It never ceases to amaze me how many grand plans and schemes are announced directed at the same public goods, but remain stranded, time after time after time. The United Nations had declared 1981-91 as International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade that would culminate in ‘Water for All’. But water did not reach all. Another landmark came during 2000 when the Millennium Declaration was signed by 189 countries containing among many others - the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 7 that targeted ‘halving by 2015, the number of people living without safe drinking water or basic sanitation’.

The Geneva based Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) launched WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) campaign in 2001 for achieving this millennium goal. And yet world over, we have over one billion people without safe drinking water and 2.5 billion without proper sanitation. This fate is despite a large number of dedicated functionaries working in the water and sanitation sector. Most of their efforts translate into success stories that do not get scaled up. And experts acknowledge the limitations in replicating their successful models. Why then are targets that cannot be achieved even set, with words just obliterating into rhetoric?

The voices of some 38 practitioners working closely with communities are captured in a WSSCC publication called ‘Listening’. They touch the right cord about the failure after failure in the delivery of basic services. They include those who have felt the frustrations as well as those who have helped pioneer successes and have drawn lessons from the both experiences. Some of these Indian voices, many of us are familiar with, are of Joaquim Arputham (Magsaysay award winner and president of National Slum Dwellers Federation of India), Nafisa Barot (pioneered rainwater harvesting at Utthan, in Gujarat), Bindeshwar Pathak (pioneered toilet construction at Sulabh International) etc. Some 17 from Asia, 9 from Latin America, 9 from Africa and 3 from international agencies recorded their views in independent interviews by WSSCC representatives.

In the introduction to ‘Listening’, WSSCC itself raises the same questions that we all have in our minds. Why have decades of effort and billions of dollars of investment in water and sanitation have so far failed or yielded so little progress? What lessons have been learnt? What are the new approaches that work? Why are they not yet gaining traction?

Decades of failure

The ruins of now-defunct water and sanitation programmes are found from India to Bolivia and Kenya to Nepal. That the traditional top-down approach for providing water and sanitation to poor communities has miserably failed is unanimously mentioned by all the voices. The problem is not lack of resources but lack of willingness on the part of those who allocate those resources and who need to reconsider the old approaches in favour of newer ways of delivery. All the voices firmly believe that the old approach to providing water and sanitation is fatally flawed and that simply pouring more billions of dollars into a cracked vessel will not lead to the MGD but to more years of failure and frustration. So ‘business as usual’ will benefit as usual the business rather than the poor.

New approach

The consensus is that failure has been due to the traditional system of delivering solutions from outside mostly in the form of infrastructure without consulting or involving the communities. Says Jockin (Joaquim) Arputham, “no progress is possible until the urban authorities stop trying to hand down centrally planned solutions. The urban elites are still clinging to the notion that they are the greatest experts in solving problems faced by the poor. It is an attitude which has led to literally thousands of failed projects.”

So the new approach to work closely with poor communities to improve water, sanitation and hygiene has been identified and applied in few cases. In fact it is not really a new approach but has been pioneered at least over last two decades and its vocabulary - ‘community participation’, ‘people-centred’, ‘demand-driven’, ‘empowerment’, ‘rights based’ – have entered into the mainstream of national and international discussion.

Nonetheless, such lip service at national and international level disguises the fact that the new strategies are not yet gaining significant traction on the ground. Pilot projects and programmes have achieved remarkable and illuminating successes but there is as yet little sign of ‘going to scale’.


Why according to the pioneers and experts is the new strategy of demand driven as against the old one of supply driven not gaining momentum?

"Despite the fact that they have been elected by the poor, city politicians adopt the role of patron to the slum dweller – the one who can stay an eviction order, the one who can be bribed into helping a family or solving a particular problem."
-- Sheela Patel, Sparc, NGO

 •  WSSCC publication: "Listening"
First, there is less money to be made. Compared to large contractor-led programmes, a thousand small, community-led initiatives do not provide the same opportunities for export orders, international consultancies, private sector contracts and public sector graft. Nor do they deliver the majority of the benefits to a relatively wealthy, urbanized minority who frequently exert a disproportionate influence on how resources are used. Umesh Pandey, Nepal’s leading campaigner on the issue, says that only 6 per cent of the country’s population are the real decision makers in the sector because Nepal’s government will spend almost half the decade’s resources on water supply for Kathmandu alone.

Further, governments and international organisations tend to be geared to large scale, big budget hierarchically managed, hardware oriented services delivered from the top down. In neither institutional structure nor in habits of mind are they comfortable with the idea of supporting large numbers of small scale, low budget, community managed, behaviour changing, demand driven services.

