What Can WASH Grantmakers Learn from the Sanitation and Water for All Partnership?

Editors 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 www.WASHadvocates.org.  

John Oldfield, CEO of WASH Advocates

“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.