850,000 success stories for World Water Day

Oxfam Water


The Oxfam-led SWIFT Consortium has successfully completed the first phase of a programme to bring sustainable water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) to communities in Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo. On World Water Day, SWIFT’s global programme manager Francesco Rigamonti considers whether implementing a Payment by Results WASH programme has to mean focusing on numbers rather than people.

‘The first time we collected water from the pump, we kept looking at each other and laughing,’ says Asinyen Lemukol of Nakalale Naduat-Lokichar in Turkana, northern Kenya.

Asinyen and the other women in Lokichar used to have to walk 15km to dig scoop holes in a riverbed whenever they needed water. Asinyen and the other women in Lokichar used to have to walk 15km to dig scoop holes in a riverbed whenever they needed water, beginning their long journey in the evening and returning the following day. Now, they are able to access clean, reliable water from a pump in their village, thanks to the work of the SWIFT Consortium, one of three consortia implementing a UK government WASH
Results Programme.

The programme is one of the biggest payment by results (PBR) WASH programmes ever implemented. This is a new financing mechanism for the sector, and WASH practitioners have been discussing its potential benefits and shortcomings.

The UK’s Department for International Development has declared  that it intends to make this its ‘business as usual’ approach. Renowned WASH guru Robert Chambers led strong opposition to the move, sparking a heated debate, and ever since, no WASH event or conference has been without a session on the limits and strengths of PBR.

By 31 March, at the end of its first 23-month phase, the Oxfam-led SWIFT Consortium (which includes Tearfund and ODI as Global Members, WSUP as Global Associate and 13 other INGOs, local NGOs and social enterprises) will have reached at least 850,000 people with two or more of water, sanitation and hygiene services – quite an achievement, given the timeframe.

The SWIFT programme will now focus on building capacity and sustainability until March 2018, and this next ‘outcome phase’ is also part of the PBR framework: 20% of the total contract value of £19.5 million is linked to SWIFT demonstrating that outputs are sustainable in 2017 and 2018.

So is this programme just a question of numbers then? Of how many boreholes have been drilled, hand-pumps rehabilitated, latrines built, hygiene sessions held and households visited? Amid all the targets, percentages and payments, is there a risk that the emphasis will shift away from issues such as quality, community participation and empowerment?

SWIFT’s experience has led us to consider how we as a sector go about building sustainability and local ownership through programmes in which numbers seem to set the tone and dictate the priorities. Will PBR contracts mean INGOs abdicate their role as agents of change and become mere service suppliers? Must we drop the idea of working alongside communities to change the world, and instead get ourselves better equipped to deal with customers?

In parallel with its implementation work, the SWIFT team has invested time and resources in reflecting on the opportunities and challenges that a PBR mechanism might engender for the WASH sector. This exercise has produced a learning brief that was shared with other WASH actors at the 2015 WEDC Conference, and PBR learning events have been held in Kinshasa and Goma in DRC. Midterm learning reviews being conducted in DRC and Kenya will be completed by mid-2016.

In the meantime, World Water Day provides a good opportunity to remind ourselves that behind all the numbers we’ve reached are people; the people with whom we seek to work and show solidarity. People like Asinyen in Lokichar, laughing with her friends in relief at the simple pleasure of being able to access clean water when they need it. Or Jacinta Atiir, of Chokchok in Turkana, who with the hours she no longer spends collecting water is able to make palm brushes to sell, in order to buy food and clothes for
her family. Or Makyambi Angya in Katungulu, South Kivu, who is able to wash after spending a day working in her fields and whose children no longer have diarrhoea.

There are many such stories – 850,000 to be precise. But let’s not just focus on the number.

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Author: Francesco Rigamonti
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.