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Politics are a fact of life. It is easier to work with the political leaders than to avoid them.
Often times, professionals and implementers cite political interference as one of the challenges facing provision of WASH services. On the other hand, the political leaders argue that their involvement is "political intervention" or even "political guidance". But the question remains: What is the role of political leaders in WASH service provision?
Democracy gives political leaders the mandate and power to represent the interests of citizens. Their roles can be categorized in four main areas: Amplifying the voice of citizens; Rallying the citizens behind a common cause; Setting the priorities for the development agenda; Enablers: Getting more out of people. In the WASH context, first of all political leaders are service consumers just like any other citizens. But in their advantaged position (of power and influence) politicians can play greater roles than just consume services.
They can rally their constituents to appreciate and participate in WASH programmes. Political leaders can use their positions to inform their constituents about the importance of WASH services and encourage them (constituents) to play their roles to ensure that WASH services are accessible and reliable. Take the example of Walalawu Patrick, a politician from Pallisa District who mobilized water users in his constituency to pay for the rehabilitation and maintenance of their water facilities (see video below). This came after the Ministry of Water and Environment (MWE) rejected his application for new water supply facilities in his sub county, arguing that the area had many facilities but they were not functioning due to poor operations and maintenance (O&M) practices. Because Walalawu's voters believed in him, they rallied behind him, raised funds for rehabilitation of facilities and put in place effective O&M measures. This intervention eased Walalawu's constituents' access to safe water.
Politicians are influential in setting the development agenda and determining the priorities that get the 'lion's share' of public finance or even just get some desired attention by policy and decision makers. Technical officers at district and national level develop plans and budgets in line with the national development agenda. Through the budgeting process, political leaders can ensure that key sectors like WASH have been prioritized. The budget allocations are then approved by the political arm of government. Politicians can therefore influence allocation of resources for WASH services. They can also participate in continuous monitoring and ensuring that services reach the people and are sustainable.
Though funds are yet to be allocated for Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) in schools, Members of Parliament (MPs) in Uganda's 9th Parliament, through their Parliamentarians WASH Forum moved a Motion on MHM which was passed in November 2014. The MPs boosted the advocacy campaign on MHM and enabled legislators to pay extra attention to MHM. They called for a comprehensive policy on MHM to enhance implementation of programmes related to the school going girl-children, and government to set aside funds within the Ministry of Education and Sports to support sustainable MHM programmes as part of the Universal Primary Education Programme (UPE). They were instrumental in guiding the Ministry of Education and Sports to incorporate MHM as one of the variables that is tracked by the Education Management Information Systems (EMIS) and is reported on under the education sector review as well as monitored on by school inspectors on a termly basis. In addition, the endorsement of the MHM Charter by Hon. Rebecca Kadaga, Speaker of the Parliament of Uganda, created more attention and visibility of MHM as a key issue. Hon. Kadaga confirmed that menstrual hygiene was crucial to the health, education and self-esteem of girls and women and that it was not right to place a price on dignity of girls and women. Her call to Government to invest in MHM saying failure to do so posed a great danger to the girl-child education and development was a strong political statement.
In a country like Uganda with a functional and streamlined Sector Performance Monitoring Framework, the political leadership in the Joint Sector Process has been very instrumental in ensuring that Government and Development Partners are coordinated and working together. The participation of Ministers in key discussions including the government retreat that precedes the JSR gathering, as well as the gathering itself is a clear reflection of good communication between technical staff and the politicians and ensures that the sector is moving together with a common vision
The electoral processes involved in getting one into political office prepare aspirants well to fit into the roles of: Amplifying the voice of citizens; rallying the citizens behind a common cause; setting the priorities for the development agenda. An individual vying for political office without a clear 'promise' that speaks to the citizens is not likely to succeed. Some messages are so 'piercing' that they polarise, incite communities and trigger action. At the height of political activity – especially during campaign and election time, political leaders sometimes send mixed messages to their constituents. Populist political leaders will for example discourage people from paying for WASH services – just to win a vote. Others make promises of projects which they never deliver once they win the election.