Second, even when there is serious commitment to demand driven policies at the national level, there are still significant obstacles in the way of implementation. Radical new policies can easily lose their edge by the time they have been passed down to local levels of government where the practical action is required. “Even the best new policies are weakened or destroyed by the time they reach the ground. It is like passing a block of ice through many hands – by the time it reaches poor, there is nothing left” says Sait Damodaran, founder of NGO Gramalaya in Tamil Nadu.

Thirdly, there is a problem of the capability and often of the willingness of local governments to encourage and support community led initiatives. Whether local authorities and public utilities discharge their responsibility of providing logistical and practical support well or badly, transparently or corruptly, arbitrarily or accountably are critical to the success of community efforts. Says Joel Lugolobi, founder of a Ugandan NGO, “I hope politicians will not misunderstand us, but we want to make communities understand that in order to get safe water and other basic needs they need to make their demands known.” In sum, the quality and integrity of local government is critical.

But organizing to demand fairness, accountability and competent services from political representatives is an ideal. The reality is often very different.

May Baap Sarkar

Time and again, the voices in ‘Listening’ return to the question of local and municipal government officials – to their competence, their training, their honesty, their accountability and their attitudes and conclude that the underlying relationship between poor communities and their political representatives that is the deepest threat. That relationship is too often based not on the firm ground of transparent and accountable representation but on the quick sand of corruption and patronage. It is a relationship of patron to client, powerful to powerless, benefactor to supplicant.

On one side of this relationship are local officials who see themselves not as servants of the communities, they represent, least of all the poor communities but as possessors of a status from which they are entitled to derive benefits – psychological and financial, official and unofficial. And this status must be preserved by distributing public resources as ‘booty’ in the form of food subsidies, housing rights, street lighting, taps, toilets – in return for political support.

On the other side, communities have no choice but accept the passive role of dependents, supplicants, and if they can afford – offerers of small bribes. In this way, graft and corruption has become inseparable from the patron-client relationship that usurps genuine political representation. Says Sheela Patel, director of NGO Sparc, “despite the fact that they have been elected by the poor, city politicians adopt the role of patron to the slum dweller – the one who can stay an eviction order, the one who can be bribed into helping a family or solving a particular problem. Often their very survival in office depends upon their ability to portray themselves as ‘protector of the slums’. In this scheme, it is essential that the slum dwellers remain passive and vulnerable.”

Ratnakar Gaikwad, a senior IPS official supports this argument. “City politicians will almost always try to develop their status as the ultimate ruler and protector of a slum and that means cultivating a mentality of dependence in slum residents – ‘May-Bap’ relationship. Initiatives that encourage self-reliance strike at the root of that relationship”, he says. Kenyan NGO leader Josiah Omotto agrees “city councilors like to be seen providing services to their constituents, some like to use their own favourite contractors.”

Thus failure of local democracy to adequately represent the interests of poor communities lies close to the heart of the issue of failures. Also, as David Omayo - founder of Kenyan NGO – describes, “communities sit and wait for the mzungu (white people) of the donor organizations or someone for city council to come and do it for them”. South Africa’s Tsepo Khumbane believes that “the way we deal with communities right now undermines their intelligence, their dignity, their capability and their innovativeness.”

Is there a way out?

In the face of such obstacles, how can change happen? To begin at the community level, igniting ‘real demand’ and ‘real participation’ is not a process that happens by spontaneous combustion but a spark is usually provided by an organisation or individual from within or from outside the community. Though there are thousands and thousands of such NGOs, the fact remains that they are simply not enough or unable to ferment action on a necessary scale. The battle may not be winnable by NGOs alone. It requires national governments, the bilateral and international agencies that work together to stimulate and support the new approaches. And the stimulus will have to come from the local governments, for which the governments must lead a campaign directed at its own personnel.

However, the difficulty of this task and orienting local authorities towards it must not be underestimated. Says WaterAid executive director Ravi Narayan, “municipal governments do not have the kind of skills and understanding demanded by the new approach. Very often they are untrained, unfamiliar, and even unwilling to work alongside communities in the pursuit of people-led, local-specific solutions. Any devolution of responsibility and resources must therefore be accompanied by a major effort to train and motivate people at the delivery end of operations. Without capable and committed municipal personnel, a national government’s acceptance of the new approach will have no impact on the ground.”

In many instances, community participation is construed as abrogation of responsibility of local governments while demand driven approaches in fact need more government involvement not less. Says Shunmuga Paramasivan, Water Aid’s India representative that “it is imperative for governments not just to go along with this, but to throw their full weight behind the effort. The sheer scale of task demands their active participation, not their passive acquiescence.”

In sum, NGOs can pioneer new ways for a limited number of communities. But it is the priorities and policies, attitudes and actions of the local and national governments that will largely determine whether known solutions will be put into action on the same scale as the known problems.

It is here that the battle of scales will be won or lost.