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At an April press conference, the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, held up a handwritten number and announced, “2030. This is it. This is the global target to end poverty.” That historic moment also served to underscore some of the dilemmas actors in the WASH sector grapple with. How do we establish audacious, yet realistic goals? How do we announce an ambitious goal, such as full water and sanitation coverage in a number of countries, and have confidence that we have a reasonable chance of achieving it? This week is World Water Week, and in partnership with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, we asked some of the world's water experts exactly these questions. View the full debate here.
Dr. Bill Foege wrote in his recent House on Fire: The Fight to Eradicate Smallpox that one of the key reasons for the success of the smallpox eradication effort was that “enough people believed that eradication was possible.” When that realization occurred in the 1970s, smallpox’s days were numbered as this unavoidable scourge became unacceptable.
We are near that “point of no return” with the global safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) sector: we know how to solve the WASH challenge, and have had these solutions in hand for over a century at least. With very few exceptions, the necessary money exists, as do the data and the technology. What’s missing is the political will to pull all of these together to get to 100% coverage of safe drinking water and sanitation within a highly compressed timeframe in countries across the developing world.
Here’s what needs to happen to solve this problem in a country (or province or municipality):
Step 1: The head of government comes up on his/her national stage and makes a public, specific, and time-bound commitment to universal coverage of WASH. 100% coverage, no excuses.
Step 2: That head of government then invites onto the stage his/her finance minister, who has “run the numbers.” Those numbers show what solving the problem will cost, where the money will come from domestically (federal budget, provinces, municipalities, households), and what the government will ask the private sector and the international donor community to provide as a complement to its own efforts. That finance minister then asks sector ministers to join him/her on stage to get specific about the actions to be undertaken.
Step 3: The work to provide safe, affordable, and sustainable drinking water and sanitation to everyone in that country continues in an expedited, coordinated fashion under the leadership of that country’s public sector, aimed all the while at the only goal worthy of our efforts in 2013: universal coverage.
What makes this scenario possible? Political will. But the trick to political will is that politicians don’t create it, they respond to it. So if any country is to achieve 100% coverage, political will in that country must be strong enough to allow those respective governments to prioritize WASH in the face of so many important competing issues.
WASH Advocates is giving U.S. politicians an opportunity to respond to the political will of their constituents via in-person meetings and our constantly updated map of Americans Working for WASH. But those efforts pertain only to the U.S. role within the international donor community. More important than the international donor community are the burgeoning political will and resulting public sector leadership in each developing country. Here’s why:
Of each dollar invested in WASH in developing countries (global averages) perhaps 70% comes from public sector finance in those developing countries, perhaps 15-20% from the private sector, and the remaining 10-15% from the international donor community. These categories aren’t perfect, but they make it clear that anyone with universal coverage on his/her mind is well advised to focus on the public sector in developing countries.
Global and regional efforts to create and strengthen political will only take one so far. What really matters are those groups focusing on creating and strengthening political will at national and subnational levels across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Almost every country in the world has a home-grown civil society network working to tackle the political will challenge. At World Water Week 2012, I even had the pleasure of chairing a session entitled The Politics of Water: Strengthening National Advocacy for WASH, in which Diana Betancourt of Water For People spoke glowingly of the commitment that the mayor of Chinda, Honduras made that led to his community achieving 100% coverage. Yiga Baker of the African Civil Society Network on Water and Sanitation then gave several examples of in-country advocacy for WASH throughout East Africa that have made it possible for those political leaders to prioritize WASH. Other stakeholders include the many in-country affiliates of Freshwater Action Network, the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council’s national WASH Coalitions, and the Avina Foundation that I mentioned in a previous article. Further, End Water Poverty’s Keep Your Promises campaign has gathered almost one million grassroots signatures urging their respective governments to live up to the water and sanitation promises they have made, and materials on “How to Campaign on WASH During an Election” have even been translated into Urdu for Pakistani audiences. Perhaps the highest level dialogues underway are those facilitated by the Sanitation and Water for All Partnership, which just issued a Progress Update not simply on the 400+ high-level commitments made by its member countries in 2012, but on how those commitments are being met.
The path to strong political will involves at least one nitty gritty, indigenous, in-the-trenches advocacy campaign in each developing country supported in part by savvy international donors. By “in-the-trenches” I mean that no one outside of that particular country (Guatemala, India, Sierra Leone, etc.) will hear of these groups or their messages. The only persons that will hear from these indigenous groups are those who need to - their own political leaders at different levels. Supporting these efforts gives donors the opportunity to use limited resources not as a cherry on top of what developing countries are doing - “Hey – let’s poke some holes in the ground – everyone likes water!” - but as a catalyst, standing on the shoulders of what developing countries are already doing - “Let’s build on the government of Cambodia/Tanzania/Nicaragua’s commitment rather than muddy up the water with tactical, short-term projects.”
Dr. Foege also wrote in House on Fire that “Government support for programs depends on the agreement of the governed. In theory, eradicating smallpox was possible from the time vaccine became available [1796!]. . . .The 1970s became the last decade for smallpox because of social will – a collective agreement to remove the scourge from society.”
The global water and sanitation challenge merits not simply the “agreement of the governed” but rather the governed demanding that their governments solve this problem. We are getting close, and the international community has an important role to play not in solving the problem directly, but in building and strengthening the local political will that take the global WASH challenge to its rightful end: 100% coverage.
John leads the efforts of WASH Advocates to increase awareness of the global WASH challenge and solutions, and to increase the amount and effectiveness of resources devoted to those solutions throughout the developing world.