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Finding the right scale; focusing on local government

Published on: 24/05/2012

Scale, and associated words and phrases, such as ‘scaling up’, ‘large scale’, ‘appropriate scale’ and ‘economies of scale’ are both central to development discourse and often misunderstood or interpreted in different ways. As scale is at the heart of IRC’s work on services delivery, this note seeks to illuminate the different meanings of scale and the ways in which we use them in this work. A key hypothesis we derive from this is that if we can get it right at the level of local government (i.e. the district, municipality, governorate, county or whatever the administrative name of that body) we have a good chance of achieving sustainable service delivery at scale.

Scaling up

Probably the most common use of scale is scaling up, used loosely to imply the idea of replication and increased impact. In this sense, for example when we talk about scaling up a promising water supply intervention, we are typically thinking in terms of doing more of the same type of intervention and thus reaching more people. If we scale up an innovative hand-pump design we provide lots more hand-pumps of that particular design to reach more people.  This is the understanding of scale that is implicit in achieving the human right to access a basic water service: the vision of scaling up to achieve full coverage.  A coverage-based understanding of scale in rural water service delivery must take account not just of absolute numbers served, but also of the sustainability of the services being delivered: an intervention that provides only short-term coverage, even it if does so for a great many people, cannot be said to have been effectively scaled up.  Sustainability is therefore, of itself, a crucial aspect of achieving scale. 

Scale of intervention

A rather different understanding of scale comes from the realisation that scaling up delivery of sustainable water services is not something that happens (only) by replicating community level interventions.  A functioning water service requires support from a chain of actors and institutions stretching from the user to national government; it also relies on naturally occurring water resources that occur in complex and interlinked physical units, such as watersheds and aquifers.  This realisation calls for an understanding of different possible ‘scale(s) of intervention’: which can also be thought of in terms of geographic scale or institutional levels. 

Institutional Level. Water service delivery requires different actors to fulfill different roles or functions at different institutional levels .  National government, operating at the national scale, creates an enabling environment of policy and financial mechanisms; service providers working at the scale of a service area—deliver services to a defined user group.  In rural water service provision, service areas are typically closely linked to the boundaries of human settlement: towns, villages, hamlets and scattered rural settlements.  The scale of the service area is, therefore, clearly a critical scale of intervention for providing sustainable services—and the most common scale for stand-alone projects to operate. 

In between the national and the service delivery scale lie other institutional levels from which service authority and support functions are provided: functions that are critical for the sustainability of service delivery.  How and from where these functions are provided depends on a country’s decentralised or deconcentrated structures of governance, but is often the district, municipality or commune.

(Hydro)Geographic scale. Looking to the physical environment and the hydrological and hydrogeological cycles on which water services depend, water resources occur in natural units that have little or nothing to do with human political boundaries.  Stretching from micro-catchments and local aquifers to trans-boundary river-basins and aquifers, one user’s withdrawal from the shared resource has inevitable impacts on availability for others.

The diagram below shows these principal physical, institutional and coverage related scales of intervention.  It is important to underline that this is an abstraction and simplification: the different institutional, physical and water supply boundaries simply do not map onto each other this neatly in the real world. 

Because rural water service delivery is typically managed within the framework of local government, it makes sense to give prominence to institutional scale as the main scale of intervention.  Nevertheless, many larger water supply systems cut across local government boundaries; and the physical systems on which water supplies depend—the watersheds, aquifers almost never coincide with human administrative boundaries.

Different scales of intervention for sustainable water service provision

Figure 1: Different scales of intervention for sustainable water service provision

Why is all of this important to providing sustainable water services?  Essentially, because it is almost impossible to discuss water service delivery in a useful way without dealing with (and being clear about) issues of scale – and particularly the appropriate scale(s) at which intervention is necessary to ensure sustainable service delivery.

Economies of scale

It is in this context that we can identify a third important element of scale: economies of scale. Many authority and support functions require a certain minimum scale to make financial or economic sense. For example, it is unlikely to make economic or financial sense to set up a whole circuit rider programme to provide support to a handful of systems developed by a project in a single municipality.  Indeed, for some functions it is only by working within an entire region (or even nation) that the economies of scale of setting up such a programme become apparent.  In a similar vein, a single service authority may not be able to afford a full-time engineer for the water systems in their area of jurisdiction; a problem that is addressed in some countries by districts, communes or municipalities making associations and pooling human resources or expensive equipment.  

Implications of addressing scale-related issues for our work

Addressing the need for institutional linkage and alignment across multiple scales of intervention is impossible within a project setting.  Instead, it requires the alignment of support provided by development partners, NGOs and government within a country. Only by (at least) coordinating individual efforts (projects), but ideally by pooling resources from different sources, can larger-scale issues such as capacity of national institutional structures or broad sector legislation be addressed.

Nevertheless, and in summary, while emphasising the need to address different aspects of water service delivery at different scales, two scales or intervention are particularly important: those of the service area; and the municipality, district or whatever name is given to the lowest level of decentralised government—at which authority and support functions are provided, including administrative and technical services, monitoring, and regulation. 

In this context, a key operational hypothesis of IRC’s work is that if we can get it right at the district we have a good chance of achieving sustainable service delivery at scale. Hence much of our work takes local government areas as our unit of focus. In Honduras, for example, together with a number of partners we support an initiative to achieve WASH services for everyone, forever in over 12 municipalities. That is, we strive to achieve full coverage, but also put in place all mechanisms to ensure sustainability of the services. This includes the building of the critical capacity of these municipalities in functions like monitoring, oversight and technical support.

 

Map 1: Municipalities in Honduras where the Everyone Forever initiative, of which IRC is a partner, is focusing on.

Also, in Ghana and Uganda, we are committing to work with a number of districts to ensure sustainable service delivery. In Ghana, our work under WASHCost and Triple-S has focused on the districts of Akatsi, Sunyani West and East Gonja. We commit to continue working there. In Uganda we will continue working in the districts of Kabarole and Lira, where we focused on, during the Triple-S project.