A 2-way street: The Water for the World Act and modernizing foreign assistance

Women fill their jerrycans with water in Ethiopia. The passage of the Water for the World Act by the U.S. Congress in late 2014 is the first step toward a significant positive impact on water, sanitation and hygiene programs in the developing world. Photo by: USAID / CC BY-NC

In the final days of the 113th U.S. Congress in late 2014, the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act passed without objection and President Barack Obama signed it into law.

A strong partnership between the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Department of State, and civil society helped moved the process along. The new law reinforces the Water for the Poor Act of 2005 signed into law by then-President George W. Bush and highlights the importance that the U.S. Congress places on safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The bill's strong, bipartisan support and the increasing appropriations level are the first steps. Far more important are the meaningful implementation of the law and how the law will contribute to more effective assistance across the development spectrum.

The Water for the World Act echoes and strengthens ongoing efforts on the Hill and within the administration to increase both the accountability and country or local ownership of foreign assistance efforts.

For example, Section 5 of the law — on promoting the maximum impact and long-term sustainability of USAID safe water, sanitation, and hygiene-related projects and programs — mandates that USAID focus its efforts in countries where the need for WASH is greatest, and where “the [local] government’s capacity and commitment to developing the indigenous capacity to provide safe water and sanitation without the assistance of outside donors” is high. Thus both the need for WASH and the necessity to not create any further dependencies on the international community now dictate current and future USAID WASH programming.

As importantly, monitoring and evaluation of the law’s implementation will focus both on technical WASH improvements and on the degree to which programs strengthen the “indigenous capacity of the host nation or community” and “identify and empower local individuals or institutions to be responsible for  … effective management and maintenance.”

As a sign of growing interest in more integrated development assistance, outcomes of programs implemented under this law are to be measured first in WASH terms, and also by how those programs contribute to related development challenges including opportunities for women and primary or secondary education. The law also calls for a single, governmentwide global water strategy that is likely to increase the efficacy and reach of its programs and ensure that additional U.S. government agencies and their partners contribute meaningfully. It also cements leadership positions at both USAID and the Department of State, ensuring that WASH will remain a priority of U.S. development assistance across administrations, and that development assistance decision-making will be more stable and consistent.

The Water for the World Act’s passage is also contributing to related conversations along the entirety of Pennsylvania Avenue.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee recently adopted an amendment to the Global Food Security Act positioning WASH as a key component of efforts to combat malnutrition. The forthcoming Neglected Tropical Diseases Act may also include language positioning WASH as part of an integrated approach to both controlling and preventing these diseases.

Efforts by both legislators and the administration to prevent or at least mitigate the severity of the next Ebola or cholera outbreak will likely include more integrated approaches to public health, for example an emphasis on WASH — including simple hand-washing with soap — as a preventive measure.

Water and sanitation are fundamental, “lateral” development opportunities. Successful WASH programs make progress toward other important development objectives more successful initially, and more sustainable over the long run, whether combating undernutrition, improving HIV and AIDS treatment, preventing neglected tropical diseases, or strengthening health and WASH systems to prevent the next outbreak of cholera or Ebola.

The passage of the Water for the World Act in late 2014 is simply the first step toward the significant positive impact the law will have not just on WASH across the developing world, but on related and complementary development assistance efforts on the Hill and within the administration. The law clearly learns from, builds on and points toward stronger efforts to increase the effectiveness of U.S. foreign assistance across the globe.

Devex, in partnership with the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network, is exploring the progress and potential of making U.S. foreign assistance more effective. To explore additional content, visit the Reform for Results website and tweet #Reform4Results.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • John Oldfield

    John Oldfield leads the efforts of WASH Advocates to increase awareness of the global WASH challenge and solutions, and to increase the amount and effectiveness of resources devoted to those solutions throughout the developing world. He believes strongly that the global safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene crisis is more solvable than it is difficult.