Beyond political will – how leadership makes a difference on water and sanitation

Guest post by water policy consultant Henry Northover (twitter: @Henrynorthover)

I’ve sat through too many presentations in the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector that end with the neat conclusion: “all that’s needed is greater political will”.  Thank you and goodnight!  And this comes from a sector that’s pretty well-served by high level statements of political commitment.  The AU has produced declarations on achieving universal access to WASH, to add to ones made by South Asian heads of governments’ SAARC summit, the G7’s, the UN and even the specially convened 11 heads of government High Level Panel on Water.  Note also that the sector is in its third International “Decade of Action on Water”.  

But few countries have got close to achieving universal access to WASH services.  And for those that have, there’s no evidence that publicly declared international commitments have been the trigger.  As one African official graphically put it, “Leaders will sign up to any summit declaration and then vomit it up on the airport tarmac when they return”.  So, when and how does political commitment get translated into effective leadership and administrative reform? 

In our paper, Implementing political will: Effective leadership in delivering WASH services for all,we looked at which countries and large municipalities have made a step change in sector performance to understand how they did it.  Unsurprisingly, the decisive role of effective leadership was common to all.  But we also examined which core components of that leadership were instrumental in driving through change in such a short period.  We isolated four identifiable factors:

  • Heads of government personally aligned themselves with the core mission.  They made repeated values-driven exhortations that articulated the case for WASH as historically and culturally relevant, central to a notional ‘modernity’ and the nation-building project.  In India, Prime Minister Modi personally chose Mahatma Gandhi’s glasses as the symbol of the national campaign to end open defecation.  It was his way of articulating the ‘mission’ as the fulfilment of an historic legacy.   Leaders also laid out a social contract that balanced the promise of delivering access to services for all with the obligation to use and pay for the facilities and to change hygienic practices.   Both public and household investments were congruent with realising private and common goods.  As Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew put it: “[personal hygenic] standards will keep morale high, sickness rates low and so create the social conditions for higher economic growth”.
  • A whole-of-government approach was taken, where bureaucratic structures were designed and coordinated around activities and goal-oriented achievements – bureaucratic form followed implementation function.  Government departments were brought together to plan and deliver, with measures of success and coordination mechanisms established at all levels of implementation.  In Malaysia, local officials were instructed by government to have what were termed weekly ‘morning prayers’ around maps of sanitation coverage to monitor progress and iron out interdepartmental differences. 
  • Local-level implementers were given relative autonomy over repurposing and reallocating financial and human resources to adapt and resolve local-level challenges.  In South Korea, teachers were deployed to continuously monitor helminth infections as a proxy for measuring changed hygienic practices.  Leadership functions were dispersed to wider groups of officials to avoid the rigidities and misreporting incentives associated with more authoritarian ‘big man leadership’ styles.   
  • And finally – most striking of all – was the development of a bureaucratic culture that encouraged the diagnosing of design mistakes and implementation weaknesses while generating remedial ‘course correcting’ actions.  This wasn’t a routinised ‘reflect and review’ process but rather a systematic way of drilling down on bottlenecks and producing local-level responses.  The deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia urged local officials to be ‘breakers of bottlenecks’And, where local-level trial and error adaptations were held back by systemic bottlenecks, the embedded feedback loops made upstream leaders aware of problems and helped them devise system-strengthening reforms. 

While most of these effective leadership traits are well known to many donors, it’s surprising how few development programmes are explicitly designed to support leaders to devise country-led reforms.  Instead, they often focus on idealised structures of delivery systems, rather than how/whether they function. 

For instance, the WASH sector has seen many state-of-the-art monitoring systems promoted by donors without serious attention to how these feed into decision-making processes.    Even more widespread has been the donor push to maximise the ‘numbers of people reached’ with new access to WASH as a way to demonstrate value for money.  This has given rise to the tyranny of ‘projectised’ approaches where one-off investments in fixed capital have often ended up with the hardware assets (taps and toilets) dislocated from the core delivery systems needed to keep them running. 

latrine as handy satellite dish stand

The results for service sustainability have been dire – too many water points out of use after a couple of years, or slippages in sanitation-related behaviours, the absence of faecal waste management and so on.  

