Water and sanitation: An opportunity for donors

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

This article is part of our special report Water Policy.

Europe, the US and other donors have an opportunity to be a more catalytic part of the solution to global water and sanitation needs by strengthening the capacity of developing countries to solve these challenges themselves, writes John Oldfield. 

John Oldfield is chief executive of WASH Advocates, a non-profit advocacy group in Washington, DC, dedicated to helping solve the global safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) challenge.

"This world has never been richer, smarter, or more abundant than it is in 2012. Yet there are currently almost one billion people without access to safe drinking water, and 2.6 billion people without a safe place to go to the bathroom.

Hundreds of millions of women around the world continue to be used as water infrastructure, and millions of children under the age of five die from preventable waterborne diseases each year.

So why does this fundamental global safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) challenge continue to exist, when we have known how to solve this problem since at least Roman times?

There are many answers to that question. The most intriguing to me is when people respond: “The problem is not solved because of a lack of political will.” Once that statement is made, the conversation typically dies, because most people look at politics and elected officials as part of the problem, not part of the solution.

While I do not deny that politics may be problematic in some instances (in particular as my own country, the United States, dives into its next far-too-lengthy presidential election cycle), politics and political leaders are the solution to solving the world’s drinking water and sanitation challenge.

At a recent dinner with four other non-profit leaders and the former prime minister of a sub-Saharan African country, I asked the prime minister: “What made it possible for you to strengthen policies and increase your national budget for safe drinking water, sanitation and basic public health while you were in office?” He told me that to do so he needed two very simple things:

  • He needed to hear about the problem from his own people.
  • He needed to see how the problem is solvable.

For the remainder of that dinner I pondered our education and advocacy work at WASH Advocates in Washington, DC, and the complementary efforts we seek to support in developing countries. I concluded that although no two advocacy efforts are ever precisely the same at a working level, they are essentially all the same philosophically.

How can we all make it possible for each government around the world to prioritise safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene? As the prime minister said, we in civil society have to let our governments know this is an important issue for us – their constituents – and that the challenge is solvable. Taking it one step further, we also have to show our governments how we are already solving the problem, and ask them to support and complement our efforts with stronger policies and increased budgets.

This approach has proven successful around the world and across the ages. Franklin Roosevelt was president of the United States in the 1930s and 1940s. In the 1930s, during the Great Depression, progressive leaders came to President Roosevelt and asked for various concessions, including new pro-worker policies as part of his efforts to turn the economy around. President Roosevelt was quite progressive and pro-union, and said: “I want to do what you are asking me to do, but I can’t do it politically yet. I need you to go out there and make it possible for me to enact those policies.”

So the union leaders did just that:  In 1937 there were thousands of labour actions whose impact on the economy made it possible for President Roosevelt to enact those policies.

We do not need to strike for WASH. We simply need to make political support for WASH possible by being stronger educators about both the gravity of the challenge and its solvability. There is no politician anywhere in the world who does not want to provide his or her people with 100% access to safe drinking water and sanitation. However, many cannot yet make the political commitment to universal coverage – the risk is too high because WASH competes with so many other important development priorities (roads, schools, hospitals, jobs).

The job of civil society in the developed and developing world is to convince governments that what was once unavoidable (millions of deaths due to waterborne disease) is now unacceptable. That simple equation will provide those elected officials with the political cover they need to do what they already want to do.

The international donor community has an opportunity to be a more catalytic part of the solution than in the past. Certainly donors (in Europe, the United States and beyond) still need to continue funding safe drinking water and sanitation programs around the world. However, government and private donors also need to increase their financial and technical support for initiatives that will strengthen the capacity of developing countries to solve the water and sanitation challenges themselves.

Leading up to World Water Day (22 March), there are many ongoing efforts which deserve a closer look: strengthening community water board associations in Latin America, building the capacity of national and sub-national civil society WASH networks in Africa, partnering early and directly with mayors in developing countries instead of just inviting them to ribbon-cutting ceremonies, and bringing creative and leveraged business and financial approaches into the water and sanitation sector.

Perhaps one of the most worthwhile political efforts is the Sanitation and Water for All Partnership and its Liberia Compact recently signed by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

The end goal of many of these emerging political efforts is to make it unacceptable for senior political leaders throughout the developing world to commit to anything less than universal coverage of water and sanitation for their constituents. It is a worthy goal and warrants the increased support of the international donor community."

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