Seeing WASH Trends – Thoughts on the IRC 2016-2025 WASH Trend Report
As a WASH researcher who has read more project and program evaluations than I care to admit, I find it to be a rare pleasure to read a broad sector trends analysis document that can see the forest for the trees. The IRC Trends Analysis, 2016-2015 report is such a report. While I do have specific critiques of the report, it does a solid job of outlining major trends that will have major effects on access to water, sanitation, and hygiene services for the under-served world. Briefly noting trends in economic growth and inequality, urbanization, water scarcity, governance, the aid landscape, domestic finance, information and communication technologies (ICT), persisting service and access gaps, and service delivery models, this report both acknowledges progress and future needs. Some of my criticisms are really not criticism of approach per se, but criticism of detail. If anything, I believe that each section warrants its own analysis.
In terms of economic growth, I think it’s critical to develop further an emphasis on economic growth and inequality. Anyone who has ever lived in a developing country city has seen the stark differences between how the middle and upper classes live and how the other half (more than half, really) live. What’s really needed is a discussion that goes beyond country-level statistics and Gini Coefficients and the identification of specific ways in which interventions that build wealth at the lowest rungs of society and reduce inequality can improve access to water, sanitation, and hygiene. Case studies of successful informal settlement upgrading and tenure reform are clearly relevant here. Research papers from Plan International and the World Bank Water and Sanitation Program (WSP) have noted the importance of tenure to sanitation, for example.
Urbanization is a clear trend that this report rightly identifies, as it is a pronounced trend in the poorest countries of the world. While one can debate whether limited funds in a given country should be focused on the areas of lowest access (rural areas, generally) or towards the areas of most rapidly increasing need (urban areas), I think that the linkages between rural and urban areas can provide some insight. For example, one perspective on household income and ability to improve rural household sanitation infrastructure (an idea I heard while doing sanitation sector research at the WSP last year) is the idea of harnessing urban-rural remittances– in the cases where children of existing rural households have moved to the city and can help their parents fund latrines or other sanitary improvements at their rural home.
I found the section of water scarcity to be a bit too simplistic for its usefulness. Water at the scale of agriculture is quite different conceptually from drinking water. The narrative of water scarcity is all too often mischaracterized at the level of most advocacy messaging. The Malthusian notion of not enough water for too many people is misleading when the realities are more driven by inefficiencies, mismanagement, and misallocation. Reliable access to water has more to do with effective utilities, accountable governmental provision, and affordability in public and private supply regimes. Poorly managed water resource management at the national or basin level is another ball of wax.
The section on governance is one that I feel had some thoughts in the correct direction, but would need a whole lot more detail. [I admit to being biased, as I did a PhD on water governance.] I believe that one must start with the notion embedded in most basic conceptualizations of water service delivery models for the poor (the 2004 World Bank World Development Report, for example) that affordability and accountability are central to any discussion of water governance. Simply citing a country-wide Democracy Index or even the more useful Corruptions Perception Index is way too simplistic. I would make the argument that government decentralization and the effective regulation of the private sector are the most effective starting points when discussing what sort of water governance regime exists in a given country. One great recent example of such a discussion is by Johanna Koehler at Oxford.
Additionally, I feel that the topic of information and communication technologies (ICT) can be linked to discussions of both management and governance, as the collection of data on infrastructure is step one. Governments and other actors responding to these identified needs is the second step of any monitoring plan.
I believe that this report did hit the topics of aid effectiveness and utility finances pretty well. The authors rightly pointed to an overall them of short-term goals and programming that often resulted in a lack of long term effectiveness. Poor tariff collection and the difficulty to finance rural WASH initiatives are perennial challenges as well.
In summary, I find these sorts of trend analysis exercise to be useful. I would love to see broad lessons in both individual program evaluations and sector analyses acted upon, but these are challenges of a much greater scale.