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Published on: 16/07/2014

Of course the corollary to public finance is government leadership. Without one the other won’t come. Indeed, budget is perhaps the single best indicator of government leadership! Full disclosure here, I am a social democrat and I am informed by a social democratic vision of the world I want to live in. What I mean by this is that I am motivated by a vision of the role that the state should play in smoothing the inevitable inequities of the market – while clearly understanding the role of the market in creating wealth. In a word, I believe in the legitimacy of strong government: not necessarily big government, certainly effective and efficient government, but nevertheless strong government. I believe that nowhere in the world have poverty or inequality been effectively tackled without government.

One non sector example: a recent report from the US Commonwealth Fund highlighted the huge lead in cost and effectiveness of outcome that the UK’s (government provided) national health system has over competitors – particularly over the USA’s hugely expensive market-based alternative. 

There’s a lesson here: universal provision of anything – roads; health care; education and yes, WASH – cannot come from the private sector alone. It requires active, empowered government providing an enabling environment for active, agile and involved private sector and civil society. 

Does this mean that government should be the main service provider? No – not necessarily. I’m largely agnostic about who plays the role of service provider. It is context dependent and can be communities themselves, Non-Governmental Organisations, Small and Medium Enterprises, or municipalities (local governments) themselves – there are good examples of all of these and more.  Where I’m not  agnostic is the role of the state as service authority (the asset owner, the regulator).  Without a strong and empowered state and without state finance there will be no equity and no universal access.

So, looking forward, I believe that we are faced by two linked challenges. The challenge of getting government more engaged with the sector – and the challenge of turning that engagement into financial commitment. 

The question is how our work contributes to the bigger picture of achieving universal coverage in a country

In this context it was a  pleasure to have taken part in the Global Environment Technology Fund’s side-workshop at the forum presenting experiences from the Coca-Cola Foundation’s Replenish African Initiative (RAIN). Exciting to hear that Coke Foundation  – who traditionally focussed on supporting communities near their bottling plants now see that the route to helping those communities is to engage with local and national government.  

If government, and government money is so important, what is the role of external agencies – and what if anything should we be doing differently? Actually, I think that we are already doing much that is right: searching for new technical solutions that work; providing flexible finance; coaching and mentoring; building capacity; developing and testing new business models.

So, for me it’s not so much a question of what we do – but of how we do it. If I summed it up – it would be about seeking to find ourselves in, and engaging with, the bigger picture. Whether we’re developing a new business model for pit-emptying in slums, or delivering a 1,000 borehole projects – it’s about being clear HOW this contributes to the bigger picture of achieving universal coverage in a country (or at least within a district or city) – about HOW innovations we make can be shared and scaled – and about identifying WHAT will be necessary for this to happen. 

In particular, it’s about being completely honest and transparent to each other and to ourselves about the resources we are putting in – not just to pay for hardware or conduct training – but to replace missing bits of the enabling environment. It is also about being prepared to speak truth to power – be that to donors or national governments – or indeed other NGOs or philanthropists: querying and challenging – particularly challenging too-good-to-be-true claims (“with US$25 we’ll give someone water for life” – no – you won’t. It’s not true, and you know it.  See – easy!).

We have to challenge the fairy tales we so often tell ourselves: about community management (“we’ll provide the hardware and an afternoon of training – and the community will provide the service henceforth”); about  the scrappy bottom of the pyramid entrepreneur (“we’ll help turn this mechanic into a business … and the business will scale itself”). Neither engaged users nor empowered entrepreneurs can, on their own, deliver sustainability or scale.  Both are absolutely necessary - but without an enabling environment, without properly funded government, without finance – they are and cannot be  - sufficient.

Universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene requires a complex and interlinked system to work.  All of it – not just some parts. A system of rules, norms, standards; of policies and finance; of providers, regulators and authorities. We can’t simply ignore the chunk of that system that is represented by government and hope that its weakness can be papered over.  We can’t solve the challenge of lack of access one community at a time. We have to engage with the whole system – even while focussing on our own particular part of it.

Women collecting water in IndiaWhat does this mean in practice?  Most of all engagement. Engagement with each other, with local partners, with the private sector, with NGOs, but above all with government: local government, national government, sector ministries, ministries of finance, politicians. Helping them to realise that providing equitable and sustainable services to all their citizens is – in the end – what they are there for – and then helping them to do it  And of course, holding them to account: because if government is not willing to take the lead and  pay its share – universal (and equitable) access to WASH services will remain a dream – and actual access will continue to flow – as it does already - to the privileged.


Want to know more? Follow the links below to Patrick's first and second blog in this series: "Tools for life" and "The elephant in the room".  


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