How relevant is water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) governance to the real world?

I’ve often found that the term ‘WASH governance’ is perceived by others as being out of touch, overly academic, and just not relevant to the real world water, sanitation, and hygiene interventions. Although I am admittedly biased because I finished extensive doctoral research and fieldwork in the topic more than a decade ago, I’ve often argued that it is quite relevant, and can easily be boiled down to understandable and actionable concepts such as affordability and accountability. In my decade plus of experience in sector research and knowledge management and proposal writing, I’ve become even more convinced that WASH project failure will persist and possibly worsen unless the systems that determine the public administrative capacity, the enabling environment for the private sector, the management models of the water and sanitation systems and markets, and the economic growth that supports household economic wherewithal are healthy and functional. Thankfully, over the past few years, donors and non-profits have aligned much of their programming towards a ‘systems approach’, which essentially acknowledges the critical nature of the enabling environment in which water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) service delivery occurs. USAID’s Sustainable Water Systems (SWS) and IRC’s “WASH Systems Building Blocks” are great examples of this.

What does this mean in terms of design and implementation for a typical 5-year project? Fundamentally, this often means that a large proportion of effort and funding should be spent on improving the institutions, planning, regulation, and private sector enabling environment in the host country. Additionally, fundamental rethinking of the management models of current and future water and sanitation infrastructure is often also required. In a context of limited funding, there certainly is a tension between using time, funds, and efforts into capacity building and systems improvement and providing new hardware, but sacrificing systemic improvements all but condemns most hardware-centered interventions to failure in the long term.

Most proposal development efforts start with basic questions such as:

Which donors and NGOs are doing what in this country?

I would argue that a WASH sector proposal writer must also ask the following questions:

What has been done and why have certain things failed?

What can be done differently to avoid repeating failure?

In most cases, you find that there are fundamental and systemic reasons behind failure. It could be anything from a lack of an economically viable management model for certain scales of water systems or persistent problems that sanitation sector entrepreneurs are having in building their businesses. Whatever the case may be, those problems will persist until and unless they are addressed.

Are you looking to put together a winning water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) proposal? Feel free to send me a note.

The Coronavirus brings Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) and Economic Challenges to Informal Settlements

informal settlement, slum, WASH, water, sanitation, coronavirus
Informal settlement in Buguruni Ward, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

With over 1.7 million cases and more than 100,000 deaths to date, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is a major global challenge. On top of this, It has battered economies and put particular pressure on already precarious household economies. In short, the coronavirus is exacting a physical (health) and economic toll across the globe.

While there is plenty of reporting on the health and economic effects in Asia, Europe, and North America, there needs to be more about the effects of the pandemic throughout Africa, particularly major cities in sub-Saharan Africa. Especially vulnerable geographies in these cities are the informal urban settlements. These are often characterized by high population densities, lack of infrastructure, and low levels of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) access.

Thinking about these issues through a lens of vulnerability and resilience can be useful. Before the pandemic, large swathes of the households in these areas were already economically vulnerable and possessing varying degrees of access to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services. When the starting point can be roughly described as ‘poor, crowded, and lacking water and sanitation‘, the coronavirus is likely hitting these sorts of communities very hard. The ability to the spread of the virus is hampered by all of these characteristics. There is a great article on these very challenges in Lagos at The Conversation. As has been also noted elsewhere, it is hard to socially distance, wash your hands, or quarantine and forego your entire income.

What can be done? WSUP gives a useful overview on how to reduce the spread of the virus and minimize the impact. Much of it is intuitive– there should be emergency water and handwashing facilities, increased hygiene promotion work, and of course, personal protective equipment for local health facilities. It will take a whole lot more than the nuts and bolts of water, soap, and health facilities/equipment, of course. It will take political will and coordination at all levels of government to improve situations in both the short and long terms.

Lastly, I would argue, governments should consider providing some emergency and temporary basic economic support to these communities in the form of cash aid. While I am well aware of how poor many of these countries are, one can only imagine the health benefits of enabling some of one’s most vulnerable citizens.

