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Earlier this month, the Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) High Level Meeting (HLM) was hosted by the World Bank in Washington, D.C. The partnership’s third convening -- watched closely by those involved in the WASH sector -- brought together ministers of finance, health, and WASH from developing countries, as well as donors and other development partners to discuss specific commitments to achieve universal access to clean water and adequate sanitation.

An important outcome of the HLM was the endorsement of 265 new commitments addressing a range of issues in WASH -- from increasing the availability and efficiency of financial resources, to improving access to services and strengthening the institutions responsible for the delivery of water and sanitation.

In a short video report posted to SWA’s website, Barbara Frost, Chief Executive of  WaterAid, discusses her impressions of the meeting and lauds the group’s open dialogue about sector-wide challenges -- such as addressing donor fragmentation and balancing the involvement of the private sector with the human right to water.

webcast from the 2014 meeting has also been made available on the World Bank’s website.

Editor’s Note: This post was authored by Barbara Frost, chief executive of WaterAid, a U.K.-based organization working to provide safe drinking water, and improve hygiene and sanitation in 27 countries. Prior to WaterAid, Barbara was chief executive of Action on Disability and Development. She previously worked for various international NGOs such as ActionAid, Save the Children, and Oxfam Australia. This story was first published by Devex, and a version of it originally appeared on as part of Rio+Solutions, a joint campaign with the UN Foundation.  

Girls enjoy the clean water from the new water points in Tianfala, Mali. Credit: WaterAid / Layton Thompson

Girls enjoy the clean water from the new water points in Tianfala, Mali. Credit: WaterAid / Layton Thompson

It is difficult to change people’s perceptions of international development, especially when TV reports from the Horn of Africa and Niger seem to hark back to the famines and droughts of the 1980s. Despite three decades of increased funding and global campaigns, such as Make Poverty History, people are asking: What has changed?

Since 1990, 2 billion people have gained access to an improved water source for drinking and other basic needs, while 1.8 billion more people now have adequate sanitation. But while these achievements have had a dramatic and transformative impact on those living in extreme poverty, there is a strong need to recognize how far the world has traveled and what needs to be done.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced on May 10 that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron will co-chair a high-level panel that will shape post-2015 development goals. This panel faces a sizable challenge but it also has the opportunity to spearhead the drive to accelerate global development — including making universal access to water and sanitation a discernible reality.

A key issue that has been gathering momentum is how to measure human progress beyond the gross domestic product. Stepping back from the economic rhetoric of the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission, it’s clear we need to include water in our measure of a country’s progress. Water is fundamental to human progress. As UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said at the recent Sanitation and Water for All meeting in Washington, DC, “safe drinking water and dignified sanitation and hygiene are at the heart of achieving the Millennium Development Goals.” Right across the board from nutrition, maternal health, child mortality and gender equality, water plays a critical factor in progress toward these development goals and human well-being.

So where does Rio+20 fit into this agenda? For starters, Rio+20 provides a platform for world leaders to reiterate the importance of water and sanitation in creating sustainable communities and to ending poverty. It allows them the space to reiterate the fundamental right to safe drinking water and decent sanitation as basic services that should be available to all. And it allows them to commit to a timetable and road map that will mean tangible progress for those who desperately need our leaders to take a stand and keep their promises. If world leaders can prioritize, commit resources, and sign up to a vision and timescale, then we will have something to celebrate.

But amid the macro debates about universal access to water and sanitation, we mustn’t lose sight of the reality that water plays a critically important role in food security, economic growth, resource scarcity and, of course, climate change. But where is the joined-up approach?

Ultimately, we need to shift our focus to solutions that will have a genuine impact on people’s lives. Targets are important symbols that give hope and demonstrate commitment, but it is the mechanisms to achieving those targets that are crucial. Heads of state and finance ministers need to recognize water and sanitation as fundamental to human development and sustainability, and place a much greater priority on these “orphan services.” This political will needs to be backed up by addressing the major capacity and funding gaps to have impact at scale. Lasting progress for everyone is the prize and key to accelerating economic and social development.

The Sanitation and Water for All partnership is making inroads toward this aim. At the April meeting, more than 40 governments agreed to commitments that, if delivered, will increase access to water and sanitation to more than 85 million people in Africa alone by 2014.

Ghana and Liberia are the first two countries to enter into the more intensive National Planning for Results Initiative — aimed at driving practical progress through governments working in partnership with international donors and civil society — to render credible plans to deliver water and sanitation. Both countries have now established compacts that directly address the gaps and also outline ways to tackle the capacity shortfalls in bringing about improved access. This will take time, but the foundations are in place.

Water is both the problem and the route to success. It’s often not the sexiest of solutions, but global frameworks such as SWA that focus on nationally owned action offer a model that can make a real impact on people’s lives. Johnson Sirleaf, Yudhoyono and Cameron have a key role to play to set a post-2015 agenda that really matters to people’s daily lives. Rio+20 is a good place to start building on such initiatives.

