The UK aid strategy: opportunities and challenges for WASH

4 min read
Image: WaterAid/Andrew McConnell

The UK Government’s new aid strategy will frame its approach to overseas aid until 2020, and allocates half to fragile states and regions. What does this mean for water, sanitation and hygiene? Bethan Twigg, WaterAid’s UK Advocacy Manager, looks at the potential challenges and opportunities the strategy presents for the sector.

The new UK aid strategy begins by reaffirming the UK’s commitment to allocating 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) to overseas development. This shows a continued commitment of solidarity with the world’s most vulnerable people, and of this we, the UK, should be proud. Now, however, half of the 0.7% will go to fragile states and regions in every year until 2020, as part of restructuring to “tackle global challenges and the causes of poverty”, including migration, terrorism and climate change.

The strategy’s approach will see Government departments other than DFID, including the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence, spending Overseas Development Assistance (ODA). Together with partners outside Government, including the private sector, non-DFID departments will spend up to 28% of ODA. All traditional country-to-country un-earmarked contributions to overseas governments will be ended, with a view to giving ODA a more thematic shift – for example, targeting of certain areas such as health or climate resilience. Value for money is also a central focus throughout the strategy.

New Government funds are to be established, including the £3 billion joint UK Government-Gates Foundation ‘Ross Fund’, which is intended to help to combat malaria and other infectious diseases.

What do the changes mean for WASH?

Until the Government sets out country and issue priorities in the bilateral and multilateral aid reviews, which are expected within the next few months, exactly how significant these proposed changes will be and how they may affect WaterAid’s work will be difficult to assess.

However, there are certainly challenges and opportunities that need to be considered.

Evaluation of the ODA budget in light of changing global events is important, as is the need to achieve value for money. ODA is needed to both reach the Global Goals and help attain more stable, responsive and developmental countries overseas, including providing humanitarian responses, for example to Syria. However, it is concerning that too much diversion of aid away from the core purpose of poverty reduction in the poorest countries may hinder progress towards Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, which should be DFID’s key focus.

In particular, because access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene is vital to achievement of sustainable development, implementation of Goal 6 should be prioritised. Without addressing the factors that prevent the poorest people from accessing WASH services, inequality will undoubtedly increase and poverty reduction will not be possible. Lack of access to water and sanitation disproportionately holds back the poorest, the most marginalised, and women and girls from fulfilling their potential and taking equal part in their country’s development, impacting on all areas of their lives.

The aid reviews will set out DFID’s financial, thematic, and country commitments. We hope they will shed more light on how the UK Government plans to implement Agenda 2030, and how Goal 6 on water and sanitation will be prioritised.

A clear vision for WASH

WaterAid is calling for the Government to prioritise WASH and strengthen existing commitments, so that WASH policies reflect the enormity of the global water, and, especially, sanitation challenge. Commitments could include increasing bilateral WASH spending by at least 1% until 2020, (currently just 2% of the bilateral ODA budget goes to WASH), and appointing more WASH experts in DFID’s priority countries.

Clarity on how the UK Government plans to support WASH initiatives in sustainable national strategies would also be welcome; this is particularly important in light of plans to end general budget support, and the need to demonstrate continuing commitment to supporting government and system strengthening.

A clear vision for integrating WASH into other programmes, and the inclusion of WASH in the scope of new health funds, would also be very positive. However, no mention has been made of WASH as a focus of the Ross Fund. Because WASH is key to prevention of infectious diseases, it should be included in the scope of the Fund.

28% of ODA will be spent through Departments other than DFID – this is roughly a doubling of overseas spend outside DFID. As the ODA approach, spend and delivery will be increasingly cross-Governmental and with new partners, it is important that the UK Government ensures that aid expenditure by other departments upholds the same high standards of development effectiveness and value for money as DFID, and, like DFID, contributes to meeting Agenda 2030 scrutiny. We are keen to see the application of aid-effectiveness principles across all departments, to ensure ownership, alignment, and harmonisation of results and mutual accountability.

Ongoing opportunities

Although it is too soon to draw final conclusions about the future shape of the UK development agenda, the new aid strategy is a significant development in the prevailing view of how aid from the UK Government should be spent. It underscores the ongoing challenges that those working in international development face in a ‘post-0.7%’ era.

We therefore eagerly await the aid reviews, and hope the Government uses this opportunity to clearly set out how they plan to prioritise Agenda 2030 and keep to their promise of contributing to a world with universal access to water and sanitation by 2030.

Bethan Twigg tweets as @b_twigg