The coronavirus will no doubt be a major setback, and, for at least the short term, it effectively turns WASH efforts from development WASH into emergency WASH. Nevertheless, this situation should be used to strengthen and improve WASH access and livelihoods in informal settlements so they will be a bit more ready when the next health challenge arises.

Why Do Water Sector Public-Private Participation Projects (PPPs) Fail?

I found a recent paper from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology that I believe is excellent primer on water sector Public-Private Participation (PPPs).  Although there are many types of PPP, it is sometime challenging to find papers on this topic that are not ideologically biased for or against private sector participation in the water sector. I’ve always believed that water PPP debates are really missing the point.

This report reviews 16 PPPs over the past 25 plus years and lists the following main reasons for failure:

  • Rising Tariffs
  • Lack of Bill Payment/Collection
  • Insufficient Public Sector Capacity
  • Private Sector Technical Capacity Gaps
  • Macroeconomic Instability
  • Exchange Rate Instability
  • Public-Private Sector Conflict
  • Social or Political Opposition to PPPs.
  • Lack of Transparency
  • PPP Legislation or Enabling Environment Issues

I’ve researched many PPP successes and failures (including doctoral-level study on the water utility in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania), and found this report to have fair and reasonable characterizations.  I’ve found that affordability of connections and water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector enabling environments to play a large part in the failure of water sector PPPs.

What are your thoughts on this?

water, sanitation, hygiene, WASH, USAID

Vacuuming Out Market Imperfections in Sanitation: Breaking up the ‘Poop Cartel’

I write about governance of and corruption in the water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector all the time (here and elsewhere).  In its most simplest sense, governance is the context in which service delivery occurs, and includes the power and agency of public and private institutions and individuals. We’ve all heard of corrupt government institutions and large-scale private sector and how that can affect service provision, but what about the role of the small-scale private sector?

NPR’s ‘Planet Money’ podcast documented an excellent example of collusion/price fixing among the sanitation entrepreneurs in Dakar, Senegal.  This ‘Poop Cartel’ colluded to keep the price of their service- the removal of septage by large vacuum trucks- high, simply by refusing to compete on price with each other. When households could not afford this price, they were essentially forced to pay for a cheaper and less sanitary alternative- paying someone to manually shovel out their septic tanks and illegally dump the waste in pockets in road.  Ultimately, Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) helped devised a cellphone-based system to directly connect customers with the sanitation entrepreneurs, resulting in competition and lower prices.

Market imperfections and imperfect government accountability situations exist everywhere.  This context is what shapes existing water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) service delivery.  It can have major effects on the success and failure of projects.

Do you have a story of WASH sector corruption?

Have some particular aspects of the service delivery governance context affected the success of your project?

I’ve developed proposals to take WASH sector governance contexts into account, researched and written about this, designed and and I’ve seen first-hand many successes and failures.

I would love to help you win a proposal, evaluate a recent project, or help you advertise your successful project.

Contact me and let me know what you need.

resilience

What is resilience and why does it matter?

The concept of resilience seems to be quite a popular lens of analysis in the development world right now.  Projects in all sorts of sector, from climate change and water security to disaster programming.

Knowing what the term means is critical to effectively designing the programs and winning the bids from donors and foundations.  Resilient City.org  has a great set of definitions to help zero in on the meaning.  Borrowing from the Wikipedia definition, one can see the physical manifestation of resilience:

“Resilience is the property of a material to absorb energy when it is deformed elastically and then, upon unloading to have this energy recovered.”

Much like a spring, resilience is the ability to bounce back after an impact.

Combining notions of physical, ecological, social and economic resilience, Resilient City.org  states the following:

“A Resilient City is one that has developed capacities to help absorb future shocks and stresses to its social, economic, and technical systems and infrastructures so as to still be able to maintain essentially the same functions, structures, systems, and identity.”

