Beyond political will – how leadership makes a difference on water and sanitation

April 14, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post by water policy consultant Henry Northover (twitter: @Henrynorthover)

I’ve sat through too many presentations in the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector that end with the neat conclusion: “all that’s needed is greater political will”.  Thank you and goodnight!  And this comes from a sector that’s pretty well-served by high level statements of political commitment.  The AU has produced declarations on achieving universal access to WASH, to add to ones made by South Asian heads of governments’ SAARC summit, the G7’s, the UN and even the specially convened 11 heads of government High Level Panel on Water.  Note also that the sector is in its third International “Decade of Action on Water”.  

But few countries have got close to achieving universal access to WASH services.  And for those that have, there’s no evidence that publicly declared international commitments have been the trigger.  As one African official graphically put it, “Leaders will sign up to any summit declaration and then vomit it up on the airport tarmac when they return”.  So, when and how does political commitment get translated into effective leadership and administrative reform? 

In our paper, Implementing political will: Effective leadership in delivering WASH services for all,we looked at which countries and large municipalities have made a step change in sector performance to understand how they did it.  Unsurprisingly, the decisive role of effective leadership was common to all.  But we also examined which core components of that leadership were instrumental in driving through change in such a short period.  We isolated four identifiable factors:

  • Heads of government personally aligned themselves with the core mission.  They made repeated values-driven exhortations that articulated the case for WASH as historically and culturally relevant, central to a notional ‘modernity’ and the nation-building project.  In India, Prime Minister Modi personally chose Mahatma Gandhi’s glasses as the symbol of the national campaign to end open defecation.  It was his way of articulating the ‘mission’ as the fulfilment of an historic legacy.   Leaders also laid out a social contract that balanced the promise of delivering access to services for all with the obligation to use and pay for the facilities and to change hygienic practices.   Both public and household investments were congruent with realising private and common goods.  As Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew put it: “[personal hygenic] standards will keep morale high, sickness rates low and so create the social conditions for higher economic growth”.
  • A whole-of-government approach was taken, where bureaucratic structures were designed and coordinated around activities and goal-oriented achievements – bureaucratic form followed implementation function.  Government departments were brought together to plan and deliver, with measures of success and coordination mechanisms established at all levels of implementation.  In Malaysia, local officials were instructed by government to have what were termed weekly ‘morning prayers’ around maps of sanitation coverage to monitor progress and iron out interdepartmental differences. 
  • Local-level implementers were given relative autonomy over repurposing and reallocating financial and human resources to adapt and resolve local-level challenges.  In South Korea, teachers were deployed to continuously monitor helminth infections as a proxy for measuring changed hygienic practices.  Leadership functions were dispersed to wider groups of officials to avoid the rigidities and misreporting incentives associated with more authoritarian ‘big man leadership’ styles.   
  • And finally – most striking of all – was the development of a bureaucratic culture that encouraged the diagnosing of design mistakes and implementation weaknesses while generating remedial ‘course correcting’ actions.  This wasn’t a routinised ‘reflect and review’ process but rather a systematic way of drilling down on bottlenecks and producing local-level responses.  The deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia urged local officials to be ‘breakers of bottlenecks’And, where local-level trial and error adaptations were held back by systemic bottlenecks, the embedded feedback loops made upstream leaders aware of problems and helped them devise system-strengthening reforms. 

While most of these effective leadership traits are well known to many donors, it’s surprising how few development programmes are explicitly designed to support leaders to devise country-led reforms.  Instead, they often focus on idealised structures of delivery systems, rather than how/whether they function. 

For instance, the WASH sector has seen many state-of-the-art monitoring systems promoted by donors without serious attention to how these feed into decision-making processes.    Even more widespread has been the donor push to maximise the ‘numbers of people reached’ with new access to WASH as a way to demonstrate value for money.  This has given rise to the tyranny of ‘projectised’ approaches where one-off investments in fixed capital have often ended up with the hardware assets (taps and toilets) dislocated from the core delivery systems needed to keep them running. 

The results for service sustainability have been dire – too many water points out of use after a couple of years, or slippages in sanitation-related behaviours, the absence of faecal waste management and so on.  

The speculation is also that donors delivering one-off hardware investments have, in practice, undermined the accountability of mandated authorities for providing basic services and postponed the pressure to carry out serious sector governance reforms. 

If we accept that to be effective, leaders need the ability to continually diagnose and correct problems based on feedback, it should follow that donors need to shift support to these cyclical diagnostic and reform functions and away from static forms and structures.  The challenge for the aid system is to reconcile the need to assess and report on tangible progress for investments where results are harder to measure and have higher risks but, ultimately, bring much higher returns.

April 14, 2021
Duncan Green