Last week, a number of Agenda for Change members that are working on WASH systems strengthening in countries in Latin America came together for a learning and sharing event. A key point of discussion in that event was the importance of political leadership at local level, but also the systemic changes needed to be less dependent on such leadership, so as to make sustainable WASH services delivery more fool-proof.
Published on: 10/04/2019
The Agenda for Change (A4C) learning and event brought together senior programme staff from some 7 A4C member organisations, and a number of other like-minded organisations, from across the continent: Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil. Participants shared examples and case studies from across the countries on how they had supported the strengthening of local (i.e. municipal) WASH systems. Some highlights included:
Local political leadership was in most of these cases a key reason for success. Mayors were committed to improving WASH services provision in their municipalities. In addition, they were then willing to prioritise investing in that, not only in investing in the hardware, but also in the necessary municipal systems, such as having municipal WASH offices, WASH budgets and monitoring systems. The funding of these systems to a large extent comes out of the municipal coffers so are a good sign of real commitment to WASH service delivery.
The importance of political leadership is consistent with the literature on systems change, with the discussions at the recent All systems go! symposium, and with the collaborative behaviours of SWA.
During the learning and sharing event, we also took at critical look at this local political leadership. The flip-side of local political leadership is that such leadership can also easily go away, and is inherently unscalable. When a new mayor or municipal council is elected, they may prioritise other development needs. And it is impossible to think of countries, in which all 200, 300 or even 1000 mayors or councils give political priority to WASH.
It raised the question on how do we make sure that the commitment to WASH depends less on whoever is elected as mayor or councillor, on whatever his or her political priorities. In other words, how do we make the commitment to WASH more fool-proof.
The event showed that the answer to this lies in the details of the frameworks of the fiscal decentralisation. Examples include:
These and other mechanisms incentivise or even oblige mayors to give the due (relative) priority to WASH. This of course doesn't mean that it is a guarantee for success. Mayors may still then invest all the WASH money in infrastructure and not in sustainability. And the quality of planning and monitoring documents may still be weak. But they are important steps on the way towards stronger WASH systems.
In countries where these kinds of frameworks are present, there has been strong national technical and political leadership for WASH, and stronger support to decentralisation frameworks in general. So at this level political leadership does matter a lot.
These reflections have a number of implications for Agenda for Change partners:
Surely, this is not an easy approach to be taken, and rarely one that a single approach can take on. The Agenda for Change partners therefore also highlight the importance of alliances, partnerships or collaborations. Only through collective action by a range of organisations with different skills and expertise can one work on the many fronts that systems change requires.
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