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Is money the root of some evil?

Published on: 09/05/2016

Investigating whether donor restrictions affect the sustainability of water and sanitation interventions.

By Susan Davis, Improve International

Governments, civil society, and others have been addressing water issues for decades, building many water points. 

This is good news!  Unfortunately, many people who thought they had improved water access don’t know it will come every day, and they don’t know whether it is safe.  This is bad news! We don’t know exactly how many lose the service all together, but national mapping and monitoring indicates the percentages are still unacceptably high.

The failure smoothie:Why do water point fail?

For years, Improve International has been examining how many water points fail and why water points fail.  It turns out there are a lot of reasons, including: inappropriate or bad technology, poor management, not enough funds for maintenance, poor implementation, poor support by local government, or most likely, some complex blend of all of these – ingredients and amounts unknown.  But we haven't looked rigorously at how things are funded, which perhaps dictates the recipe.

WASH development organization friends, this might sound familiar.  When you get two or more of us in a room, and no donors are present, we complain about donors.  A common complaint is: “If only they would fund more overhead, or more monitoring, or more capacity building, or more XYZ, then we could do better programming.” But many organizations find it difficult to justify how or why funding should be better structured.

So it was wonderful news when the WASH Sustainability Charter was developed.  It put us all on the same level.  It was endorsed by more than 100 organizations in 2011, including some donor organizations.  Five years since the WASH Charter came out seemed a good time to look at whether it made a difference in sustainability of water services. Because there was no global baseline of water point functionality (and still isn’t), we decided to start by seeking the perceptions of people who work for WASH development organizations.  We wanted to find out more about what’s really going on with donor restrictions and sustainability, and then share anonymous results with the donors, so that no organization feels that its funding is at risk.

During August-September 2015, Improve International distributed an online survey to organizations that raise funds from US-based donors to implement or fund water, sanitation, and hygiene interventions. The 40 qualified respondents were diverse geographically, in mission, and in size. More details about the questions, respondents, and responses are provided in the pilot survey report.

The two most commonly reported restrictions were that donors’ measurements of success are primarily number of water points, toilets, or number of direct beneficiaries (74%) and donors do not provide funding for long-term post-project monitoring (63%).  Most respondents replied that the following donor restrictions seriously or somewhat hindered sustainability of water and sanitation services (see chart): lack of funding for long-term monitoring, limited funding for overhead, limited time frame, and an arbitrary cost per person or push for lowest cost per person.  One respondent commented that after 20 years of implementing water and sanitation projects in Central America that “it is very apparent that the main reason for failure of these projects in the long term” is the lack of funding for training and a maintenance program.

 Which Donors restrictions affect sustainability? [Source: Improve International]

Which donor restrictions affect sustainability? (Source: Improve International)

67% responded that sustainability would improve if grants were awarded in line with the WASH Sustainability Charter. Two respondents commented that their work is already in line with the Charter; one respondent commented that funding in line with the Charter would improve sustainability of WASH programs because it addresses often neglected topics such as development of good strategies; improving governance and accountability structures in institutions and communities; financial management support; reporting; knowledge management; and service delivery support to current systems. But another respondent commented “The charter has great goals; [but I’m] not sure if implementing partners are able to meet all items.” Another agreed: “It can't do harm, but it won't bring huge changes either.”

Perhaps the Charter is outdated; as a colleague at IRC said, the Charter is about the sustainability of a handpump rather than the sustainability of national systems (see the Agenda for Change).  Because a lot of US donors and development organizations are still focused on building or servicing water points, rather than supporting system change, we feel this research could be useful to help change the conversation.

What’s next?

We have partnered with a graduate student at the University of Washington to conduct additional research.  Further investigation includes the following areas:

  • Interviewing donors to identify their perceptions of restrictions associated with funds to WASH NGOs, and whether these have impacted sustainability of interventions. 
  • Can we link evidence of post-implementation success or challenges to donor restrictions?
  • Determining organizations’ opinions of an ideal program time frame.
  • Are there connections between the size/income of WASH organizations and how influenced they are by donor restrictions?

We should have more to share later this summer.  In the long term, we are thinking about redistributing the online survey annually to WASH NGOs to see whether things are changing over time.  If you‘re interested in participating, or have comments on our research, please contact us.


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