DFID is now the largest donor for basic WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) services in low-income countries, investing over £700m in the period from 2010-2014. And as they say, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” Historically, Britain led many of the technological and institutional advancements in the water and wastewater industries, pioneered by the likes of Chadwick, Snow, and Crapper. Fast forward 150 years, and DFID has a real opportunity to be a leader in the WASH sector, but if business continues as usual, it risks flushing lots of sterling down the drain instead.

The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) recently completed its first assessment of DFID’s WASH portfolio in its Assessing DFID’s Results in Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene: An Impact Review, on which parliament quizzed them through the IDC last week. The commission gave an overall score of “green/amber”, the second highest score possible, which left me scratching my head, as that assessment includes the following statement:

“DFID does not have a systematic approach to achieving sustainability and does not monitor whether results are sustained beyond programme completion.”

So DFID has invested £0.7bn (coincidentally) yet has no idea if those services or behaviours continue once their programme support ends? In a sector like WASH, where a lack of sustainability continues to plague the sector, it is baffling that the world’s fifth largest donor would not have a systematic approach to achieving or measuring sustainability.

One of the more depressing conclusions of the ICAI report is that “DFID’s systems are designed to maximise outputs, rather than sustainable impact. This situation has changed little since a National Audit Office (NAO) review in 2003”. Since that audit, DFID’s WASH budget has increased sevenfold, yet reviewers remain unconvinced that DFID has changed its approach to sustainability. One can only assume that part of the emphasis on outputs – or first time access – was influenced by chasing the MDGs. I’d like to think that DFID has not fallen prey to one of the oft-cited myths of water supply that it is more important to build new systems than keep them running, but the jury is still out (RWSN, 2010). Ensuring sustainable services in resource-poor environments is difficult, but that is not a good enough reason for inaction. As the auditors note, DFID is falling behind other bilateral donors, namely USAID and the Dutch government, who are investing in measuring post-programme sustainability, as well as systemic approaches to age-old problems (USAID, 2014). On the implementation level, research from IRC’s experience in Ghana is showing promising results of improved performance of water services as a result of “whole system change” and a flexible facilitation process (IRC, 2015).

One of DFID’s responses to the sustainability critique is the ongoing pilot of a results-based management (RBM) approach through its WASH Results Programme. My colleagues have written elsewhere about the potential dangers for sustainability by shifting to an RBM programme, and it is disheartening to see DFID respond to the massively complex sustainability challenge with a contractual solution (Taylor, 2013; Taylor, 2015). DFID further mentioned it will conduct sustainability research in 2018. At least 25 sustainability tools already exist created by others who invest far less than DFID, but have realised that one can’t fix what one doesn’t know is broken. Moreover, many of its partners do collect sustainability data, so I would urge DFID to use existing data and tools to move quickly instead of waiting for more research.

Similar to the lukewarm response on sustainability, DFID’s response to the value for money (VFM) critique cites ongoing research as the answer. Whilst the research should provide some useful data, it is disheartening to read in a recently published report that “At this stage, it is not clear which are the relevant life-cycle costs and who will be financially responsible for them” (OPM, February 2016). How can one pretend a £700m investment will be sustained if that cost is unclear, let alone who will pay for it? Life cycle costing (the sum of the costs of new infrastructure, operations and maintenance, system expansion, and support costs to service providers) has been best practice as a concrete planning tool for more sustainable services for a number of years. In addition, non-functionality of water services remains around 40%, despite investments to reach the MDGs. Should that prove true of DFID-supported water services, which will most certainly not represent value for money.

The report also calls for more learning exchange between “related” sectors, but I would urge DFID to also bring its learning from more than £1bn in current systemic change programming closer to WASH. As DFID considers how to invest in WASH over the next five year period, applying some of its own experience in systemic approaches in agriculture, private sector development, health, and education could contribute to more sustainable WASH services. DFID’s commitment to WASH is impressive and the auditors do highlight the positive aspects of the programme, exceeding their outreach target of 60 million by almost 5%, demonstrated health impacts in specific contexts, and efforts at building a learning culture within the organisation. However, WASH problems are chronic and cannot be addressed through one-off interventions. Although DFID has grown into a large beast in the WASH space, they have the potential to become the biggest failure, as well, if they don’t take sustainability seriously right now.

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