 2002 that shows how entrenched interests sunk a project.

Actually, here’s an easier suggestion– just think about all the lack of accountability that has happened with the Flint water crisis…or watch the movie “Chinatown” if you want to think about water governance.

Water governance is too big of a concept to cover in one blog post, and I’d appreciate your thoughts on any of this.

water, sanitation, hygiene, WASH, USAID

“They come with their pens, but they don’t bring us water”

“They come with their pens, but they don’t bring us water”

Wazungu wote wanakuja na kalamu zao, lakini hawana kutuletea maji.”

Nearly a decade ago I was walking out of an informal settlement in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania with a research assistant and overheard someone behind us say this.

Everyone is still trying to figure out water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) project sustainability

Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about aid effectiveness in the water sector.  Failure rates are often quite high, and, although the numbers are wide-ranging, the statistics are shocking. For example, RWSN data shows handpump failure at 10-67%.  Improve International has even more depressing statistics.

When I try to wrap my head around a problem, I try to conceptualize what the factors are.  Surely, one has to consider ecology, hydrology, engineering, economics, institutions, etc.  As a lowly WASH consultant, I’m well-aware that I am certainly not the only one trying to think about this. Water and Improve International have developed a really useful set of criteria for project sustainability.  USAID and Rotary International have their own sustainability assessment tool as well.  Also, IRC is constantly featuring these concerns in its WASH blogs. I’m particularly fond of the Water Services That Last blog.

On top of this, every year, for example, the World Bank pulls in experts from all over the world for conferences in WASH Sustainability for the purpose of sharing and advancing best practices.

We’re constantly going back to the drawing board.

Trends, frameworks, and themes in international development change more often than fashion and hemlines.Development professionals much, much more established than I have been struggling with this for decades.  More importantly, those who live this reality day in/day out truly struggle with this.

There’s an urgency to get this right.  It’s in this spirit that I hope to bring a more effective pen to this issue.