Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Is Aid Part of the Solution? Thoughts from the 2013 UNC Water and Health Conference Panel

Posted by Tessie San Martin - Plan International USA CEO

Last week I had the opportunity to participate in the 2013 Water and Health Conference, hosted by the University of North Carolina’s Water Institute. The conference, the brainchild of the articulate and charismatic Dr. Jamie Bartram, formerly of the World Health Organization (WHO) and now a professor at UNC, convenes an eclectic blend of field practitioners, policy wonks and academic researchers. The conference works, and results in very interesting, thought-provoking, and forward-looking presentations and conversations about what we must do to push for progress in access to improved water and sanitation.

I was invited to a panel to discuss what role aid has played advancing access to clean water and sanitation. A recent UNU-WIDER publication (Jamie Bartram was one of the authors) on the role of aid in the water and sanitation sector reported that the $US80 billion per year spent on water showed “no detectable effect” on progress towards the MDG goals. This is not very comforting.

Just before the panel I had finished a book by Angus Deaton, an economics professor from Princeton titled “The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality”. The “great escape” of the title, he writes, is “the story of mankind’s escaping from deprivation and early death”. Professor Deaton’s last chapter is what depressed me. He very provocatively argues that foreign aid has not done much to erase poverty because foreign aid is not motivated by need but by politics and economics (e.g. to buy political allies or promote commercial interests). The research cited in the UNU-WIDER publication would seem to confirm this. Aid flows in the water sector are not necessarily driven by need or technical analysis of requirements but by a variety of other factors and donor agendas. These findings should make every aid practitioner despair. Or should they?

Do the UNU-WIDER results mean that aid does not work in the sector either? Not necessarily. First of all, as Bill Easterly noted a decade ago and more recently Chris Blattman noted in a blog on Deaton’s book, it all depends on what is your definition of “aid” and what is your definition of “works.” The fact is that there is not much we do know about the effect of aid on development.

In part this is a data problem. Aid volume flows numbers tell us little about the composition of aid. Composition matters. In the case of the water and sanitation sector the flows do not distinguish between aid used to finance infrastructure and aid used for institutional strengthening, planning and policy - what the paper calls “catalytic aid.” The authors acknowledge that not much can be said about the impact of different compositions of aid on the sector.

Part of the reason the authors cannot tell us much about the impact of catalytic aid on the sector is the lack of comparable and more granular aid data within the water (or, for that matter, any) sector. It is the reason why the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) is so important: governments and development organizations are now committing to a common standard and time schedule for publishing aid information. By publishing to IATI, organizations are providing current information in a standardized, comparable format that is useful and more meaningful, because it can be compared across donors, sectors, and countries.

Almost 200 organizations, including the World Bank and several UN agencies, are now publishing to IATI. It is imperative that more development agencies, including INGOs like Plan, also commit to IATI. This will help us understand better the composition of aid flows and lead to better donor coordination, program design choices, and improved aid effectiveness across all sectors, including water.

Let’s examine how Plan’s own WASH sector work has changed over the years and what this has meant for the effectiveness of our own programs. While Plan continues to maintain considerable investments in water and sanitation, the composition of that aid has changed considerably. We have moved from a focus on financing “hardware” (building wells, boreholes, latrines and so on) to supporting “software” (working with the communities and the local authorities to improve their ability to plan, budget, and manage facilities together).

We know from recent investments in post-interventions studies, conducted 5-10 years after leaving the communities that are now seen as being able to support themselves, that the composition of the aid makes a difference. The post intervention study undertaken in Kenya almost two years ago and in the Philippines more recently, found that Plan’s work with village water committees and local authorities, was among the most impactful and enduring of its interventions.

Is all of this definitive proof that aid does work? No, but it does illustrate how much remains to be known about aid’s role in the sector. Each donor and participant in the sector has a small part of the overall picture. We need to get better at sharing it all. As a donor and an international community we need to invest in better data (which requires better information systems), more sophisticated monitoring and evaluation systems, and in research. The better we share timely, comparable and accurate information about all the forms of aid across every sector, the better choices we can all make about its use.

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