How to finance safe and affordable Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) for everyone

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Since its inception, the Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) partnership has recognised the primacy of financing in catalysing progress. Since 2010 it has held four high-level meetings with finance ministers from all around the world alongside the World Bank’s Spring Meetings.

These meetings have become known as the ‘SWA Finance Ministers’ Meeting’ (FMM). They are brief opportunities (about two hours in length) to showcase why water, sanitation and hygiene are deserving of more public funds, and to outline the investment opportunities for governments and private sector alike by using successful case studies.

As with hundreds of other meetings this year, the SWA Finance Ministers’ Meeting planned for April 2020 was cancelled. But like some wonderful Greek mythical creature, this one global meeting has sprouted into three regional meetings with Finance and Sector Ministers giving these regular high-level meetings a new format and a new audience. The first meeting in early November is for Africa, followed in two-week intervals by Latin America and the Caribbean and then Asia and the Pacific.

The advantages of this new format are obvious: regional meetings engage regional organisations which to date have been relatively silent in SWA; and it encourages participation among peer countries in a more meaningful way – not to mention the avoidance of travel costs and carbon emissions that face-to-face meetings entail. So, I am personally looking forward greatly to the events and seeing outcomes of this new approach.

Why would a Finance Minister be interested in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) during these tumultuous times?

I can’t claim to know the inside of a Finance Ministers’ mind, but I would expect that their chief concerns are how to protect their economies during the COVID-19 pandemic and how to restart their economies as the threat is diminished. Hence, if we cannot link our aim – maintaining and expanding WASH service levels – with the concerns of a Minister of Finance, there will be little interest to engage with us during this very busy and challenging period.

Indeed, we have much to link WASH with the concerns of a Finance Minister: first, the quality of WASH – in particular hygiene measures like handwashing – are closely bound with the pandemic’s trajectory as stated by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); second, having water and toilets available at home makes it easier for communities to adhere to lockdown measures for the greater good; third, a breakdown of WASH services threatens to bring further health impacts, social disruption and economic losses – the lack of WASH services was estimated to cost the world US$260billion in 2010;

And fourth, a return to ‘normality’ depends on WASH services operating in both public places and institutions such as workplaces, schools and healthcare facilities. However, a report in 2020 from WHO and UNICEF stated that 2 in 5 schools around the world lacked basic handwashing facilities prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Advocacy for WASH financing is not a one-off, but a perennial activity

 While all these arguments for WASH are clear and supported by evidence, the policy dialogue is currently crowded by so many issues and concerns that the need for WASH has to be continually articulated at the highest levels of government and development organisations, and throughout society. Hence, making an investment case for WASH remains fundamental to receiving funding allocations from government or donors, and attention from the private sector.

Other social sectors such as health and education have benefitted from high level advocacy/political attention, and subsequently have received greater fund allocations. Indeed, with WASH this has been achieved in some countries, with several notable examples showing Heads of State putting their political reputations on the line. For example, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to make India free of open defecation within 5  – and put behind it over US$20billion of government funds to achieve it. But the India case remains an exception rather than the rule.

What are my expectations of these regional finance ministers’ meetings?                           There are three long-term outcomes that I hope this series of regional meetings will contribute to:

Bring global funds to countries                                                                                                        

We hear about billions of dollars being released by development banks or global funds, such as the Green Climate Fund, which are available for WASH. This now includes funds for WASH activities under the COVID-19 response, such as from the World Bank. However, despite the very urgent need, these funds are often very slow to arrive and insufficient for the global needs to meet the global WASH targets.

WASH must be (seen as) investible                                                                                                                        We need to be better at identifying the investment opportunities in water, sanitation and hygiene, including attracting private sector finance. Whether it is a financial return on investment, a return on health, a return on women or a return on children, we need to be in the right places with the right messages to make sure that our advocacy efforts are impactful.

For example, a recent SWA call to action for world leaders urges them to recognise the vital role of WASH in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, there is no shortage of options for bringing in the private sector through different blended finance arrangements – where in essence public funding leverages much larger financial volumes from the private sector – but the success will depend on the underlying sector governance, such as regulations, transparent bidding processes and trust in the law; all of which give investors the needed confidence to invest.

We have to make better use of existing funds                                                                                  

We need better evidence of the status and opportunities in the sector, better mechanisms and more accountability. We also need financiers to work together on collectively achieving shared targets, such as the establishment of pooled funds under a sector-wide approach. In Ethiopia, several development partners such as the World Bank and UNICEF worked closely with the Ethiopian government to ensure official development assistance worth hundreds of millions of dollars supported national plans.

By demonstrating more responsible use of existing sector financing, it will leverage more resources. There are many ways of increasing sector efficiency and equity: from quicker adoption of promising low-cost technologies, to better management of services, to reallocating sector budgets to those most left behind, to overall sector governance and strengthening. Underlying these many actions is a solid sector financing strategy and a realistic work-plan that is funded and has clearly assigned roles and responsibilities.

While the above indicates general principles, solutions must be tailored to every country; hence, this will mean the options for service delivery models, tariff policies and subsidy approaches, regulatory environments and technological solutions need to be assessed in each context. A new initiative of SWA on Strengthening Systems and Finance will help provide global advocacy and bring about focused attention in countries to remove bottlenecks to WASH financing, and help advance the conversations taking place in and around the regional finance ministers’ meetings.

In conclusion, these FMMs represent key moments for WASH advocacy and solution-seeking which we cannot afford to waste. Finance Ministers fundamentally need to know that the WASH sector is improving and developing in a systematic way, informed by good evidence and a long-term vision. The FMMs therefore provide an opportunity to honestly put all these issues on the table and walk away with a plan for revitalising the sector that has the buy-in of ministers and eventually heads of state.

Target-setting and commitment-making are very major tasks which key stakeholders and constituencies need to formulate and implement together. The results of these meetings can be reflected not only in a strong intention to accelerate progress toward universal coverage, but also in national pledges to the international community through the SWA Mutual Accountability Mechanism, which has already seen over 300 commitments across more than 50 countries.

The writer is the Senior Adviser for water, sanitation and hygiene, UNICEF

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