Progressing aid effectiveness in WASH

A running tap at the Nifasha camp for internally displaced persons in North Darfur. There are still 748 million people that lack access to improved drinking water source and 2.5 billion that do not have access to a basic toilet. Photo by: Albert Gonzalez Farran / United Nations / CC BY-NC-ND

As the 2015 deadline for achieving the Millennium Development Goals approaches, the water, sanitation and hygiene sector continues to face serious challenges that are hampering progress.

The world has met the MDG target for drinking water, but 748 million people still lack access to an improved drinking water source and 2.5 billion people are without access to a basic toilet. Sanitation is one of the most off track of all the MDGs, with the percentage of people with access to improved sanitation barely increasing since the MDGs were agreed 15 years ago.

Yet despite these considerable challenges, ambition is increasing. As negotiations for a new set of post-2015 global development goals move forward, there’s growing expectation that universal access to water and sanitation by 2030 will be a key pillar of a new framework to eradicate extreme poverty by the same date. Such international commitment would amount to a historic opportunity.

However, the step change in progress needed to meet this goal would not only require significant increases in sector investment; it would also require a different way of doing business.

Governments, donors, the private sector and civil society will all have a vital role to play in ensuring sector resources are put to good use in strengthening the country processes needed to deliver permanent WASH services that reach everyone. One area of particular importance is the effectiveness of development aid.

Many developing countries remain heavily dependent on donor funds for the delivery of WASH services, and effective aid that enhances the capacity of governments in recipient countries to extend and sustain WASH services is a crucial component of efforts to achieve permanent universal access.

However, evidence suggests that aid to the WASH sector is not currently as effective as it could be. Fragmentation remains a challenge and donor commitment to strengthening national institutions and addressing national priorities is sometimes trumped by a desire to maximize short-term impact. Statistics show that project-type interventions accounted for 88 percent of water supply and sanitation aid in 2012.

There is thus an urgent need for WASH to improve its understanding of how aid can optimize progress and to foster mutual accountability for sector performance.

A new report published last month by WaterAid provides a useful starting point, drawing on previous work both within and beyond the WASH sector. It also looks at how the health and education sectors have tackled the challenge of strengthening mutual accountability for sector performance. It incorporates the findings of case studies in Ethiopia and East Timor, to provide examples of current practices in the WASH sector.

These case studies demonstrate the complexity of development cooperation in the sector. In Ethiopia, the government has launched its One WASH National Program, which envisions that development partners will align around a unified set of country-owned systems. But despite broad commitments from donors, there are concerns that headquarter rules and perceptions of risk will limit how far alignment will be achieved in practice.

In East Timor, there has been important progress in monitoring of sector results through the introduction of the Water and Sanitation Information Systems, but there are still major technical and political challenges to effectively link monitoring to planning and resource allocation processes.

Both countries also face challenges in increasing transparency and strengthening mutual accountability within the sector.

WaterAid’s report aims to support the sector in addressing such issues. It proposes a series of common practice and performance measures that capture the most important facets of effective WASH aid and explores the types of institutional arrangements that could be used to monitor practice in these areas. By doing so, it provides the first step toward a global framework that can introduce greater scrutiny and mutual accountability into development cooperation in the WASH sector.

Over the coming months, WaterAid will be working closely with other members of the Sanitation and Water for All partnership to increase our understanding of current practice in the provision of aid to the WASH sector and to develop a bold road map to make aid to the sector more effective. However, the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation also has an important role to play in ensuring development resources are translated into improvements in sector performance. There is clear evidence that the momentum created by global agreements such as the Paris Declaration and Busan Partnership Agreement (and their associated monitoring processes) is a key factor in driving progress at sector level and improving the effectiveness of development cooperation among WASH sector actors. A globally coordinated dialogue that maintains momentum around these principles is therefore invaluable.

The WASH sector also has much to learn from initiatives to strengthen country processes in other sectors, such as health and education, and much to contribute from its own experiences. The GPEDC can play a unique role in facilitating such dialogue and exchange by doing more to reach out to sector actors and using their experience and expertise to strengthen the partnership’s own work.

Only by ensuring that the WASH sector’s work to strengthen mutual accountability is closely linked with global efforts to improve the effectiveness of development cooperation will we be successful in catalyzing the step change in performance necessary to realize our ambition of sanitation and water for all.

Aug. 18, 2014, marked the 500-day milestone until the target date to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. Join Devex, in partnership with the United Nations Foundation, to raise awareness of the progress made through the MDGs and to rally to continue the momentum. Check out our Storify page and tweet us using #MDGmomentum.

About the author

  • Clare Battle

    Clare Battle is a policy analyst at WaterAid, an international charity that transforms lives by improving access to safe water, hygiene and sanitation. Based in London, Battle leads WaterAid’s efforts to improve aid effectiveness and strengthen country processes in the WASH sector.