USAID’s Water Strategy makes a Splash for US Foreign Assistance

By Betsy Engebretson 

We are facing a global water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) crisis. Worldwide, 40 billion working hours are lost per year to water collection, two in five people lack access to sanitation, and improved access to WASH has the potential to prevent at least 9.1% of the global disease burden and 6.3% of deaths. The United States Agency of International Development (USAID) is now strengthening how the US government will address this crisis.

In May, USAID officially launched its first ever Water and Development Strategy. Although USAID has previously funded WASH projects, the Strategy has been in the pipeline for quite some time and its launch brings WASH into the spotlight. John Oldfield, CEO of WASH Advocates noted, with the launching of the Strategy, “WASH is now elevated and institutionalized within the fabric of USAID.”

Development practitioners and water activists laud the strategy as a much-needed declaration of commitment from the US government. However, it is long overdue given the scope of the problem, and its effectiveness will depend in large part on the Strategy’s implementation.

The Strategy outlines two main objectives for water projects from 2013-2018: 1) Improve health outcomes through the provision of sustainable WASH, and 2) Manage water for agriculture sustainably and more productively to enhance food security. With a focus on monitoring and evaluation (M&E), country ownership, and building local capacity, the Water Strategy is a step in the right direction for US foreign assistance.

USAID’s Strategy is a positive development in the sector because it is a commitment to addressing access to WASH, which is important given the fact that water, sanitation, and hygiene are vital to the success of many existing USAID programs and goals. Despite the welcome creation of such a strategy, there is a great deal of room for interpretation in the document’s wording. The success of the Strategy will hinge on its implementation. If implemented well, the strategy has the potential to improve the targeting and effectiveness of US-funded development projects.

The Challenge of Implementation

The biggest piece missing from the Strategy is how its progressive ideas will be implemented on the ground. In the development sector, there are many conversations about improving monitoring and evaluation and focusing on sustainability, but a gap remains between work in the field and conversations and documents drafted in offices. That being said, the Strategy contains themes that will positively guide implementers to successful WASH projects.

Monitoring and Evaluation

M&E is receiving more attention in the development sector, and the Water Strategy emphasizes its importance. Without proper M&E, WASH projects with the best intentions often fall into disrepair and do not fulfill their intended purpose.

Although key actors in the sector understand the importance of M&E, there is often a lack of funding for longer term monitoring and evaluation, which hinders projects’ sustainability. According to Jennifer Platt, WASH Advocates’ Sustainability Director, at the most basic level sustainability in the WASH means, “ensuring that services last.”

This is where the Strategy is particularly innovative. It not only stresses the importance of M&E during the project life cycle, but also “will invest in longer-term monitoring and evaluation of its water activities in order to assess sustainability beyond the typical USAID Program Cycle of two to three years, and to enable reasonable support to issues that arise post implementation.” Although the amount of funding earmarked for longer-term monitoring is currently unknown, USAID can set an example for other donors in helping to ensure WASH project sustainability.

 Country Ownership and Partnerships

In addition to a strong emphasis on M&E, the Strategy also stresses host country ownership and partnerships. With the Strategy, USAID and project implementers will not be telling a country what they must do, but rather will work with the country to strengthen and expand efforts already underway, as well as work to align donor and host country priorities. By working with the countries as partners, and soliciting their input from the beginning, USAID WASH projects will have a greater chance of succeeding. Moreover, country ownership will help promote project sustainability since countries will be invested in the work from the initial stages.

In addition to working with the host countries, the Strategy also emphasizes the importance of both public and private partnerships. USAID plans to work with universities, non-governmental organizations, civil society, the private sector, local and national government, as well as other donors to address the WASH crisis.

The specific implementing partners as well as the exact role that host countries will play will become clearer once the Strategy is implemented.

Where will the Strategy Focus?

An area of concern with the Strategy is where the efforts will be targeted and how the countries will be chosen. It is no secret that diplomatic and security objectives often override development objectives in US foreign policy, but these diplomatic and security concerns do not always align with where the need for WASH is greatest. The Strategy mentions that USAID will focus on countries with the greatest need, but then goes on to define three categories of countries that do not reflect prioritizing those with the greatest need. Moreover, the Strategy also notes that aid will be concentrated in fewer countries to promote selectivity and greater impact.

The three country categories are 1) transformative impact, 2) leveraged impact and 3) strategic priority. The transformative and leveraged impact categories, which potentially include Ethiopia and the Philippines, make sense because they target countries that are willing to address the WASH crisis, but need some help aligning with the Strategy’s country ownership theme. The strategic priority category, however, may disproportionately target areas such as the West Bank and Gaza, where the water and sanitation need is not the greatest, overlooking countries where millions of people continue to suffer from lack of first-time access to WASH. USAID should not lose sight of the goal of bringing safe water and sanitation to people when also balancing foreign policy objectives.

More to be Done

The Water Strategy is a great first step for not only giving WASH the attention it deserves, but also for improving development practices in general. However, there are areas of the strategy that could be improved.

780 million people still lack access to safe drinking water, and 2.5 billion people lack access to safe sanitation. But through the Strategy, USAID sets its targets at only 10 million people for access to safe drinking water, and 6 million people for access to improved sanitation. These numbers are barely a drop in the bucket. USAID should have set its sights higher.

The Water Strategy, especially if targeted well, has the potential to bring WASH into the spotlight and help save lives around the world. As the Strategy states, “USAID seeks to be both a lead and a partner in the global effort to elevate the importance of water across all development objectives.” This is an important, exciting step for not only the WASH sector, but for US foreign assistance in general.

Betsy Engebretson is in her second year of  the Master of Public Policy and International Organizations MBA joint-degree program at Georgetown University and the University of Geneva. She is currently a research assistant at WASH Advocates in Washington, DC.

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