30 Mar 2011

More funding for the water sector must be good news, surely?

The Ministry of Water had an important visitor last week - President Jakaya Kikwete himself. Like any good visitor, he came bearing gifts, pretty impressive ones at that. Reports differ on the precise amount promised, but whether it's "between 500 and 700 billion shillings" (The Citizen) or a straight "700 billion" (The Guardian), this is serious money. The Ministry's budget for the current financial year is "only" 300 billion, itself a major increase compared to just a few years earlier.

Surely this is good news. After all, as this blog has argued previously, the sector lacks political attention, services in both rural and urban areas are poor, and existing funding is only a drop in the ocean compared what's required to solve these problems.

Well, in many ways it is good news. If people in rural and urban areas who don't currently have access to clean and safe water are to gain access, a lot of money is going to be needed, a lot more than is being spent even with the recent budget increases. So the evidence of new political backing to increase focus on the sector is positive and should be applauded. In this sense, some of the other sound-bites from the President's speech (all cited from the Citizen and Guardian articles linked above) are just as interesting as the funding pledge:
"With a meagre budgetary allocation, access to safe and clean water for Tanzanians will remain a dream."
last year the country focussed on ‘Kilimo Kwanza’ strategy and that the government has been improving infrastructure, health and education but water had not been given the priority it deserved.
“This time, we will deal with the water sector. In fact, this is our top priority.” 
But I've also been hearing more sceptical views. For example, a senior ministry official put it to me that an announcement is just an announcement: easy to make and (though we have no reason to doubt it) easy to break.

And as a water sector expert from civil society asked, can the sector spend that much money in a year, at short notice? It would be great to say that turning up the budget is like turning on a tap, but it isn't. It takes a long time to prepare for big investments in the water sector. If you rush things, the result is often poorly designed, poorly constructed infrastructure, and with very little attention paid to the crucial issue (in rural areas) of managing waterpoints sustainably. It also creates opportunities for corruption if planning and procurement processes are pushed through in order to spend money quickly.

That worry is not helped by the (cynical but highly plausible) view, which I've also heard this week, that this announcement is also partly a strategy to wrong-foot the sector's big donors. Relations between donor agencies and the Ministry have not been good of late, and there is a sense that the ministry wants to remind the donors that they're dispensable. Reducing dependence on donors is a good aim, and the donors are far from perfect, but they also provide a degree of scrutiny that is (slightly) independent and is otherwise largely lacking.

But having raised all the concerns, this promised increase in funding is still to be welcomed. We should, however, welcome it with a note of caution and keep a careful eye on how things proceed from here.