Read the original article here

John Oldfield, CEO of WASH Advocates

Editor’s Note: This blog post was written by John Oldfield, CEO of WASH Advocates. WASH Advocates is a nonprofit advocacy effort in Washington, DC entirely dedicated to helping solve the global safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) challenge. Its mission is to increase awareness of the global WASH challenge and solutions, and to increase the amount and effectiveness of resources devoted to solving the problem around the developing world. For more information, visit  

“Forty years ago today, Apollo 16 landed on the moon… By anyone's standards it was a triumph of science, technology, and political will. I remember so many of us thinking that if humankind can do this, what could humankind NOT accomplish?” UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake continued on April 20 at the Sanitation and Water for All High Level Meeting in Washington, DC: “… and yet today, over 1.1 billion people still practice open defecation because they don't have access to the most basic sanitation facilities… If two generations ago we could land men on the moon, we can and must also afford people here on earth two of their most basic human rights — safe water and basic sanitation — because until we do, development progress will falter."

On April 19-20, 2012 in Washington, DC dozens of finance ministers and water ministers from throughout the developing world gathered to make stronger commitments to solving the WASH challenge in their respective countries. They were joined at the meeting by development cooperation ministers from donor countries, including the USAID Administrator Raj Shah. During the event, Administrator Shah made history by announcing that the U.S. government has joined this global partnership aimed at universal coverage of safe drinking water and sanitation.  

Why does this fundamental global safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) challenge continue to exist today? The most intriguing answer is when people respond: “The problem is not solved because of a lack of political will.” Once that statement is made, no matter how accurate it is, the conversation typically dies, because most people look at politicians as part of the problem, not part of the solution, and strong political will often proves elusive. 

This is why I consider the Sanitation and Water for All High Level Meeting arguably the most important meeting of 2012: political will is what we saw in Washington, DC on April 19-20. And it is political will that leads to sustainable WASH programs implemented at scale community by community, country by country.

The WASH grantmaking community, both foundations and corporate leaders, can take away a few lessons from the Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) Partnership and its April meeting:

  • Strengthening the evidence base of success is important. The Sanitation and Water for All process isn’t simply for finance ministers and other high-level political leaders to dialogue. The SWA Partnership focuses on strengthening the evidence base of success in the global WASH sector, and using that evidence base to strengthen political will. Political leaders country by country need to hear about WASH from their people. Those political leaders also need to understand how they can help solve the challenges. The SWA process facilitates both, and donors looking for ”exit strategies” need to think more consciously about what it takes to inspire a government at any level to scale up your work. The exit strategy for the most successful WASH programming is “Get the job done,” and universal coverage of WASH requires the highest levels of political support.
  • Better alignment is key. Too often, donor efforts are not aligned with governments, NGOs, or other donors; this can lead to unsustainable, inappropriate, and/or duplicative programming. Members of the SWA include bilaterals (e.g. U.S., U.K., Netherlands, Japan, Australia), dozens of developing countries, multilaterals like the African Development Bank, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Many have joined the SWA in part to make sure their assistance is better aligned both with the need and with the actual plans and progress that developing countries are making. SWA partners also aim to make sure their assistance is better coordinated with each other's plans as donors as well. An example of this approach is the support that the Gates Foundation provides to the Water and Sanitation Program, a private partnership administered by the World Bank.
  • Linkages between economic growth and WASH need to be better quantified and communicated. What gets the attention of finance ministers? Arguably, it is not the morbidity and mortality associated with unsafe water and inadequate sanitation, but rather the increased productivity that safe, affordable, and sustainable water and sanitation offer an economy. The World Health Organization estimates that each dollar invested in WASH returns on average eight dollars in increased economic productivity and decreased health care costs. But how many of us know that inadequate sanitation cost India the equivalent of 6.4% of its GDP in 2008? Or that it cost Bangladesh 6.3% of its GDP in 2007? How many of us incorporate this and other cross-sectoral linkages into both our programs and our communications efforts as effectively as we could? 

Beyond the SWA Partnership, many other ongoing efforts illustrate these same points and deserve a closer look: strengthening community water board associations in Latin America; building the capacity of national and sub-national civil society WASH networks in Africa; donors and nonprofits partnering early and directly with mayors in developing countries instead of just inviting them to ribbon-cutting ceremonies; and bringing creative and leveraged business and financial approaches into the water and sanitation sector. 

Clearly donors (in Europe, the United States, and beyond) need to continue direct funding of safe drinking water and sanitation programs around the world. However, government and private donors also need to increase their financial and technical support for initiatives that strengthen the capacity of developing countries to solve the water and sanitation challenges themselves. 

If, as Tony Lake says, we can send a man to the moon forty years ago, we as a planet can certainly solve our water challenges today. The Sanitation and Water for All Partnership illustrates some of the lessons and approaches that will make the private and corporate philanthropic communities an even more important part of the solution. 

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