Thursday, December 1, 2022

The End of Aid

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By Ton Schouten, senior programme officer at IRC, an international think-and-do tank supporting water sanitation and hygiene services for life.

Providing first time access to water and sanitation in developing countries is a matter of aid: fighting extreme poverty. But developing permanent services is a different ball game and it needs to be led by government. More than 30 percent of water systems in Sub-Sahara Africa are not functional. Only around 20 percent of the functioning water systems provide a basic level of service: water of WHO accepted quality, flowing 90 percent of the time and at a reasonable distance from the house. Meaning that 80 percent of the water systems in Africa provide a bad service!

Over the last decades huge progress has been made in constructing water systems. But many of the shiny pumps and pipes break within two to three years. It is like on a conveyer belt: infrastructure gains are undone by losses at the end of the belt.the_wash_conveyer_belt image (1)

Non-functionality and break downs of water systems show that something is very fundamentally wrong in the system that delivers water. For decades that system was driven by providing first time access. Now that system needs to provide permanent water services and it can’t. Providing first time access is a matter of aid and fighting extreme poverty; get the pumps and pipes in fast. But developing permanent services is a different ball game and it needs to be led by government. It needs to develop the systems for maintenance of water systems, for support after construction, for spare parts, for repairs and it must plan for replacement. No aid agency can do that. Government should not do that all by itself; communities and private sector are better equipped for doing the job. But government regulates it all, through policy, legislation, guidelines, subsidies to reach the ultra-poor and more.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. That government role is played in the US and in Europe. And that is how it should be. Africa should not be aid dependent for the rest of our times. No country should. And it won’t. Africa has some fast growing economies and stable democracies and some countries are not marked poor anymore but middle income. The public systems (water, health, education) need a lot of improvement, but the trend is irreversibly going in that direction. Experts say that by 2050 Africa will be the China of the world. The aid industry better be ready for that and start shifting the focus of its work from providing first time access to supporting the delivery of permanent services.

Both government and aid must get their act together. Governments should stop leaning and depending on good willing aid organisations. They should show leadership and vision towards the aid industry, stimulate the private sector and be accountable towards their citizens. Aid organisations should also get their act together and stop running around in parallel projects each with their own manuals, technologies, guidelines and philosophies and cooperate with (local) government, challenge it and at the same time align with it.

We in IRC help countries to gradually make that future come true. With respect for all stakeholders, but in the first place boosting government to develop the systems and take the leadership to deliver permanent services to citizens. Aid will stop one day and it should stop one day. Aid organisations should be confident that they have supported the building of water systems when it was desperately needed and can leave the country with the systems in place to provide long term access to water for all.

About IRC

IRC is an international think-and-do tank that works with governments, NGOs, entrepreneurs and people around the world to find long-term solutions to the global crisis in water, sanitation and hygiene services. At the heart of its mission is the aim to move from short-term interventions to sustainable water, sanitation and hygiene services. With over 45 years of experience, IRC runs projects in more than 25 countries and large-scale programmes in seven focus countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It is supported by a team of over 100 staff across the world.

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