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Published on: 09/04/2014

We are now on the final sprint of preparations for the Sanitation and Water for all (SWA) High Level Meeting (HLM) that will be held in Washington on 11 April.  “We” represent the almost 100 members of the SWA partnership. At country level, High Level Country Dialogues (HLCD) are being wrapped up; governments are revisiting and updating their respective commitments for presentation during the HLM. Similarly, donors are finalising their statements and briefing ministers of development cooperation in preparation for their participation in the HLM. Last but not least, the small but highly efficient SWA secretariat, hosted in UNICEF, is doing an excellent job attending to final programmatic and logistical details to offer a first-class forum befitting of the over 40-country member delegation in attendance.

Clearly, the HLM is a massive global undertaking. As an IRC colleague phrased it, the HLM is the “cherry on the cake” that is preceded by a long preparatory process. Whether the HLM delivers the results that justify the gigantic efforts and costs associated with it is to my opinion a very legitimate question. Here, I will reflect on this question by first looking at what have been achieved against the commitments framed in earlier HLMs; what the obstacles have been in framing commitments, monitoring implementation and holding governments to account; and what we as IRC can commit to.

A short introduction to SWA

Since its launch in 2009, the SWA has served as the central platform to build political momentum for sanitation and water. Driven by a common vision of universal access to adequate sanitation and safe water, SWA members work together to catalyse political leadership and action, improve accountability mechanisms and prompt the efficient use of limited financial resources.

The HLM, first organised in 2010, is a biennial event where finance and sector ministers from developing countries who are responsible for enabling the delivery of sanitation and water, meet with donors to discuss political priorities and make commitments for implementation in the coming two years.

HLM commitments: achievements and challenges 

Important political commitments have been tabled at previous HLMs. The SWA secretariat asserts that since the HLMs, there has been a tangible increase in political prioritisation over sanitation and water. The SWA website lists more than 400 new commitments from the 2012 HLM. Of these commitments, 124 focus on increased political prioritisation for the WASH sector, which is expected to translate to more funding: both from national governments and donors. Examples of countries that have made firm commitments to raising national budget allocation include Benin, Bangladesh and Burkina Faso. Enhanced political prioritisation also provides greater mandate for sector ministries over WASH services, and expands national government potential for better coordination and more efficient use of available financial resources.

However, formulating and monitoring progress in delivering against commitments face numerous challenges. Here I highlight what I consider as the most significant:

  • Some commitments are “old wine in new bags”: they do not offer new or more ambitious commitments for genuine progress.
  • There continues to be a difficulty in tracking progress against achievement of commitments.
  • Even when commitments are monitored, it is not clear how governments or donors are held to account for lacklustre performance.

“Old wine in new bags”?

Do commitments presented in HLMs add value to sector policies, plans and projects, or do they merely repackage existing ones? In HLCDs, finance and sector ministers, together with other sector stakeholders, agree jointly on new commitments for presentation at the HLM. The HLM is expected to trigger new and ambitious commitments to tackle fundamental challenges and to make the water and sanitation sector move faster towards its goals. With new commitments formulated exclusively for the SWA-HLM—that is, outside existing national planning frameworks—one wonders what structure is there to keep ministers in countries to stick to their promises. In cases where commitments presented at the HLM are already included in national policies, plans and or budgets, I am of the opinion that the chance of actual implementation is greater. However, as these are already part of existing plans, one cannot help but wonder what added value is being offered by the HLCD and the HLM.

Monitoring progress on achievement of commitments

All SWA commitments and progress updates are openly accessible on the SWA website. The SWA secretariat keeps track of donor and country-level commitment implementation, but is faced with a number of difficulties. The available monitoring instruments are limited in offering a quantitative or objective measurement of actual progress. While efforts have now been put in place to embed in-country reflection on progress in the HLCD, for many, reporting is still based on a rather subjective interpretation[1] by the reporting government official. Also, some of the commitments are vaguely formulated and therefore difficult to track. This shortcoming is currently being addressed by the SWA secretariat, which has now given special attention to the formulation of “SMART” (Specific, Measurable, Accurate, Realistic and Time-bound) commitments.

Accountability, but to whom?

In theory, the HLM serves as the forum to hold all SWA partners accountable to each other. But how does this work in practice? Who and how will a donor country such as The Netherlands, for example, be held accountable for insufficiently performing on its commitments? What happens to governments like Niger that has yet to allocate a minimum of 0.5% of its GDP to the sanitation sub-sector as agreed upon in the previous HLM? Who in the SWA partnership can keep the Government of Niger to account? A similar question could be asked for the case of Nigeria. Who and how will the Government of Nigeria be held accountable for not achieving its commitment to develop a national WASH Sector Investment Plan by 2013?

Assuming that all commitments result from an inclusive planning process, one expects the participants of these processes, particularly civil society organisations, to hold national governments or leading sector ministries to account. This touches on the Achilles heel of many of the countries participating in SWA: the absence of a structured approach that operationalises inclusive planning and sector monitoring processes. A starting objective for many HLCDs therefore would be to boost or develop national planning and sector performance monitoring systems where these are weak or non-existent, as opposed to cultivating a parallel system specific to SWA performance, which runs the risk of insufficient embedding and tracking. 

From HLCD towards strengthening national planning and sector monitoring processes

Over the years, the HLCD has evolved from one that used to be a rather exclusive exercise participated in by national governments, with support from an external party (UNICEF in most cases), to one that is now enriched by broader stakeholder participation and stronger national government ownership. Still, in many countries there is room to improve the HLCD and truly embed these in existing sector planning and monitoring processes where they exist, or to use the HLCD as the basis to develop planning and monitoring systems where they don’t. In that way, the three challenges above may be addressed gradually.

IRC’s commitment to the SWA partnership

Committed to the SWA principles and objectives, IRC is an early member of the initial core group that drove SWA’s formalisation in 2010. Until September 2013, IRC represented the Research and Learning constituency in the SWA Steering committee. Through our participation in the country process task team, we contribute to the enlargement of the sectors’ knowledge base, capitalising on our experiences in the countries we work in.

In the spirit of mutual accountability and transparency, IRC is offering its own commitment statement to the SWA partnership. We believe that the SWA partnership provides a good framework for IRC to work with stakeholders globally and in our focus countries in search of solutions and innovations to provide safe water, sanitation and hygiene services for all.

For IRC, we will concentrate our main efforts within the SWA partnership at the national level, in our focus countries. We commit to providing support towards strengthening government leadership and capacities, improving sector planning processes and developing monitoring systems to track progress on sector targets and commitments. We will not shy away from engaging with civil society organisations to hold governments accountable for unmet commitments.

Our engagement with the sector in Ghana is a case in point. Today, the discourse of a service delivery approach, as promoted by IRC, has been adopted in the Government of Ghana’s commitment statement. Now, we work with the Government and other Ghanaian sector players to implement and monitor progress for transparency and accountability.

The SWA-HLM provided added impetus to strengthen Ghana’s planning and monitoring capacity. If we are successful in achieving this in all our focus countries, then we can probably say it was worth all the effort.  

Note: Read Erma Uytewaal's reflections in the aftermath of her participation in the 2014 SWA High Level Meeting here.

[1] Completed-Almost Completed- Good Progress- Slow Progress- Major Barriers – No data 


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