With a few changes, charitable foundations have the potential to make deep improvements in the water, sanitation and hygiene sector in developing countries. Financially, foundations contribute little to the sector – less than 5 percent of the total funding that goes to these projects, (WASHFunders). But they have the opportunity to leverage their funds strategically to make an outsized contribution. With decisive grant making, foundations can propel the WASH sector to success, delivering on the promise of the Sustainable Development Goal Six to ensure access to water and sanitation for all. Here is how.

With decisive grant making, foundations can propel the WASH sector to success.

In 2015 the international community celebrated the achievement of the Millennium Development Goal to halve the proportion of the population without access to improved water sources. However, over 600 million people still live without access to water and billions lack access to sufficient quality and quantity of water. This is partly because of the high failure rate of many rural water points. More and smarter investments in rural water services are needed in order to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6: universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all.

While many studies have examined the causes for water point failures, there is still a lack of consensus on the specific combination of factors that influence reliability. A recent systematic review by Walters and Javernick-Will analyzed almost a hundred articles pertaining to functionality of rural water points. They found 157 different factors potentially impacting reliability, related to government, community, external support management, financial, environment and energy, technology, construction materials, and water system functionality.

It is clear that community-based management will not lead to long-term provision of clean water services for poor, rural communities. Long-term service support is needed.

The Unlocking the Potential for Groundwater for the Poor (UPGro) research project piloted a methodology in Uganda to uncover the causes of water point failure. The pilot study report found that “there is limited data or analysis on why sources are non‐functional and therefore little opportunity to learn from past mistakes” (Bonsor 2015). An analysis of the community-managed handpumps in three countries in sub-Saharan Africa came to the conclusion “in pursuit of an MDG defined by access to improved water source technologies, a focus on installing infrastructure has arguably been at the expense of putting in place the institutional, operational, and financial arrangements required to keep systems working indefinitely” (Foster 2013). It is clear that a focus on water access and dependency on community-based management will not lead to long-term provision of clean water services for poor, rural communities. Long-term service support is needed so that when water points break down, communities are able to get the technical assistance and resources they need to fix them.

What role can foundations play to build country level capacity for service delivery? Through interviews with foundation program officers and WASH international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), I sought to explore the role of funders in improving long-term service reliability of rural water projects in developing countries. My research focused on three main questions: How funders promote water point service reliability through grant application guidelines and funding decisions, how funders and grantees monitor reliability of rural water projects, and how funders and grantees measure the success of rural water projects.

These are the main findings from the interviews.

  • Foundations and INGOs are focusing more on sustainability and capacity building for local governments in response to the transition from the Millennium Development Goals to the Sustainable Development Goals;
  • INGOs raised the issue of grant restrictions (cost per person, geographic restrictions, overhead limits) as an issue for the sector and would sometimes choose not to apply for grants from certain types of funders, such as large bilateral and multilateral institutions, due to such restrictions;
  • BUT the INGOs interviewed did not think that restrictions on grants from foundations (geographic restrictions, limits on overhead cost) hindered their organization’s ability to provide reliable water services, because they found funders that aligned with their implementation strategy or supplemented restricted grant funds with unrestricted funds from other sources; and
  • Some foundations had public commitments related to the number of people they would provide with clean water or number of projects they would fund in a certain timeframe, and required their grantees to report on specific indicators related to those commitments. Foundations with those commitments are corporate and non-profits that act as pass-through funders—raising money from the public and then providing grants to other NGOs to implement the projects. The private family foundations interviewed, on the other hand, were more flexible in how they measured success and would often use the indicators proposed by the grantee.

The 2014 UN-Water Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-Water Report (GLAAS 2014) identified some key challenges for the WASH sector: weak country capacity to implement plans, gaps in monitoring, and insufficient funding. Based on these country-identified needs and the research findings, I recommend foundations target grantmaking toward the following areas in order to improve the sustainability of the sector as a whole: strengthen local and national government institutions, standardize monitoring, pilot new approaches, and encourage coordination, knowledge generation and dissemination.

Foundations have the flexibility to confirm which strategies lead to sustainable services.

These approaches will take longer and outcomes will be harder to measure. Foundations will need to change the way they measure success and lengthen grant timelines in order to sustainably support systems change.

Several of the foundations interviewed recognize the unique role they can play to improve reliability in the sector by investing in innovation and collaboration. Some small, private foundations are already transitioning toward taking a long-term, outcome-based approach. The sector should encourage this to continue.

Foundations have the flexibility and independence to confirm whether existing or new strategies lead to systems change or sustainable services. If proved out, billions more dollars from bilateral and multilateral institutions and national governments could follow.

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