3 Questions for… John Oldfield of WASH Advocates

Editors Note: Leading up to the U.S. Philanthropy and WASH seminar at World Water Week on Wednesday, August 29th, in Stockholm, we decided to pose three questions to the panel’s esteemed group of foundation and NGO leaders to give you a preview of their conversation. We will post a new interview each day this week so check back daily or sign up for e-mail updates. In this post, John Oldfield, CEO of WASH Advocates, discusses the need for stronger political will to solve the WASH crisis, as well as the link between WASH and nutrition. In yesterday’s post, John Thomas examined the role that philanthropic investment can play in cultivating innovative WASH solutions.

John Oldfield, CEO of WASH Advocates

1. Describe what your organization does and what your role is.

WASH Advocates is a nonprofit, nonpartisan initiative entirely dedicated to helping solve the global safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) challenge. Our mission is to raise awareness of WASH issues, and convert that heightened awareness into increased financial and political capital throughout the developing world.

The only way the world will achieve universal coverage of safe drinking water and sanitation is if every government (at national, provincial, and municipal levels) prioritizes WASH for all of its citizens. As the CEO, I look for ways to influence WASH-related public policy and country budgets, and I look for advocacy allies from civil society groups, philanthropists, corporations, and faith communities across the globe.

2. Tell us one provocative question or issue you hope to tackle on the U.S. Philanthropy and WASH panel, and why.

People interested in solving the global WASH challenge often ask “Why is there still a WASH problem in 2012?” A recurring answer from many in the sector is: “…because of a lack of political will,” but then the conversation dies since no one really knows what that means. The question I’d like to see this panel tackle is “How does one create political will in each developing country with high rates of WASH poverty, and how can the international donor community help catalyze and convert that strengthened political will into stronger policies and increased budgets for WASH in those countries?”

WASH Advocates works with a number of global, regional, and local partners around the world who are encouraging their own governments to increasingly prioritize WASH. We are looking for ways to strengthen the capacity of country-level civil society groups to work more closely with their elected leaders, because the ‘end game’ for the global WASH challenge is not what we in the international donor community can do, but rather what public sector leaders in developing countries can accomplish sustainably with their own taxpayer resources.

Working with governments in Africa, Asia, and Latin America is often contentious and time-consuming. However, WASH Advocates contends that the quickest way to true scale in the WASH sector is to involve governments from day one of the design phase of any sizeable WASH programs. This will lead to increased program sustainability in the short-term, and to scale (not just scalability) over the long run.

3. What are you most looking forward to about Stockholm and/or World Water Week?

WASH Advocates is attending World Water Week 2012 to explore the myriad connections between political leaders and WASH across the globe, both in developed and developing countries. Advocacy is not (yet) sexy, and we will be looking for ways to make WASH advocacy more tangible and attractive to civil society leaders, WASH program experts, and the international donor community.

Every political leader anywhere in the developed and developing world wants to prioritize WASH in his or her budget; it is not difficult to garner support for this issue. Our job at WASH Advocates is to help change the political equation, e.g., to minimize the political risk that political leaders must incur if they prioritize WASH among many other equally important development challenges. Political leaders are motivated to act if they hear about a challenge from their own people, and if they understand how the challenge is solvable.

During World Water Week, I am also particularly interested in the linkages between WASH and under-nutrition in children in developing countries. It is under-recognized that unsafe water and inadequate sanitation cause approximately half of childhood under-nutrition. This year’s World Water Week theme will facilitate opportunities for the WASH and nutrition sectors to discuss more integrated programming.