By John Garrett
Goal 6 of the UN Global Goals on Sustainable Development promises to deliver access to water and sanitation to everyone, everywhere, by 2030.
This is no small task. More than 650 million people are currently without access to basic water provision, and almost two and a half billion people are still denied their human right to sanitation. Whilst progress has been made on access to safe drinking water under the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the target to reach 77% of the global population with sanitation facilities was missed by a margin of almost 700 million people.
Given the needs that remain with the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector, it’s unthinkable that the funding already available might not be used efficiently or as scheduled. Alarmingly, however, this is the reality in many countries. There is often a significant gap between the commitments and disbursements of funding and when the money can actually be spent.
As we begin this new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the aid community has fewer tasks more urgent and important than eliminating the barriers that prevent the effective and timely use of resources.
What we have found is that some of the most important solutions lie in each nation’s own workforce. WaterAid’s recent report, “Releasing the Flow,” based on research by Development Finance International, identifies the need for people power to ensure that water and sanitation programmes are established, managed, monitored and sustained.
There simply aren’t enough skilled staff, even in countries like Ethiopia, Rwanda and South Africa, which are doing a comparatively good job of using all resources available. Ethiopia and South Africa, for example, achieved the MDG water target, and Rwanda is internationally recognised for the progress it has made in increasing sanitation coverage.
Developing countries need staff with the technical skills to organise procurement and tenders, appraise bids from private companies and manage contracts. Qualified engineers are needed both for implementing plans and managing operations, as are water scientists, technicians, plant operators and health inspectors. Shortages in any of these areas make it hard for countries to make timely use of the resources available to them.
Imagine a small business that is, out of the blue, handed a massive order with a huge sum of money to pay for it. It may be a life-changing opportunity for the business owners and the community in which they work; in fact, the activity may be critical to the community’s economic well-being, but finding skilled workers, a bigger workspace and the necessary equipment takes time. Add to that a tight deadline and onerous rules for obtaining materials – and no support for future salaries for these employees – and it’s clear how that business might struggle to absorb the order.
It’s the same in the WASH sector. Decentralising WASH services can be an effective way to better deliver them. However, if governments decentralise too fast, or if they do not also decentralise the necessary budgets, it substantially adds to the pressure on local staff and their ability to run an efficient and dynamic service.
There is also the question of recurrent budgets for wages, salaries and operational activities. We found significant staff shortages in our studies in Ethiopia and Uganda, particularly in rural areas, because recurrent budgets are too low. In South Africa, the number of engineers per 100,000 people has dropped from twenty in 1994 to three today. If donors and creditors in aid-dependent countries provide their finance almost entirely as capital, without enough thought as to how these projects can be sustained in the long term, they exacerbate the problem.
Finally, we found an issue in coordination when national governments are working with multiple donors. Differences in fiscal years or in the process of disbursement and procurement create confusion. In Ethiopia, for example, the World Bank, the Department for International Development, the African Development Bank and UNICEF all used to channel their funds through separate streams, each with their own strict requirements for procurement and reporting.
Relatively recently, though, Ethiopia adopted a sector-wide approach, which has reduced the bureaucratic burden by pooling funds and harmonising reporting requirements – allowing for accountability while reducing the paperwork. This has led to improved performance in absorbing external funding, making an important contribution to the progress made in increasing access to water and sanitation. Most other countries in the region have not yet been able to follow suit, however, generally as a result of lower capacity or priority.
The Sanitation and Water for All Partnership, a global partnership of governments, donors and civil society, has identified four ways in which developing countries and donors can improve how they work together, in order to strengthen the effectiveness of aid for WASH programs. These are: (i) enhancing government leadership, which is vital to achieving clear direction and focus; (ii) strengthening and using in-country systems and therefore reducing transaction costs and unnecessary red tape; (iii) creating one platform for information and accountabilities, reducing duplication, improving understanding of the many activities underway and establishing accountability both from donor and recipient governments; and (iv) building sustainable strategies for financing, which allow for recurrent costs as well as capital costs, and support the provision of services that last.
The clock is already ticking on the 2030 Agenda for development. We have 15 years to reach everyone, everywhere, with water, sanitation and hygiene. As a sector, we need to make the most of every penny to ensure that goal is met.
Featured image shows a woman collecting drinking water from a public tap in India. Photo from Rajesh Kumar Singh/Associated Press (nytimes.com).
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