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Published on: 11/09/2019

Asutifi north launch district master plan

Ghana, Asutifi North. Launch district WASH master plan. Photo: IRC, 2019

With the Sustainable Development Goals providing the vision, and the Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) and GLAAS reports as a basis for monitoring progress, two key elements are in place for effective global collective action on water, sanitation and hygiene.   

Fresh back from this year’s World Water Week I’m still processing what I saw and heard. As usual, Stockholm was a confusing and sometimes overwhelming rush of meetings, presentations, receptions and workshops. There is probably no better place to take the pulse of our sector. 

A helicopter view of sector progress

From IRC’s focus on driving the systems agenda, I was particularly excited by the excellent presentation of this year’s Joint Monitoring Programme at UNICEF’s annual breakfast. With the inclusion of different levels of service and a wealth of new analysis focusing on equity of access the report provides a truly rich picture of where we are and the challenges that still face us. Another highlight was the launch of the 2018/2019 GLAAS report and while I missed the actual launch presentation, I was happy to help baptise this year’s GLAAS report at a nice WHO reception! 

Taken together, these documents show how the sector as a collective is moving forward. Both are really excellent pieces of work and the teams that put them together are to be wholeheartedly commended. Read them together and you have a real ability to look across the entirety of water, sanitation and hygiene – the entire global system – and see what’s working, what’s not, and where. The mix of hard focus on results – the service levels of the JMP – with the softer ones of behaviour and system performance in GLAAS provide a helicopter view of sector progress and, essentially, the basis for a shared language to describe what we’re seeing. 

With GLAAS reporting that more than 80% of countries have national implementation plans, and that the majority also have shared monitoring systems and review processes to assess progress, it is clear that two of the crucial building blocks for effective collective action – a shared vision and monitoring systems – are largely in place. So, in the biggest of big pictures, I came away from Stockholm feeling broadly positive. As the GLAAS reports says, the language and concepts of systems (and the need to strengthen them) are gaining currency among all the different constituencies that make up our sector, which itself is an essential first step if we’re to make progress towards our shared goals.

Of course, there are plenty of reasons to see the GLAAS as being half empty. While countries have national visions and plans, far fewer have identified the human resources necessary to deliver these (only around 50%) and less than 15% of countries feel that they have actually identified the human or financial resources necessary to implement their plans. A gap between policy (or planning) and reality has long bedevilled water, sanitation and hygiene – and going on this evidence, it’s a problem that isn’t going away any time soon.

Inequality is a choice

Going back to the JMP report, the graph below summarises the half-full/half-empty perspective well. Indeed, I think this is a powerful visualisation that while talking to water is equally illustrative of the raging global argument about equality and growth more generally: it shows simply and clearly that it is, indeed, possible that wealth can increase and with it the lives of many individuals, and that inequality can increase at the same time. Conversely, it also shows that rising growth does not have to be linked to rising inequality: that there is a choice to be made.   

In the case that it illustrates, of access to water, it shows how countries can increase coverage whilst also increasing inequality (upper left quadrant); or, through the right policy choices, increase coverage and reduce inequality. It helps to identify those countries that seem to be hitting the sweet spot, those in the upper right hand quadrant, while suggesting that with changes in policy those in the upper left could also make rapid progress. Yet it also shows that, for some countries (those in the lower quadrants) far more radical action is needed.

Inequalities in the sector for basic water 2000-17: Gap between richest and poorest quintile

Figure - Inequalities in the sector for basic water 2000-17: Gap between richest and poorest quintile, SWA

In: SWA, 2019. Financing inequalities in the WASH sector: Why is it critical?  Original source:

Wrapping up, and returning to GLAAS, the report shows that nearly 80% of countries are making progress towards some form of national monitoring of targets, and that close to 70% have some form of joint sector review.  This is where IRC and many of our partners (particularly in Sanitation and Water for All and the Agenda for Change) have work to do: supporting these national (and in our case district level) processes of target setting, monitoring and reflection; and linking these to the identification of the financial resources and human capacity required. 

There is no doubt that there remain huge hurdles to surmount. The lack of capacity, finance and often just fundamental clarity about who should do what, are all barriers to achieving our goals. Yet the longest journey starts with the first step, and without a clear idea of where we are now, and where it is we want to get to, it is impossible even to start. The rapidly deepening understanding of both of these aspects that JMP, GLAAS, and the national planning and monitoring processes that they mirror, are that first step – the GLAAS is indeed half-full.  What is now needed is an urgent effort to step up national leadership, to address the areas of unclarity and contradiction; to identify and agree appropriate models for service provision; and to build the capacity of those who should provide the services (public, private, community). In a word systems strengthening so that the sector becomes more attractive to finance, and that when the finance becomes available, the sector is able to use it effectively.


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