But on the other hand, political leaders can send messages that call for concrete actions about WASH service provision. Take for example, Mr. Richard Rwabuhinga, LCV of Kabarole District, who called for immediate action rather than wait for 2030 to achieve SDG 6. "Why should some women and children have to wait another fourteen years before they have access to safe water within reach? Should we continue to compromise health outcomes of children?" Mr. Rwabuhiga asked during a WASH stakeholders meeting. He argued that the SDG target of 2030 was too far and that urgent actions were required to ensure that everyone in Kabarole has access to WASH services within reach. His urgent call for action greatly inspired WASH stakeholders in the district leading to the formation of a district task team that's going to lead action towards universal WASH coverage in Kabarole.
The other issue is that some political leaders tend to see things through the lenses of "five year political term limits". That short-termism prevents them from having a long-range view of things. Thus, while the rest of the actors are looking for example at 2030 or 2040, many politicians are looking at how they win votes come election year 2021. Whatever message they send; whatever interventions they undertake will be defined in that short term framework.
If we consider the role of political leaders from a systems approach, we realise that indeed they are a critical node in the chain. What must be discussed is how to involve/engage political leaders in such a way that they foster rather than deter progress towards the provision of sustainable WASH services.
Cognisant of the need to attain sustainable and universal access to WASH, IRC Uganda has embarked on ways of harnessing the positive role of the political leaders whilst minimising or eliminating the negative political influence. The aim is to ensure that the political leaders' space, position and role at the forefront of successful WASH implementation is respected, enhanced and elevated among all WASH stakeholders.
Specifically in Kabarole district, IRC organised a WASH dialogue meeting for the 50-member District Council on 10th March 2017. The aim was to ensure that the technical and political actors were all on the same page regarding implementation of programmes towards sustainable access to WASH for all. Kabarole has a population of 475,000 people of which 114,000 do not have access to safe water within reach. The councillors' knowledge on WASH implementation was enhanced through discussion of the policy framework for WASH implementation in Uganda, innovations implemented by WASH partners in Kabarole and the global agenda for WASH as embedded in SDG 6. The major achievement from this meeting was a commitment by the political leaders to support WASH activities in their constituencies.
Capitalising on this commitment IRC Uganda organised a stakeholders visioning meeting on 22nd March 2017 with the District Works Committee, District Executive Committee and the technical heads of key departments viz. Water, Education, Health, Natural Resources, production and finance among others. The stakeholders discussed challenges, opportunities and possible strategies for WASH implementation. A 15-member task team was selected across the sections of the participants to steer the drive towards sustainable access for all in Kabarole by 2030.
The task team had its first meeting on 9th May 2017 to select key issues to be addressed and set out guiding principles for its operation. The task team has identified itself as a strategic and advocacy team to support, influence and direct implementation of WASH in Kabarole district. For example, to support mobilisation of community finances by ensuring users pay for Operation and Maintenance.
Political interference, lack of political will, bad political decision or simply put the politicisation of WASH issues is an over burdening problem limiting successful implementation of sustainable WASH services. Political leaders at the district level or sub county level form the district political fabric that make decisions and influence allocation of resources. Their power to make decisions and influence the masses is sometimes turned against the technical and expert implementation of service delivery strategies in WASH. In some instances they have been accused of demobilising communities to turn against sustainable measures for improving WASH services for example telling communities that water is free and they should not pay fees. On the side of IWRM, political leaders have been accused of being key encroachers on wetlands and degradation of river banks by themselves or protecting the culprits from eviction and prosecution.
While harnessing political support is not easy and does not come cheaply, WASH implementers should recognise the fact that political leaders and politics are unavoidable. At the same time it is easier to work with the political leaders than to avoid them.
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