Changing the way we change the world

Kampala WASH Symposium: Recognizing the Role of Governments in Sustainable WASH Systems

By Susan Davis, Executive Director, Improve International

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Last month, I went to one day of the Kampala WASH Symposium. The theme was “From Projects to Services: WASH Sustainability through Whole System Approaches.”  I wish I could have attended more, especially the open houses and field trips, but had had other commitments. This was the sixth in a series of sustainability forums, and it was different in many ways from its predecessors (I attended all but the 2012 forum). For example, it was the first one to be held in (and hosted by) a developing country.

This table with a rough comparison of the past events shows an encouraging trend – increased government participation (note: the report with attendee list is not yet available, and the agenda didn’t list details of presenters).

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Here are some quotes related to government from past reports:

2010 – The “What If” film “shows the struggles and issues connected with NGOs, local and national governments in WASH projects as they discussed issues of accountability, and working toward solutions to the day-to-day challenges affecting them and the interventions in their community.”

2011 – In Latin America, “history has shown that, ‘Money itself is not the problem. I think the problem is more about the institutions and governments behind the systems.’ Throughout the 1980’s, responsibility for rural water systems was decentralized due to weak institutions, shifting the responsibility for operations and maintenance onto the communities alone.”

2012 – “Multiple groups suggested that an obstacle to communication was competition between similar organisations. NGOs particularly highlighted the need to replace competition with coordination by partnering or working with one another, and to improve coordination with governments. Some specific suggestions were to harmonise ground-level efforts (e.g. monitoring), and build more on existing institutions and systems.”

2013 – “In the long run, responsibility for WASH service sustainability lies with government. Therefore, governments should be involved in WASH interventions from the beginning. NGOs and donors must be aware of the structures and regulations already in place and work within them to the fullest extent possible. The structures and regulations can be changed through advocacy efforts, but the government should have ownership of the process. WASH stakeholders should also support institutional capacity building when needed.”

2014 – “The need to integrate tools better with national, government-led systems and processes and make strong accountability linkages to end users; The need to invest more in the enabling environment and national capacity and systems.”

So, what was new in 2016? It brought a stronger focus on systemic change, and government’s central role in this. The thematic overview for the symposium states: “While external aid can be an important part of the solution, such support too often fails to make links with the broader ecosystem critical for ensuring sustainability. This system normally includes mandated authorities, private sector companies, national and global systems and tools, and local institutions among which the intervention is situated.”

In keeping with the theme, a panel of government representatives from Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and Zambia answered the question “what would you like NGOs to do differently?” Their responses can be summarized in these key points.

  • Trust governments to lead, involve them early, involve them well
  • Build on the momentum existing development plans and political commitments – work constructively, proactively, and from an informed position
  • Understand your context; know who you are working with
  • Provide evidence to governments for actions/policies

The reason we continue have these forums is that all of us within the system need to work differently. Do you have examples of how your organization has changed its role to better work within a country’s system?  Please comment below. For those of you who will be at the WEDC International Conference in Ghana next week, let’s continue the conversation at our side event “Overcoming Barriers to System-Wide Action in the WASH Sector” on Wednesday, July 13 after lunch.

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