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.
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