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The Ides of March


The Ides of March has come and gone, with the promise – not a prophecy – of ‘water and sanitation for all’, at least partially fulfilled. But, I argue, the Roman reference is still relevant for this World Water Day, as we look to the role of politics and relations of power in determining levels of access to sanitation and water.

Headlines this month included the announcement by the World Health Organisation-UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme that the international target to halve the number of people who do not have access to safe drinking water has been met, five years before the 2015 deadline. It is one of the first MDG goals to be met. This achievement is rightly celebrated, while acknowledging ongoing challenges related to the sustainability, quality, and reliability of services from improved water sources.

However, as headlined in the report, there are massive disparities in achievements between the sub-sectors (access to sanitation versus water supply), and levels of access between and within countries. In contrast to water, the target for sanitation is one of the MDGs most off-track, not predicted to be reached until 2026. In contrast to the achievements of China and India in increasing access to water supply, some countries, with many in Sub-Saharan Africa, are actually falling back to pre-1990 rates of coverage.

Efforts to uncover the reasons behind the disparities in access between and within countries, as well as the progress on water versus sanitation, has already led to a greater emphasis on governance, and awareness of the political constraints and opportunities that contribute to achieving developmental outcomes. The international community increasingly recognises that the governance and institutional arrangements of a sector and the incentives generated by such arrangements – in short, the political economy of water and sanitation service delivery – have a critical impact on how, or whether, services are delivered. The Department for International Development (DFID), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the World Bank, the Water and Sanitation Program (WSP), as well as, increasingly, iNGOs, are trying to understand and design programmes aligned with the politics of service delivery .

The challenge now is to move beyond academic analysis, to institutionalise within development partner agencies the practices and resourcing that allow us to identify and design ‘best fit’ interventions within specific country contexts, enabling us to work with the prevailing set of incentives and institutions in place towards feasible solutions. Successfully managing the politics of the sector is not achieved by the application of ‘best practice’ models of the kind displayed at last  week’s World Water Forum, but it is achieved by taking local political realities as a starting point for the design and implementation of sector support strategies.

A recent project by ODI’s Water Policy and Politics and Governance Programme has worked with DFID Water supply, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Advisors to do just this. Research on rural sanitation in Vietnam, and urban water supply in Sierra Leone, were conducted with DFID-country offices to think through the implications of a problem-driven political economy analysis approach for addressing specific challenges for improving access to water and sanitation in each country.

The results of these case studies have highlighted that while governance challenges in the sector are similar across various country contexts, the solutions are not. Commonly accepted best-practice models must be analysed for how they do, or do not, fit within the existing country context, and the existing institutional structure, politics, and incentives that guide behaviour of institutions and actors. Innovative approaches to improving access to rural sanitation (such as CLTS) relying on civil society organisations to generate demand are difficult to scale up beyond pilot projects in Vietnam, where the only institution ‘at scale’ is the Government and they lack sufficient incentives to take the ‘risk’ of moving away from traditional models of top down, subsidy-driven sanitation programmes. Recommendations for DFID-Vietnam on how best to work within this context included: supporting ongoing policy reforms enabling budget allocation to demand generation activities, ways to minimise political risk for sanitation planners and generate incentives for local government, and how to take advantage of democratic centralism ns in Vietnam to speed up adoption of innovative approaches.

In Freetown, Sierra Leone, which the JMP report uses to illustrate stark variations in levels of access between urban and rural areas, political economy analysis of the urban water-pricing regime identified potential ways forward to seemingly intractable technical, socio-political challenges – such as widespread non-payment for urban water services in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Research  highlighted the need to work with allies outside the sector (PFM) to get large government users to pay bills, as well as practical considerations for demarcating user groups, coordinating community-level interventions by iNGOs, and engaging with informal actors who have the ability to enforce sanctions for non-payment.

Political economy analysis is increasingly being used to help to identify context specific ways forward to unlock the common challenges impeding greater access to services
. The end goal of achieving access to clean water supply and sustainable sanitation is still what we all must strive towards, but getting there will require tailored approaches for each – and especially the most challenging – countries. While today’s release of the DFID WASH sector portfolio review has already raised calls for more spending on this sector, we also need to continue to work in ways that deliver the most impact in challenging political contexts, and more money does not guarantee better results.