4 political errors to avoid in achieving water and sanitation for all

This blog is written by Nathaniel Mason, Senior Research Fellow, ODI. It first appeared on odi.org.


Eliminating inequality is integral to the Sustainable Development Goals , from ‘universal access’ to water, to ending poverty ‘everywhere’. Yet in a world where the politics of who gets what is increasingly polarised, leaving no-one behind is fundamentally a political project.

In a recent study with WaterAid in Nepal , for example, we found that in rural areas a combination of poverty, caste, and geography have shut the poorest fifth out of politics. While access to water has increased significantly for others, they are lagging behind.

Every city, country or district has its own political rules, most of which aren’t written down. Yet despite all this complexity, experts working on essential services like water, sanitation, health or education can avoid some common political missteps, wherever they work. Here are four most typical ones:

Error 1. If something is an ‘essential service’, it’s a top priority for people and politicians

Poor people live with high levels of risk and face hard choices every day. In urban Ghana , poor residents told us that they choose to buy water from street vendors, as getting connected is too expensive. Meanwhile, politicians have crowded agendas – and delivering services doesn’t always win votes. In Ghana we found more gets spent on grand, visible water treatment and storage projects, than on small pipes connecting homes.

Error 2. Self-interest trumps grand narratives and values

Experts in essential services often assume that politicians, civil servants and citizens will respond the way they expect, if the personal incentives are right. They fail to talk about the big idea or tell a story. Softer ideas and values can be important drivers in the narrative of reform. In other research for WaterAid we found that sanitation is being sold to India and Indonesia’s political classes as a matter of collective pride and modernity. The same approach in East Asian countries like South Korea and Singapore revolutionised sanitation in the 1960s.

Error 3. I’m talking to the minister so I’ve got politics covered

If you’re focused on a particular topic, it’s tempting to think about the politics of your sector. In water and sanitation, we have a tendency to focus on water and health ministries. But how government and society interact in the wider sense can be more important. In Cambodia, politicians strike bargains to get into power; the need to pay back supporters can trump investing in health or sanitation for citizens. In Ethiopia , local officials involved in sanitation can be more reactive to orders from the ruling party than their bosses in the ministry.

Error 4. Being pro-poor means working only with poor people

Because power and resources are often stacked against poor people and communities, it is essential to keep a focus on their rights. But there are cases where pro-poor strategies need to line up with improvements to wider services, so that wealthier people feel included and support reforms. World Bank research across a number of water utilities in Africa shows that pro-poor reforms tended to start with wider performance improvements, closely followed by dedicated (and well resourced) strategies to serve poor people.

For anyone dedicated to a particular issue like water, health or education, facing the truths behind political priorities can be hard. But if the goal is structural reform to tackle deep-rooted inequalities and the power and interests behind them, we need to confront them. That will call for realism about why, and for whom, your issue matters.

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