What Role Can Charitable Foundations Play to Improve Water Service Reliability?

In discussions of strategies to improve rural water service reliability, the responsibility of private philanthropy to support a shift from funding projects that install infrastructure to supporting changes that lead to ongoing water and sanitation services is often ignored.  Through interviews with foundation program officers and water access, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), Stephanie Potts has explored the role of funders in improving long-term service reliability of rural water projects in developing countries.

By Stephanie Potts

Since 2006, private foundations have devoted over one billion U.S. dollars toward achieving the Millennium Development Goal to halve the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water. Despite meeting the goal for water, the UN estimates that 663 million people still lack access to an improved drinking water source and billions lack access to a water source that is safe, reliable, and provides enough water to meet demand. Of the people without access to improved water, eight out of 10 live in rural areas. Past progress to provide water for rural communities is likely to be undermined due to the high failure rate of rural water projects. Numerous studies undertaken to evaluate functionality of rural water points show that 30-50% fail three to five years after construction. The World Bank and Rural Water Supply Network estimate water supply failures from the past 20 years to represent a loss of over $1.2 billion, effectively cancelling out the entirety of the investment made by U.S. private donors. Clearly, there remains room for water service reliability to improve.

The recommendations coming from the sector largely focus on the role of bilateral and multilateral institutions, implementing non-governmental organizations, and country governments in improving reliability of rural water services. However, the responsibility of private philanthropy to support a shift from funding projects that install infrastructure to supporting changes that lead to ongoing water and sanitation services is often ignored. Through interviews with foundation program officers and water access, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), I sought to explore the role of funders in improving long-term service reliability of rural water projects in developing countries. My research focused on three main questions:

  • How do funders promote water point service reliability through grant applications guidelines and funding decisions?
  • How do funders and grantees monitor reliability of rural water projects?
  • How do funders and grantees measure the success of rural water projects?

I also reviewed water point functionality data from public databases such as Water Point Data Exchange to determine whether grant funding from a foundation could be tracked through to a specific water point. Existing public data did not allow comparison of water point functionality based on source of funds. In total, I conducted semi-structured interviews by phone with 13 representatives from 11 organizations. Five were foundations, five were INGOs, and one was what might be called a pass-through funder.

The main findings from the interviews include:

  • Foundations and INGOs are focusing more on sustainability and capacity building for local governments in response to the transition from the Millennium Development Goals to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
  • The INGOs interviewed did not think that restrictions on foundation grants (geographic restrictions, limits on overhead cost) hindered their ability to provide reliable water services, partly because they supplemented restricted grant funds with unrestricted funds from other sources.
  • Some foundations had public commitments related to the number of people they would provide with clean water or the number of projects they would fund in a certain timeframe, and required their grantees to report on specific indicators related to those commitments. The private family foundations interviewed were more flexible in how they measured success and would often use the indicators proposed by the grantee.

What role can foundations play in building country-level capacity for service delivery? The 2014 UN-Water Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-Water (GLAAS) Report identified some key challenges for the WASH sector: weak country capacity to implement plans, gaps in monitoring, and insufficient funding. Based on these identified needs and the research findings, I recommend foundations consider funding the following areas in order to improve the sustainability of the sector:

Strengthen local and national government institutions

Non-governmental organizations working to provide water services in developing countries should be trying to work themselves out of a job. The only sustainable strategy for long-term water service delivery is one where local and national institutions are doing the planning, implementing, and monitoring. The GLAAS survey found that the capacity of government agencies to implement national WASH plans was weak, despite strong political commitments for universal access to water and sanitation. A recent study by Engineers Without Borders-Canada looked comprehensively at the WASH sector in Malawi and they came to the conclusion that “investing in increased coverage must be accompanied by investment in the permanent institutions needed to sustain the service levels”.

Foundations should target funding toward water programs that work in partnership with local governments. Several foundations interviewed are already moving in this direction—shifting from counting boreholes drilled and counting beneficiaries to considering their contribution to systems change. Building capacity of local and national institutions will not only result in more people ultimately benefiting from foundation funds, but it will also increase the effectiveness of the billions of dollars of bilateral aid coming from developed country governments.

Standardize monitoring

The only way to ensure that we are making progress toward SDG 6 is to have a strong monitoring system in place to regularly assess water services. The GLAAS report found that “most sector decisions are not evidence-based due to the widespread lack of capacity for monitoring, inconsistent or fragmented gathering of data and limited use of information management systems and analysis.” Their surveys of countries found that while many countries reported that they have a WASH monitoring framework in place, the reporting is inconsistent and the ability to analyze the data to inform priorities is low. Some INGOs are already investing resources to develop new tools and build capacity of national and local governments to take on long-term, regular monitoring. INGOs are coming out with digital tools to enable more accurate data collection and aggregation, such as remote sensors on pumps and mobile application based surveys. Philanthropic investment should further support these efforts in order to create a sustainable system for long-term monitoring and increase the effectiveness of official development assistance going to national governments. Foundations should encourage coordination among grantees to develop a standardized monitoring framework that allows comparison of project outcomes and can feed into national and international systems to aggregate and share data.

Pilot new approaches

Several foundations mentioned that they see their role as funding the testing of new technologies and approaches. Foundations have greater flexibility to fund untested strategies that have the potential to scale with additional funding from national governments.

Encourage coordination, knowledge generation, and dissemination

The GLAAS report found that in some countries, external development aid is a major source of funding for water infrastructure and that “strong coordination among donors and alignment with sector investment priorities are essential” (UN-Water, 2014). Some funders are already bringing together their grantees working in the same country in order increase coordination. However, this is often done on an ad hoc basis. Funders targeting their efforts toward specific geographic regions can be more deliberate about coordinating work among grantees, as well as ensuring that grantee work is coordinated with the plans and strategies of the national government.

In addition to coordination in the field, foundations could support convenings to bring together the institutional, governmental and non-governmental actors in the WASH sector, or contribute to existing national WASH forums. Most foundations interviewed did not take an active role in participating in sector learning events and knowledge sharing. Providing additional funding for research, evaluation and sharing of best practices, not just among their grantees but also with other funders, would help ensure that future investments made in the sector are benefiting from lessons learned from past failures.

Foundation funding for WASH projects is less than 1% of the money going to deliver water and sanitation services in developing countries. However, foundations have the opportunity to leverage their funds to make an outsized contribution to delivering on the promise in SDG 6 to ensure access to water and sanitation for all. Several of the foundations interviewed recognize the unique role they can play to improve reliability in the sector by investing in innovation and collaboration. These approaches will take longer and outcomes will be harder to measure. Foundations will need to change the way they measure success and lengthen grant timelines in order to sustainably support systems change. Small, private foundations are already transitioning toward taking a long-term, outcome-based approach. Foundations have the flexibility and independence to confirm whether existing or new strategies lead to systems change or sustainable services. If proved out, billions more dollars from bilateral and multilateral institutions and national governments could follow.