The speculation is also that donors delivering one-off hardware investments have, in practice, undermined the accountability of mandated authorities for providing basic services and postponed the pressure to carry out serious sector governance reforms. 

If we accept that to be effective, leaders need the ability to continually diagnose and correct problems based on feedback, it should follow that donors need to shift support to these cyclical diagnostic and reform functions and away from static forms and structures.  The challenge for the aid system is to reconcile the need to assess and report on tangible progress for investments where results are harder to measure and have higher risks but, ultimately, bring much higher returns.

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4 Responses to “Beyond political will – how leadership makes a difference on water and sanitation”
  1. Neil McCulloch

    Superb blog Henry. But two questions:
    1. What was it that motivated the top leader to get involved? Generally all kinds of ‘intractable’ problems can become tractable if the top leader makes it clear that they want to see progress. But what was it that motivated them to focus on this issue? Just personal commitment? Or is there a political benefit? If so, why this and not so many other issues?
    2. Your description of how things should be managed to achieve function and not form is great. But I’d love to know how they changed the incentives faced by the people doing the work to encourage them to behave this way. Usually a combination of negligible oversight and low reward for success (and zero penalty for failure) means that implementation is poor; how did this change concretely? Were they just ‘inspired’ by the vision and empowered by good leadership? Or did the ‘incentives’ that they face change (and I don’t necessarily mean financial ones).

  2. Henry Northover

    Many thanks for your appreciation. On your questions, a couple of thoughts:
    1) We studied (1960s-70s) South Korea, W Malaysia and Singapore. The research focused on ‘how’ services were delivered in such a rapid timescale, rather than the ‘why’. So, the following is more by way of speculation rather than the focus of the research.

    Some of the retrospective interviews with leaders suggest that there was a real worry about survival as a nation state. The nation-building project required providing common goods fast and for all citizens as a way to overcome the post-colonial ethnic fissures that were the legacy of British rule. It may also be that providing basic services gave some legitimation of a Chinese dominated rule (in Singapore) and Malay (in Malaysia). Both governed sizeable ethnic minorities. Could this be part of Paul Kagame’s developmental drive in Rwanda? In South Korea, my assumption is that intra-peninsular rivalries were a key driver. But why hygiene and sanitation? The rationale seemed to differ between states. For Singapore, it was clearly about pursuing environmental health benefits but also the trappings of a modern city state capable of attracting inward investment. In Korea, the ‘Living Well’ policy was very much about public health. Some speculate here that US Army doctors had a considerable influence in elevating the importance of sanitation and hygiene as a driver of public health.

    On 2., there was both a missionary zeal attached to leaders’ vision and drive behind the reform programme. They made regular speeches to officials on the imperative of sanitation and hygiene as a way to energise the bureaucracies. But also there were transactional rewards and professional recognition of success. In India, Modi’s campaign to end open defecation included recognition of officials’ individual successes with awards and congratulatory WhatsApp messages from lead officials to more junior implementers to promote and disseminate their local-level innovations and achievements. In East Asia, successful officials were often sent overseas for further training conferences and so on. So a mixed bag of incentives and compelling vision.

    Lastly, I would just add that the ‘triggers’ and understanding of the potential drivers of change are, of course, crucial. But, as a sector, I think we spend too much time on the ‘why WASH’ in an attempt to trigger reform and not enough on ‘how to deliver it quickly and sustainably’. As a result, WASH advocates spend perhaps too much time thinking on the fixed declarations of commitment rather than what leaders should do on ‘the Monday they return to work’. A bit like mountain climbing. Useful to ask ‘why’ anyone would do it, but, when you’re trying to scale a summit, not as useful as ‘how’ to do it. Happy to have a deeper conversation on this and learn about your work.

  3. Rabin Lal Shrestha

    Happy to read your blog Henry. To me the tagline is to question and find solutions on how to do. We had spend years in asking what and why. I fully agree on your thoughts and analysis of how.

  4. Rabin Lal Shrestha

    Well analysed Henry. Yes the time is for questioning and answering how. We had spend years in dialogue for what and why. No doubts it was call for that period. Now is for how. Thank you Henry a lot