At the heart of resilience is absorptive and adaptive capacity of household and community livelihoods.  One very useful livelihood framework is DFID’s, which maps out the human, natural, financial, social, and physical capital that exists and puts these assets in context of the institutional processes, the vulnerability context, and the livelihood strategies (see below).

One can go into much more detail in terms of various ways of measuring the resilience itself, as ODI does in this recent publication, but the take-home lesson for now is that resilience (or vulnerability) is shaped by livelihood capacities to ‘weather the storm’ and/or adapt to external shocks – and still bounce back.

As you might imagine, this framework of analysis is highly relevant to emergency relief in flood or other disaster situations, where households suffer physical, financial, and other losses.  It is also very useful, and often employed, in the context of climate change, as the abilities of households and communities to prevent, mitigate, and adapt to both incremental effects of climatic changes and the increased severity of weather events.  Issues of food security also lend themselves very well to this lens of dealing with external shocks.  Lastly, urban management concerns, from flooding, water supply planning and sanitation to the health impacts thereof, often speak of the importance of building resilience.

Are you working with donors who emphasize the importance of resilience?  I would love to hear from you about how you are translating this theory to actionable interventions.

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.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Dar es Salaam, Africa, Urban Planning,

Urban Planning and Density in African Cities

I recently read an interesting paper from the World Bank on the shape of African cities.  As I have lived in Dar es Salaam and I am currently staying in Accra, I’d like to think that I have a practical viewpoint to add to a discussion of the urban planning issues.

The research paper looks at spatial data  from Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Kigali, Dar es Salaam, and Dakar and puts it in context with similarly-sized developed country cities (Paris, New York City, Barcelona, etc).  Through a lens of population density  and land use patterns, the paper aims to make general conclusions about challenges for transportation planning in these cities.

The most interesting pieces of data were the the population density figures.  Overall density for nearly all of these African cities was at or around 50 people per hectare, while Barcelona and Paris had population densities of 150 and 200 people per hectare, respectively.    Taking  a more nuanced look at density, graphs were made of density at different distances from the central business district (CBD).  Nearly every African city studied had high population densities closest to the CBD that tailed off in a downward sloping curve.   Paris, Barcelona, London, etc all had much more smoothly/slowly tailing off population densities from the center of the city outwards.  Additionally, the African city density figures in first three to five kilometers from the CBD were nearly double that of the non-African cities.

The lesson here is that, while overall population densities were greater in the non-African cities, the African cities had the greatest densities closest to the city center.

One of the main reasons for this study was not just to understand urban density, but to also get a better sense of what all of this means for urban planning and transportation.  This is where living in an African city comes in handy when thinking about these things.

After years of living in Dar es Salaam and now Accra, I am comfortable making some common general assertions about transportation in a mega African city.  (Please do not be offended by my bluntness in these statements, as they are just general, reasonable assertions.)

  • Main roads are generally paved, secondary roads are compacted dust roads.
  • All roads are riddled with potholes of astounding sizes, often with open sewer channels alongside them.
  • Sidewalks don’t exist.  Everyone who walks, walks around the side edge of each road and cars and pedestrians are constantly in negotiation (with cars winning, of course!)
  • There is an astounding level of economic inequality and segregation of neighborhoods in many African cities.
  • The well-off drive in Range Rovers/Land Cruisers and have few transportation problems (outside of traffic), while just about everyone else walks and takes minibuses (dala dalas, tro tros, etc).

In this context, I imagine that you can see the scale of the problem.

One excellent solution that has been tried in Dar es Salaam, has been a major bus rapid transit (BRT) project.  The jury is still out in terms of effectiveness, but, having lived in the city I would say that it is starting to make some real positive change.  In particular, many of the stops are in the nearby and far flung informal settlements.  I await this evaluation of it.

What are your thoughts?  Have you lived in an African city?  

How do you think knowledge of the nuances of urban population density and land use can affect transportation and city planning in cities like these?       

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.