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Hitting the right note – the DGIS sustainability clause IS complex – but that’s no excuse for being timid

Published on: 31/08/2012

It’s always difficult call these things, but I think (and hope) that the last couple of weeks may, in retrospect, come to be seen as a watershed on the long and painful road to achieving universal access to water and sanitation services worthy of the name.

The potential game changer is the decision of the Dutch government and its development agency, DGIS, to start requiring recipients of finance for WASH service provision to explicitly commit to service delivery: at an agreed level over an agreed time-frame (10 years) - something that they are calling a sustainability clause.

As colleague Carmen da Silva wrote in her recent blog, even the possibility of a sustainability clause has been stirring things up in the last couple of months - within my own organization IRC as much as within the wider WASH community.  Which, given the often semi-comatose state of our sector is, of itself, a good thing.  But now it’s official.  DGIS’s Dick van Ginhoven spoke several times during the Stockholm water week to confirm that the Dutch government is committed to some sort of clause.  And that whoever wants to access the 100 million Euros or so of potential Dutch new funding is going to have to give some sort of assurance that not only will they use it to help provide shiny new infrastructure – but that the shiny new infrastructure will provide an agreed minimum level of service for at least ten years. So, a clause accompanied by a large carrot – one that will put wind into the sails of movements like Everyone Forever that are already explicitly committing to long-term service delivery. Various colleagues have said that this looks a blunt tool for what we all know is a highly complex problem.  And yet, complex systems theory tells us that sometimes only a blunt tool (or a large perturbation) is capable of breaking open a system – pushing it from an existing to a new equilibrium.  And rural WASH is badly in need of a new equilibrium.  How else can we explain a situation where so many of us have been talking about sustainability for so long – and where we still have so little evidence of progress – and so much evidence of the opposite.  These two slides from a presentation by my colleague Marieke Adank are based on work from Ghana and are illustrative: >30% of surveyed infrastructure not functional, and as little as 2% providing the basic level of service for which it is intended).

Marieke’s presentation drew rave review from attendees at Water for People’s exciting ‘Judge us by our outcomes’ session during World Water Week.  You can see the whole presentation here and we’ll very shortly releasing a series of fact sheets based on the data presented- which I’ll blog on at the time.

The sector is locked into a pattern of behavior that leads to the wrong outcomes. It is driven in this by, among other things, policies that focus on counting the number of people newly served – like the original DGIS commitment to provide 50 million previously unserved people with access to WASH services.  Not in itself a bad thing of course – as the achievement of the water MDG confirms - but one with the unintended (emergent) consequence of overemphasizing new construction at the expense of ongoing service delivery. DGIS proposed sustainability clause seeks to redress this situation by putting the focus of their grantmaking squarely where it should be: on delivering WASH services over time.

Of course there is no way of knowing exactly how this will work out in future. The clause is a blunt instrument – policy at this level invariably is.  There are layers of detail that need to be worked out, and of course, there are attendant risks.  However, in a sector that is still – in many countries – massively aid dependent it seems a stretch to suggest, as some have, that placing a measure of outcome accountability on implementers will fundamentally undermine the compact between government and citizen (a compact currently honoured largely in the breach).  Put another way – what is the underlying logic that says that relying on grants for capital investment promotes aid effectiveness, while relying on them for operational expenditure or capital maintenance does not?

For me – and it is a personal opinion – the news that DGIS intends to implement some sort of clause is a champagne moment.  Not because I’m unaware of the risks but because, finally, someone has had the courage to accept that water and sanitation are services, that it is the quality (or level) of the service over time that is important, and that to achieve a service you have to spend your money on more than just new infrastructure.

Perhaps most exciting given this – more champagne! – is that DGIS is also aware that this isn’t a cheap option.  As van Ginhoven said at IRC last week  “the argument that this will be more expensive is the wrong argument, we prefer to put more money up front than to continually invest in rehabilitating failed infrastructure”.  DGIS know that they are setting the bar high, and they are prepared to put their money where their mouth is.

All attendant risks to one side this brave experiment will mean that, if nothing else, in ten years’ time we will have clear evidence at scale of what it costs to provide a basic level of WASH service to the poor: in fact as opposed to community management fantasy.  Whether we – or national governments - will then feel that the cost is justified is another question.

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