British Lords blast Commission over water aid to Africa

Drought-stricken Africans. [Stuart Price/United Nations]

A House of Lords committee has sent a scathing letter to the European Commission, accusing it of "culpable waste" in its water and sanitation projects in sub-Saharan Africa.

The letter from Lord Boswell, chairman of the EU select committee, drew on a report from the European Court of Auditors (ECA) that found serious flaws in the delivery of EU aid to this sector: fewer than half of projects met beneficiaries' needs and most of the projects were not sustainable in the medium or long term.

"We agree with the parliamentary under-secretary of state, Lynne Featherstone, MP, that there has been 'culpable waste' in this field," said the letter. "Cumulative EU funding to this sector globally exceeded €1 billion from 2007-13, but in sub-Saharan Africa it has not demonstrated value for money."

The committee expressed disappointment with the commission's reaction to the ECA report and said it was not convinced the auditors' criticisms were being tackled sufficiently. "We fear the inability to deliver effectively in sub-Saharan Africa risks bringing the EU's development assistance as a whole into disrepute," the letter said.

The committee expressed its frustration with what it said was the commission's reluctance to engage with its inquiry, particularly from senior commission officials.

"We fear the commission's attitude is a reflection of the importance it attaches to the subject. It appears to us that this issue has slipped off the political radar and neither the member states nor the commission are taking an effective co-ordinating role of oversight and strategic direction over WASH [water, sanitation and hygiene] policy," the committee said in its letter addressed to Andris Piebalgs, the European development commissioner.

Better ties with NGOs

The committee urged the commission to engage with local communities by building better partnerships with NGOs, noting that a stumbling block to this is EU processes that favour large organisations, according to the committee.

One solution is for larger NGOs to partner with smaller ones, said the letter, but according to WaterAid, "it can take up to two weeks of our country staffs' time to just develop a proposal to submit to them and then there is a whole raft of reporting requirements that go on top of that". The letter pointed out that when the commission followed a community-led total sanitation participatory approach with a project in northern Nigeria, it proved very successful.

The committee expressed concern with the ECA's conclusion that most WASH projects were financially unsustainable. An EU Commission spokesman had admitted to the committee that a "basic understanding as to how projects would be financed" was not ensured from the outset and that the issue had not been "addressed with the seriousness one might have expected".

The European Commission said it was not true to say the EU had been unable to deliver effectively in this region. "Since 2004, EU support has resulted in more than 68 million people gaining access to improved water supply (of which 39 million [are] in sub-Saharan Africa) and 23 million people to improved sanitation (16 million in sub-Saharan Africa)," it said.

"However, we realise that there is always room for improvement, and it is important to underline that the EU is doing all it can to take on board the House of Lord's criticisms and make sure our work in water and sanitation does even more to reach those who need it most."

The commission added that it had decided to revise its internal and external monitoring systems to better track its work and to ensure its effectiveness.

Combined donations from EU states and the European Commission make Europe the world’s largest aid donor, according to OECD data. The EU provided nearly one-third of the global assistance for water and sanitation in 2010.

But the European Court of Auditors, in a September 2012 report, questioned the viability of EU-funded water and sanitation projects in six African nations, citing poor long-term financial and technical support.

The report by the Luxembourg-based auditors showed that four of 23 projects investigated generated enough revenue from tariffs to cover operating costs, while three others were funded with government aid. For the rest, the auditors said, there were “no formal commitments” to support infrastructure once the EU-funded portion of the projects were completed.

Though limited to aid programmes in six countries, the audit implies that similar problems are likely to exist in other nations receiving EU help.

  • 22 March 2014: World Water Day

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