ICAI’s impact report: what does it mean for water, sanitation and hygiene funding?

6 min read
Image: WaterAid/Behailu Shiferaw

The UK’s Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) has released a report into the Department for International Development (DFID)’s results in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) from 2011-15. Tim Brewer, Wateraid’s Policy Analyst, discusses what this means for the future of DFID’s WASH funding, and why financing must focus on sustainability.

The headline finding of ‘green/amber’ in the ICAI’s report means DFID’s achievement has been satisfactory in most areas, but partial in others. This indicates that there is an area in which UK aid is making a positive contribution, but could do better. 

The ICAI’s findings chime perfectly with the results of WaterAid’s own analysis of DFID’s efforts in WASH. We have found that, in certain areas, such as in focusing on the poorest countries and giving aid as grants rather than as loans, DFID is a leading donor. The Commission found that DFID has reached nearly 63 million people with safe water, clean and safe toilets, or hygiene promotion since 2011. Lives have been saved with these programmes. 

However, more could be done. We have been calling for the Government to invest more in WASH aid; we believe this is essential to maximise the benefits of health, education and economic growth in developing countries. And we are not a lone voice in thinking spending should be increased.

Independent polling of both the public and MPs found that both thought WASH should have the same priority as education and health (between 12% and 20% of all bilateral aid). The ICAI report finds that, in recent years, DFID’s WASH spending has averaged 1.6% of the aid budget. 

Spending for sustainability

Helpfully, the report also advised DFID on how to spend additional money. A huge challenge facing all aid programmes is that of sustainability. In the simplest terms, this means what can be done to ensure services continue, even after donor support ends. 

Without sustainable programmes, there are two options: either you stay and the aid must continue for that programme, the scale of your impact limited to those you can reach directly, eventually leading to aid dependency; or you move on, and before long the school you built has no textbooks, the hospital equipment you provided has no trained operatives, or the handpump has broken down, because no process was left to ensure maintenance is managed and paid for. 

This challenge is not new, and a lot has been done to address it, including the fundamental principles of ‘good aid’ agreed through aid effectiveness discussions in Paris, Accra and Busan. 

These principles have been re-articulated for the WASH sector through the Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) ‘Collaborative Behaviours’, which aim to improve long-term sector performance and sustainability. 

The difficulty is that the more one does to help build sustainable service provision, the harder it is to demonstrate publicly one’s role versus that of another organisation, or of the country’s systems themselves. Similarly, the more we prioritise reporting simplified ‘results’, such as the number of pumps built or people reached, the more we risk undermining sustainability. 

Development beyond numbers

Results are important and aid must be accountable, but determining true value for money needs to go beyond the simple numbers, because it is hard to quantify important investments in sustainability. 

For instance, how many beneficiaries do the UK’s water regulator Ofwat ‘reach’ in the UK each year? The figure is unknown, yet we do know that the presence of the water and sewerage regulator is essential to ensure services are safely maintained.

Often DFID do recognise this – WaterAid’s unit costs might appear higher than those of some other providers because of the focus we put on sustainability. As this report demonstrates, ICAI, which holds DFID to account, uses multiple approaches and analysis and its institutional position to hold DFID to account for genuine results and impact that goes beyond simply numbers of people. 

WaterAid’s new strategy, which frames our approach and priorities until 2020, highlights ‘sustainable services’ as one of four pillars of our work, in recognition that sustainability is both essential for our work to be impactful, and an area in which we can improve. 

We are trying to be a sector leader in sustainability, by:

  1. Working with other agencies to promote the ‘agenda for change’ – a set of principles to build the capabilities of local governments so they can deliver and sustain services to all citizens, in line with the SWA behaviours. 
  2. Monitoring functionality for up to ten years after projects end, so that over time we can identify what is needed for long-term sustainability and build support for this into our work.
  3. Implementing the ‘district-wide approach’, which means combining service delivery with engagement at the local government level, to help improve the structures needed to sustain services across the whole district. This ensures that our work is part of the government’s own plan, upkeep of assets is taken on by the responsible authority when we leave, and successful reforms can lead to even bigger improvements across the country.

Some of these elements of our work are not funded through DFID’s ‘WASH Results’; they do not contribute easily counted numbers of beneficiaries. Other funding from DFID, such as the Programme Partnership Arrangement, finances this valuable work, but this type of funding is currently under review.

So what can DFID do? 

The report highlights that programmes are too short to ensure sustainability. Longer programmes would allow two things: prediction of resources for longer periods; and elements such as political reform or human resource development, which take longer to show results. Both are crucial to sustainability.

However, even shorter programmes can be sustainable, if they contribute to a systemic improvement. 

DFID’s response to this ICAI report should be to draft a WASH systems strengthening framework to guide their WASH programmes. This will ensure they combine service delivery work to reach 60 million more people with the structural support to sustain those services. If DFID are funding service delivery in a district where they are not also working on WASH system strengthening, this should always be a ‘red flag’ for sustainability.

The SWA Collaborative Behaviours, which outline key ways of working necessary to improve long-term sector performance and sustainability, can provide a useful framework for DFID in this respect.

These types of change could slightly increase the cost of reaching 60 million people, but they will increase the value of DFID’s work immeasurably by increasing the duration of people’s access to water and sanitation from a few years to a lifetime, and increasing reach beyond a few people to everyone everywhere. 

DFID’s WASH aid is making a positive contribution, well targeted and well accounted for. However, as the UK Government will publish its plans and priorities until 2020 within the next few months, it will be important that the Government moves swiftly to consider and implement the report’s recommendations.

Tim Brewer tweets @timbrewer1