Back to basics: Water for the poor

Jan 25, 2012


Lisa Schechtman
Head of Policy & Advocacy, WaterAid in America

A child at a new water point in Rwanda.

Last month, I joined the international development community in celebrating the bipartisan introduction of the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act of 2012 in the House of Representatives. It is needed and smart legislation in its own right, but it's also a response to the need to improve USAID's implementation of the Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act of 2005. Yet, the requirements of that landmark 2005 law still stand—and, if fully implemented, could make a bigger difference in the lives of poor people worldwide—regardless of what happens in Congress.

This month, WaterAid, Natural Resources Defense Council, and CARE released our fourth annual report on implementation of the Water for the Poor Act.  This law has made a critical difference by establishing a new US foreign policy focus on water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) and helping to save countless lives, but problems with implementation remain. Central to these is the continued lack of a comprehensive strategy to guide the US's approach to water programs, including household WASH, disaster response, water resource management, agriculture, and conservation.  

Without a defined approach, programs can be ad hoc or poorly designed or targeted. A strategy gives accountability for meeting legal requirements to prioritize water, sanitation and hygiene, and integrate them with other sectors, such as HIV/AIDS, education, and economic empowerment.

For example, without a strategy, some USAID country programs may choose to work with the education sector to ensure latrines are at every school, whereas others may plan only one sector at a time, with little interaction across USAID bureaus or national government ministries. Or, USAID missions may direct funding to politically strategic regions that already have good WASH access, skipping nearby communities where poverty is greater and water and sanitation are sorely needed.

Since water, sanitation and hygiene impact so many areas of USAID's work, a strategy that promotes attention to the links would increase the efficiency of US tax dollars and improve more lives.

A strategy creates oversight of USAID missions, who are responsible for identifying national priorities in collaboration with local government and civil society.  USAID missions are inconsistent in their consultations with civil society and communities, yet it is these groups who really know what is needed and works best in their countries. By defining how to coordinate and collaborate, a water strategy would centralize responsibility for knowing how things are working and applying lessons accordingly. It would provide predictability in where the funding goes—critical for good planning—and enhance USAID's own efforts to reduce poverty.

Six years after a comprehensive water strategy was mandated by law, there are indications that real work is underway, with the goal to finalize the strategy in the first half of 2012. This is welcome news—in principle. But a strategy written exclusively by people inside the US government may turn out to be business as usual.


-- Lisa Schechtman, Head of Policy and Advocacy, WaterAid in America


Photo credit: WaterAid / Zute Lightfoot