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Sanitation Software: a Smart Investment for High Level Meeting

GENEVA, Apr 9 2014 (IPS) - There are great expectations for the Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) High Level Meeting (HLM) in Washington, DC, later this week. The 2012 meeting, through engagement with Finance ministries, saw almost 40 developing countries make pledges designed to provide an additional 60 million people with improved drinking water sources and another 80 million people with access to improved sanitation between 2012 and 2014.

Donors also said they would massively increase the number of people they are reaching. At this HLM, we will see how they have done. An ambitious meeting agenda has been set under the theme of Smart investments to achieve water, sanitation and hygiene for all.

One of the advantages of a partnership such as SWA is that it allows its members to bring their experience, expertise and views to the table. With that in mind, I ask the question, particularly for sanitation and hygiene, what is a “smart investment”?

It is an important question, because in these times of fiscal austerity, every Dollar, West African Franc, Pound, Kenyan Schilling, Euro or other currency must be invested with maximum efficiency if it is really to benefit poor people.

At WSSCC, we believe strongly in large-scale, “software” approaches that can bring about lasting changes in people’s behaviour as a method of eliminating the practice of open defecation, the first step up the sanitation ladder for more than 1 billion people.

Software approaches include interventions at the community level that sensitize households about the connection between sanitation and health, hygiene and human dignity.

They also involve working with local governments and other forms of local authority to institutionalize safe sanitation and hygiene; as well as collaborative initiatives with small scale entrepreneurs that strengthen emerging markets for sanitation solutions, large and small.

While software approaches undoubtedly have their challenges, hardware provision and construction of toilets based on subsidy models have several problems that make them unsustainable and poor investments.

Fundamentally, they’re expensive, and they don’t reach large numbers of a population. Also, they tend to create disincentives for people to improve their sanitation, maintain their facilities or undertake hygiene practices associated with improved sanitation.

In addition, the processes associated with the disbursement of hardware subsidies are particularly vulnerable to non-performance and cost-overruns.

Contracting out the construction of toilets to third party firms, for example, can result in kickbacks and other rent-seeking behaviours that occur as subsidies are disbursed by central government, administered by local government and third-party operators, and route to community leaders and the intended beneficiaries

Hardware subsidies are also politically problematic. Few countries in the world are able to finance subsidies to the entire population of those in need of improved sanitation. Once you have limited resources, where they go or don’t go, can become a political hot potato.

We all know that every country in the world has its own idiosyncrasies, history and baggage; so when one constituency benefits from a subsidy at the expense of other communities, the selection process naturally generates a level of frustration in those communities that didn’t receive funding.

Conscious of these limitations of hardware subsidies, WSSCC promotes a software approach to sanitation financing through the Global Sanitation Fund. This approach allows us to work with communities, small-scale entrepreneurs and local governments to foster understanding about the importance of sanitation as a means to improve health, education and productivity.

Through Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS), institutional triggering and sanitation marketing, the Council makes investments that can result in five times as many people gaining access to sanitation compared to a similar investment made in a hardware subsidy programme.

Importantly, beneficiaries of hardware subsidies don’t usually change their behaviour towards sanitation and hygiene. Once they have the subsidy they have little incentive to maintain the toilets, and there is little scope for understanding of hygiene. There is also no thought that there will be additional financing once the state makes that initial investment to improve sanitation.

India provides a good case and point. About 60% of the one billion people who open defecate daily live in India. India is well aware of the problem and is pumping huge sums of money into sanitation through a massive hardware subsidy programme.

In some States, open defecation has been eliminated without subsidies, or by combining subsidies with behaviour change programming. However, in most of the country, the Federal government and State governments simply finance toilet construction.

There is a huge debate about the effectiveness and sustainability of this. At worst, it is counter-productive. If people don’t maintain facilities, or the hygiene practices associated with them, the large-scale, resource intensive hardware investments will basically be lost.

Hardware versus software also raises questions about how to manage people’s expectations and personal choices. The Indian government does not hand out cell phones, but even the very poor buy them because they find phones to be important. They generate business, facilitate communication, and are considered necessary to everyday life.

When people make the positive connection between sanitation and health, they too will build a latrine with their own resources, as we have seen with the national programmes funded by the GSF in 11 countries. Once sensitized, individual households mobilize their own investments to construct toilets or pay local entrepreneurs to do it for them.

Unfortunately, the public resources invested in behaviour change approaches are few. Central governments are failing overall to invest adequately in sanitation.

It will be crucial in the coming years for governments to make the political case for sanitation and hygiene, arguing forcefully that by eradicating open defecation, improving sanitation, and reaching the targets they themselves have established, they can reduce their health budgets by four or five times the cost of the initial software investment.

As such, it is up to cabinet secretaries to establish a longer-term perspective and break away from the four-to-five year election cycles that govern their behaviour. External support agencies in the WASH sector also must also have the courage to raise their game.

They need to reach consensus and adopt an international protocol on behaviour change financing for sanitation and hygiene. And they must demonstrate to governments with clear and concrete evidence that software approaches are not a soft option for dealing with the global sanitation crisis. This HLM provides a great opportunity to showcase this smart approach to investing in sanitation.

* Dr. Christopher W. Williams is Executive Director, Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), and Multilateral Representative, SWA Steering committee

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