25 Oct 2011

"Undertaking" Tanzania's Water Sector Development Programme?

Screenshot from WaterAid video
I spent two days last week at the annual Joint Water Sector Review meeting - the so-called "highlight" of the annual calendar of "dialogue". This was the sixth such meeting to be held - and I have the "distinction" of having attended all of them. But as you can probably guess from the profusion of "inverted commas" in this paragraph, I'm having serious doubts about the whole exercise. Before I come to that, though, let me give you some background.

Around 250 people from the Ministry of Water, other related government ministries and agencies, the "development partners" and civil society all attended, in the workshop factory that is Ubungo Plaza. All the main stakeholders were there. Apart from water consumers that is, who are only represented in the sense that everyone consumes water. And those consumers (or perhaps I should call them citizens) weren't represented by their official representatives either - no MPs or local councillors attend, with the exception of the Ministers officiating at the formal opening and closing sessions. We civil society folks had to take on that role.

The Water Sector Development Programme (WSDP) is the main agenda at this meeting - one of the biggest sector-wide programmes in Sub-Saharan Africa, worth $1.2 billion dollars over 6 years. We review it's progress, discuss challenges and agree "undertakings" - priority actions for the next 12 months. Which brings me to my doubts.

"Undertakers" are what professional funeral directors are called in the UK, which somehow seems appropriate. I can't escape the feeling that something has died here, and I wonder if it's time to lay it to rest.

Let's take rural water supply. (I also strongly recommend WaterAid Tanzania's recent video on the same subject.) So much money was spent on consultants designing water supply projects for 10 villages in each district, and the schemes that were designed are so expensive, that there's now very little money left for actually drilling boreholes, installing pumps and laying pipes. In some districts, we're told, only 1 village will actually receive the promised project (in other districts up to five will benefit). Expectations have been raised, along with compulsory community contributions, in all 10. The other nine will have to wait until more funds can be found. The other 40-50 villages in an average-sized district will have to wait even longer. There’s also the problem that in some districts, consultants designed a single large project covering all 10 villages, which can’t easily be scaled down to accommodate the reduced funding available.

Some sums. Let’s assume the average number of villages to benefit per district turns out to be 3 per district. That means that five years work and over $300 million dollars spent on rural water supply will have resulted in water for around 400 villages (3 x 133 districts) and around 1 million people (2,500 people per village). That means the programme has cost $300 per person ($300m, 1m people), more than even the most expensive urban water projects usually cost. And in those same five years, the rural population of Tanzania has increased by over 2 million people (25m to 27m, based on 2% rise per year). We've spent $300 million to go backwards.

These problems are clearly major concerns at community level. There's the example of Magoda village, who gave up waiting and decided to go it alone instead. They're now building a new, bigger dam, and will be selling water to neighbouring communities. And on a bigger scale, Mustafa Sabodo, the mercurial CCM-member-but-Chadema-donor is spending 2.5 billion shillings (around $1.5m) on rural water supplies, with a priority on Chadema-held constituencies (which clearly concerns the Deputy Minister). Sabodo and his friends in Chadema have clearly identified rural water supply as an area where the government is under-performing and they can earn popularity by filling the gap.

And on the review itself. On the positive side, it's just about the only opportunity civil society has to raise its concerns about the sector, and right from the first review back in 2006 there are several examples of civil society's concerns and recommendations being taken on board. It's a rare opportunity for civil society to set the agenda.

But it doesn't really work. The donors resolve their problems with the Ministry through other channels, so barely use the sector review for its intended purpose of "dialogue". The government sees the whole exercise as box-ticking, we have to do this so lets do it as quickly and minimally as possible. And even where civil society has succeeded at setting the agenda, it hasn't led anywhere. We've been talking about sustainability and equitable planning for years, but nothing has really changed as a result. Above all, it clearly doesn't work as a way of resolving problems in the sector, or the so-called 10-village programme would have been turned around long ago.

The undertakings are agreed well after the Ministry's annual budget has been approved, and the following years budget comes too late to compensate, so any expensive undertakings can't happen. Difficult ones remain as regular agenda items for months or years without any real progress being made. And it's the same every year - the same issues, the same discussions, the same conclusions and the same lack of implementation. One frustrated participant described the review as "Groundhog Day".

Having said that, this year's review was slightly different to last year. Donors have not made any regular disbursements for the programme for over 18 months, due to "compliance" issues. In normal-world-language that means they're not happy with the standard of financial management and reporting on the programme. And they have very good reasons to have such concerns - a special audit of the WSDP conducted by the National Audit Office raised some major issues. But unlike last year, the Ministry doesn't seem too concerned.

Why not? Because at the very same time when the donors are not releasing any funds, they are also having to find ways of justifying a 5-year second phase. Others donors are about to join the programme for the first time, which also needs to be justified back to headquarters. So the trickier issues are swept under the carpet, and we all happily agree that progress is "moderately satisfactory" (rather than last year's "moderately unsatisfactory"), conveniently just enough to justify new funding. And in the process, the trickier issues are not addressed. Donors have a quiet word over coffee with any dissenting voices, suggesting that we should tone it down.

But my main concern is not so much with the review, flawed though it undoubtedly is. The more important issue is the WSDP as a whole. Are we going to continue with the idea that we will eventually get around to installing expensive new water projects in all 10 villages in every district, leaving those that were not lucky enough to be selected the first time round to wait for another 5-10 years before they have a chance of funding? Are we happy that the programme is serving so few people at such high cost? Are we going to continue installing waterpoints using a process that looks very unlikely to deliver sustainability?

Believe it or not, I find myself in a dilemma. After all, perhaps the answer to those questions should be yes. The scale of the WSDP and the changing role of the Ministry of Water (facilitator-coordinator rather than implementer) was always going to require a difficult period of adjustment. Perhaps an improvement is just around the corner, more efficient management will become a reality rather than just a promise, and the money spent on consultants designing water projects will begin to bear fruit. Pulling the plug on either the 10-village programme or the WSDP as a whole would be hugely disruptive, perhaps resulting in the loss of whatever gains have been made in the past five years.

Are there any alternatives? Is it time to give up on the sector-wide approach and go back to donor-funded, donor-controlled projects in specific areas, abandoning Paris declaration principles of harmonisation, local ownership and domestic accountability? That would be a shame. Is it time to let urban water utilities fend for themselves with soft loans to encourage more efficient use of resources? That idea is on the table and could solve some problems, but not rural water supply. Perhaps some kind of output-based aid, such as Cash On Delivery? But it's hard to make that work, and neither donors nor the Ministry are keen. Is it time to abandon donor funding for water supply altogether?

In the end, I find it very difficult to reach the conclusion that withdrawing funding would be the right option when funds are so clearly still urgently needed. Yet I also find it very difficult to support continued funding of a programme that faces such serious challenges. I'm left only with the hope that Chadema's (and Sabodo's) recognition that the government is under-performing in this sector will spur the government and the Ministry into action.