Where accountability for sustainable services lies.

Posted on 21/11/2016 by Julia Boulenouar

I am back from the 11th IRC event which brought together 30 WASH professionals to share experiences related to monitoring the sustainability of WASH services.

DGIS has championed sustainability by introducing the sustainability clause and the sustainability checks. RVO (Netherlands Enterprise Agency) has translated this policy by requiring all applicants to its new Fund for Sustainable Water to adopt it. The Dutch WASH Alliance has developed the Sustainability Monitoring Framework and Index to determine whether its WASH programmes were likely to deliver sustainable services. UNICEF has extensively applied sustainability checks and has now made it a corporate requirement, beyond the DGIS funding. These tools have no doubt put sustainability on the agenda and led to corrective actions which is all a positive step forward for the sector. We can certainly scale up these tools, improve, automatize and even standardise them, but I cannot help thinking that the sector is still missing a much more fundamental issue.

Evidence on sustainability, service delivery (or lack thereof) has been compiled and reported for many years, but little seems to fundamentally change. We all know how important post-ODF follow up is, but I still see partners delivering CLTS through short term contracts with NGOs which lead- at best- to high ODF coverage for a very short period of time. Enough to report achievement to the donor but not enough to strengthen capacities of local government and maintain the ODF status overtime. I still see partners by-passing local governments because of “weak capacity”, procuring contracts themselves and doing little more than basic training to service providers for operation and maintenance or household sensitisation to water treatment. Systems do get built, but district capacities are seldom strengthened and service quality often drops after programme completion. Donors are pushed to deliver numbers and so are implementing partners which comply with short deadlines and output reporting requirements to these same donors. On paper, everyone delivers and performs. In reality, users continue to get lousy services, but because accountability lies upwards towards donors, nothing fundamentally changes.

We know it and put down to “weak enabling environments” which are beyond everyone’s mandate to strengthen. That seems to be accepted. Everyone knows that delivering sustainable services can only be done with strong permanent institutional and financial capacity, currently not in place (otherwise, why would Aid be needed in the first place?), but when it comes to addressing these challenges, we consider them too complex and too costly to tackle and continue with business as usual….

If we are serious about sustainability, why aren’t donors changing their approach to financing and demanding better services which will no doubt take longer to deliver and be costlier. If partners are serious about governance and accountability, why aren’t they working through local government directly and why is everyone shying away from paying recurrent costs? Sure, it will take longer and be more difficult. If partners are serious about transparency, why aren’t they publicly sharing the results of their programmes with the sector…or the users even? That would be a good place to start.


The new SDG agenda is an opportunity for the sector to evolve more fundamentally and for everyone to see beyond their project and engage with system change. I hope this will materialise in new funding mechanisms, new incentives and greater accountability to users…not just new tools.

Julia IRC event Nov 2016