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Published on: 05/09/2016

People have the right to safe, accessible and affordable water and sanitation services. People also have the right to expect public services to be distributed according to human rights standards and principles. Accountability is crucial in ensuring that public officials take responsibility for their duties and are answerable for their actions. To ensure that water and sanitation services are provided fairly and squarely, sanctions, rewards, or learning from experiences could be of critical importance if applied democratically and according to human rights standards and principles.

During the recent Stockholm World Water Week an event was organised on this topic. The event aimed to address the importance of sustainable water and sanitation in poverty reduction, sustainable growth and development, and how this can be realised by improving democratic accountability in service delivery. The leading question for the event was whether politicians and service providers respond better to being sanctioned for poor performance, rewarded for a job well done, or for learning from experience? The event consisted of a mix of short presentations, short films, and group and plenary discussions.

The presentations and films provided a wide variety of country experiences where different mechanisms such as sanctions, rewards, and lessons learned were used to improve service delivery. International IDEA’s forthcoming study: ‘Sanctions, Rewards and Learning: Enforcing democratic accountability in the delivery of Health, Education and WASH’ inspired this event.

What is my personal take on the discussions?

Service delivery versus behaviour and practices

Behaviour change is a central objective in public health interventions. Therefore it is easy to conclude that improvements in water and sanitation services require above all changes in behaviour and practices. Not just of service providers but also of service authorities and the users of these services. The role of regulation to influence behaviour is not new. Governments have long used a range of traditional policy tools, including legislation, sanctions, regulations, taxes and subsidies, and the provision of public services and information to modify behaviour in the public interest. Maybe not always with great success.

There are plenty of examples where policy or regulatory interferences did not work out as assumed. For example local politicians setting uneconomic (read loss-making) tariffs for water services which makes it impossible for service providers to provide reliable services that meet certain standards and invest in network expansions. There is also enough evidence that the provision of subsidies to increase uptake of sanitation facilities, in the absence of other relevant interventions such as demand creation and strengthening of supply chains, is seldom successful. 

Sanctions, rewards or learning from experiences

Influencing human (and organisational) behaviour is a complex business. Policy makers and other relevant actors involved in water and sanitation service delivery therefore need a more sophisticated understanding of the factors influencing human (and organisational) behaviour before deciding on particular policies, regulations and associated accountability mechanisms.

It has become increasingly clear that governments cannot deliver key policy outcomes in isolation of other key actors. Achieving significant progress requires the active involvement and cooperation of all key actors including the general public. Even where the issue is not necessarily complex, it is often crucial that citizens get involved to achieve desired outcomes. Therefore it is important to focus not only on the internal workings and efficiencies of existing services, but also on how people engage with those services, and how they can be mobilised, coached and encouraged to participate to generate positive outcomes. Increased accountability by service authorities and service providers is crucial, but also increasing participation by citizens, for example people raising their concerns when services are not delivered or the quality is below standard. 

The International IDEA discussion paper on sanctions, rewards and learning provides a good overview of the different mechanisms. Sanctions help to enforce accountability. They are considered to be the “culmination of any accountability process that includes successful attempts to make duty bearers answerable for their past decisions and actions”. Rewards and incentives help to induce accountability. They are “additional measures to influence actors’ motivations, decisions and behaviour with regards to guaranteeing service delivery in a fair and equal manner”. Effective accountability can also come from mutual learning among duty bearers and claim holders. Learning is necessary to increase our understanding of the factors influencing human (and organisational) behaviour, but it should also be used to “increase awareness of the collective rights of marginalized groups and minorities”.

Sanctions, rewards or learning from experience should not be seen as a mutual exclusive options menu. They should be seen as a mutual inclusive package that works best when they are all included in interventions to change behaviour of individuals and organisations. This was my personal take after the group discussions where participants were asked to discuss one of the three options in smaller groups. The two groups discussing sanctions and learning from experience had the most participants. The smallest group was discussing the rewards option and the fourth group where I found myself consisted of a few non-believers, doubters or questioners.

Experience from the field

Our experience from supporting a rural sanitation and hygiene programme in Eastern Indonesia has shown that putting legislation in place at sub-national government level can be supportive in realising WASH goals. During the past three to four years the programme’s local implementing partners have been active in lobbying for a greater involvement of local government bodies. One way to advocate for strong local leadership and commitment was to develop sanitation and hygiene related legislation. Although strong enforcement or accountability mechanisms have not yet been put in place, the new legislation has already proven to be effective. For example at district level it has helped political leaders to articulate a clear vision and to put sanitation and hygiene on the development agenda. Subsequently it has become easier to allocate additional human and financial resources to pursue their vision. At community level it has helped to establish new social norms and include sanitation and hygiene interventions in their five-year development plans. This has made it possible to make funds available for regular monitoring and follow-up activities and to provide financial support in the form of smart subsidies to poor families.

The programme has just moved into the second phase with a completely different role for the local implementing partners. They are moving away from direct implementation and will have to transfer these responsibilities to the local government bodies. To ensure that these bodies respond to the concerns and desires of the local people, the partners will be strengthening the lobby and advocacy capacity of civil society organisations. It is expected that over time these organisations will become effective in voicing the needs of the local people to their politicians as well as to the implementing agencies.



At IRC we have strong opinions and we value honest and frank discussion, so you won't be surprised to hear that not all the opinions on this site represent our official policy.

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