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Piped networks, pit latrines, and the politics of access to water supply and sanitation services: what role for political analysis in the current sector toolkits for the drive to 2015?

Written by Daniel Harris

By Michelle Kooy and Dan Harris

Do current water supply and sanitation sector interventions designed for the ‘drive to 2015’ take into account the ways in which politics matter in achieving the Millennium Development Goals for access to safe drinking water and sustainable sanitation? Is political analysis still a missing component to be integrated with sanitation planning processes and toolkits? And, crucially, if the need to achieve scale in ensuring access mandates ‘no more pilot projects’ and requires government partnership in sector programmes, what are the tools available to unpack the concept of ‘enabling environment’ and ‘generating political will’?

These were some of the questions discussed in the recent Stockholm International Water Week (SWW) seminar, ‘Understanding the context: operationalising political economy analysis to improve WASH outcomes’. Advocates of the use of political economy analysis (PEA) in designing water supply and sanitation interventions – including the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP), the World Bank, and ourselves from ODI – were brought together by DFID to present case studies from Vietnam, Indonesia, and Africa, to review methodologies and tools available for WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) sector level PEA, and to identify the ways in which this has mattered in achieving development outcomes within the sector for the countries in question.

Whilst there was broad agreement that ‘politics matter’ and that an understanding of the political economy context (from the specifics of a well-defined operational problem to relevant factors at the sector, national and even international levels) should inform programme design, a number of practical questions remain. At least two sets of such questions arise as we consider how PEA should be rationalised in the current climate of international development, where quantifiable results and impact are increasingly required to justify programme spending:

  1. First, how can we increase the ‘operational relevance’ of applied PEA? That is, how do we move from analysis to action? Proponents of PEA need to be better able to demonstrate how findings can clearly inform programming decisions and provide specific advice on how to use windows of opportunity, or overcome development challenges. As we argue in our recent working paper – and as suggested by experiences in the case studies noted above – we are beginning to be able to answer this question as we learn more about how to focus the research on specific bottlenecks, when to carry out or commission a political economy study, and what outputs might be expected.
  2. Second, participants at the seminar noted that we do not yet have the answers to important questions of how to identify, document and disseminate the evidence of the impact of the use of PEA. This discussion tapped into a key operational challenge faced by many who understand the utility of PEA and seek to use it (along with subsequent recommendations) in their programming planning and design. How can development programmes, either from donors, NGOs or others, rationalise the professional and financial resources required to incorporate this into current activities? Similarly, how can donors and/or other actors rationalise employing the crucial staff required to facilitate networks and relationships within countries to develop the necessary knowledge around formal and informal rules of the game? ‘Fixers’, as commonly known, are crucial to understanding the context, but are also the most difficult to rationalise in a human resource review.

As practitioners, we know intuitively that achieving value for money and maximising returns on official development assistance (ODA) require a careful analysis of risk and that PEA can help with this task. We know that overly-technocratic approaches can miss important opportunities and that PEA can suggest non-obvious options for reform. We also know that improving WASH outcomes at scale often depends on leveraging country resources (like in Indonesia) and/or identifying institutional blockages preventing investment of available sector resources in the recommended programmatic approaches (as in sanitation in Vietnam) and that here too PEA can help.

Yet PEA is neither taps nor toilets, nor a panacea for how to overcome all political challenges. Without tools to measure the effectiveness of PEA, and without explicit attempts to do so (while overcoming the challenge of political sensitivities which may limit the dissemination of some PEA insights), how can we confirm and demonstrate this utility?

The case studies presented at SWW are a start. They demonstrate that, if grounded within country office programmes and informed by the tacit knowledge of in-country staff, PEA can provide the insights and knowledge required to ’poke and partner’ in a way that achieves tangible results in enabling more access to water and sanitation services. However more is needed.