USAID’s New Water Strategy: Pros, Cons, and What’s Next?

Editors Note: Today marks the launch of USAID’s first water and development strategy. The strategy addresses global WASH needs and how the organization plans to approach water programming with an emphasis on sustainability by improving health outcomes and managing water for agriculture over the next five years. Read the strategy document here and join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #WaterStrategy. In this guest blog, authored by John Oldfield, CEO of WASH Advocates, John examines the USAID strategy closely. A version of this post originally appeared here.

USAID Water and Development Strategy, 2013-2018

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) launches its first-ever five-year water strategy today. We’ve all been waiting a long time for this, so some initial and mostly positive reactions follow. 

First of all, congratulations to USAID and its many partners for getting this out the door. Any such strategy involves a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, particularly so for an issue as wide-ranging and multidisciplinary as water challenges across the globe. So congratulations to USAID (Chris Holmes, John Pasch, many others). A great number of nonprofits, Hill allies, and concerned citizens deserve kudos for their involvement and support as well over the past couple of years. 

What I like about USAID’s water strategy

  • It focuses on safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH), and does so in a way that also elevates and institutionalizes Integrated Water Resource Management and water for agriculture. The strategy also strongly positions water as foundational to sustainable progress across many other vital development challenges including health, food, education, HIV, gender equality, and climate change. I also welcome its increased emphasis on sanitation, especially since USAID joined the Sanitation and Water for All Partnership in 2012. “In countries that are off track to meet the [Millennium Development Goal] for sanitation, and where diarrheal disease and under-nutrition are prevalent, Missions must add sanitation as a key element of their water, health, and nutrition activities.” That’s some strong language. Inadequate sanitation — water contaminated with human feces — is what really kills and sickens kids, not simple water scarcity. Those millions of kids are dying because of waterborne illness, not simple thirst, and USAID’s renewed emphasis on sanitation positions the agency to save and improve kids’ lives across the globe.
  • The strategy draws much of its philosophy from USAID Forward, the agency’s attempt to transform itself and develop new models for development. The water strategy provides a refreshed vision of what USAID could/should look like in action across the board, with its focus on decentralized decision-making and ownership, local capacity strengthening, behavior change, and stronger monitoring and evaluation. This is perhaps the most important part of the strategy, and will hopefully be a big part of its implementation: the document leans forward into the sort of foreign assistance we should be supporting — less focused on direct service provision, and more focused on strengthening local capacity so that communities and countries will no longer require foreign assistance.
  • There are hints in the strategy of stronger monitoring and evaluation, and even language which indicates USAID will do so “beyond the typical USAID Program Cycle and… enable reasonable support to issues that arise post implementation.” This is good news, and I am all ears as to how this will be implemented. I know Susan DavisIRCSustainableWASH.orgWASH AdvocatesWater For People, and many others have ideas.
  • Integral to the strategy are a number of smart, flexible approaches to solving development challenges — approaches which also provide USAID much-needed leverage for its work: innovative financing (e.g. through USAID’s Development Credit Authority), policy reform, strengthening enabling environments, strengthening and building local capacity (e.g. through USAID’s Development Grants Program), and more opportunities for real partnerships like those with Rotary International and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
  • Priority countries, selectivity, and focus: the three tiers of countries make sense (with concerns noted below), as do the different levels of involvement envisioned in disparate countries and regions. Fewer countries (again, with concerns noted below) could provide increased opportunities for meaningful impact at scale, up to and including 100% coverage of WASH within certain discrete geographies (e.g. municipalities, provinces, even countries). This would obviate the debates about how to reach the poorest of the poor, gender focus, outlying farmers, distant huts, and so on. 100% is 100%, as inspired by Water For People’s Everyone Forever.

Perhaps most importantly, this strikes me as a learning strategy, a living document which has the potential to vastly improve USAID’s water programming in ways unforeseen at its launch. One example of something to be learned by the agency is how to differentiate between programming which focuses on first-timeaccess to WASH and that which focuses on improved access, a distinction sometimes lost in D.C. but vitally important in the developing world. Another opportunity is to figure out how to best make sure that projects continue to function as intended long after the program has technically ended. 

Areas on which I look forward to continuing to work with USAID

  • The numbers are under-ambitious: a five year strategy to get safe drinking water to only 10 million people and sanitation to only 6 million? In FY11 alone, the figures were 3.8 million people (water) and 1.9 million people (sanitation). I fully expect USAID to blow these numbers out of the water, both by providing more services, and by strengthening the capacity of local organizations across the globe to solve their own challenges.
  • The strategy does a great job of segmenting its approach into “transformative impact,” “leveraged impact,” and “strategic priority” countries. I get the distinctions, but I remain concerned that there is little in the strategy to prevent the vast majority of resources from going to a small handful of strategic priority countries that may or may not suffer from water and sanitation scarcity. I would have preferred that a clear, specific, and high percentage of funds be explicitly directed to countries and communities where water and sanitation coverage is the lowest in the world, and I look forward to continuing to work with USAID and the Hill on that front. Diplomacy and security concerns often trump development, and the strategy could have leaned further forward into this debate. An added benefit is that a more pro-poor approach to the implementation of the water strategy would more closely align it with the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act of 2005, which focuses clearly and explicitly on the world’s poorest countries.
  • On a related note, I’m all for selectivity and focus leading to a smaller number of program countries for the water strategy. Dissipation is the enemy, but cutting from 62 countries to perhaps a couple dozen countries overnight is drastic, and will leave dozens of WASH-poor countries — with strong enabling environments (viz. “opportunity to succeed”) — high and dry. Country selection based on need and ‘opportunity to succeed’ requires very careful management. And a continuing omission is that, outside of Haiti, no country in the Western Hemisphere is a priority country for the Water for the Poor Act implementation. There are vast pockets of need in Latin America and the Caribbean, and I hope USAID takes this into account.
  • With the exception of one key paragraph on page 15, the two Strategic Objectives (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene and Water and Food Security) are inadequately linked. I would have liked to see the nexus of water, sanitation, and nutrition/food security highlighted. The problem is clear: repeated bouts of waterborne diarrheal disease lead to physical stunting and poor cognitive development of kids all around Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The solution is more integrated programming: making sure that children and families have safe drinking water with which to consume their food so that it is properly digested. I know USAID understands this and am surprised this linkage is not more prominent in the strategy. There are other solutions which would tackle concomitantly both Strategic Objectives (rainwater harvesting comes to mind) which aren’t included at all. 

What’s next?

Once the strategy is formally launched, USAID and its many partners across the U.S. and the globe have five years to make this work. The implementation phase of the strategy will build on many of the successes outlined above, and provide further guidance on the strategy’s shortcomings. The implementation of this strategy needs to closely align with the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act of 2005 and maintain and increase USAID’s focus on its core mission, “the eradication of extreme poverty and its most devastating corollaries, including widespread hunger and preventable child death.”  

Shortly after the strategy is launched, we can expect implementation guidance to better explain how to implement projects aligned with the strategy. That implementation guidance will very much color how the strategy will roll out over the coming years, the number of lives it will positively impact, and the return the U.S. taxpayer gets on his/her dollar. 

I intend to make sure that the right people in both developed and developing countries are aware and supportive, to the extent possible, of this strategy, and are positioned as allies for USAID as it works through the next five years. I envision better donor coordination, and I envision increased demand and supply for water assistance across the globe. I envision USAID reaching out to its philanthropic partners to leverage the taxpayer dollar, and I see millions of lives saved and improved. 

Congratulations again to USAID — looking forward to the implementation phase.