WASH: The Big Picture
It is one of the enduring principles of American foreign policy:
We must work to reduce global poverty, because it breeds misery and despair, constrains economic growth, and foments instability.
For compelling humanitarian and pragmatic reasons, the United States must play a leading role – not alone, but in partnership with other governments and other private and public institutions – to reduce global poverty and to help developing nations secure a better future. Our own security interest is undeniable.
Reducing poverty and helping nations to graduate from aid (as many nations have already done over the years) are key goals of American foreign policy, through all Democratic and Republican Administrations and Congresses.
We are advocates for “WASH“: WAter, Sanitation, and Hygiene education. Improving access to safe water and sanitation is not a silver bullet – alone, it does not constitute an effective foreign assistance program. But without it, we find it hard to see how aid – all of it – can be truly effective. We argue that investing in water and sanitation underpins long-term success of our multiple development strategies.
The Impacts are Obvious:
Health – Healthy adults and healthy children learn better, and are more productive economically, and are key to a nation’s future. Nearly half of the deaths of children in poor nations is because of diarrheal disease, which is preventable through safe drinking water.
Education – A school without water or basic sanitation makes it much, much harder for children (and teachers) to do the work of school – to learn, and to teach. But more dramatically, lack of access to safe drinking water at home requires families – often, the burden falls on young girls – to skip school because so much time must be spent each and every day on fetching water, and often from an unsafe source at that. It is estimated that annually, 200 million hours are spent globally just to retrieve water from distant sources for household use! The major impact of that on education – especially that of young girls – is obvious.
Food security and economic development – The struggle to obtain water, and the environmental degradation of human waste that contaminates water sources and living areas, have a direct impact on food sources, and drains the energy and time needed to produce food and bring products to markets. The economic impact of poor water and poor sanitation is exponential – just imagine how your life would change, immediately, if each day you have no access to safe drinking water, or had no safe way to dispose of your family’s waste.
Civil society – With all this time and energy wasted on finding water, carrying water, and dealing with the multiple health impacts of poor water and poor sanitation, small wonder that the goal of building functional civil societies suffers so much. More to the point, for water resources and sanitation systems to be effectively managed – for them be sustained over the long term – communities must have a sense of ownership. It must be their responsibility, shared with their local and national governments, to make these improvements last.
To do that, communities often create local water boards and similar mechanisms to ensure equity and efficiency. Such mechanisms require the time and energy of local people – and that means getting involved, setting expectations, and meeting them. Improved water and waste systems can lead to a sense of empowerment, a belief that services are rights that must be secured and guarded.
In fact, since fetching water in traditional societies so often falls to women, small wonder those women often come to be key participants in the management of water resources. This is part of building effective civil society.
Powerful WASH Advocacy at Home
Our advocacy for WASH is partly about the humanitarian need for us to address poverty. This humanitarian impulse is also a strong component in the way America looks at the world and at itself.
We also base our advocacy on recognition of the need to think creatively – especially in a time of financial stress among the world’s industrialized nations – about how we can make our aid dollars perform most effectively, dollar for dollar.
Leaders and the public should know:
WASH is effective. It is estimated that for every dollar invested in improved water and sanitation, there is an approximate $8 in return in economic productivity in the developing world.
WASH is key to other health interventions. Effective disease prevention and treatment are very hard to do when people have little or no access to clean water. Diarrheal disease is the leading cause of death among children in the developing world – and unsafe water is the key to diarrheal disease.
WASH inventions can have long-term, community-wide, highly visible benefits. Improved water and sanitation are not episodic or short -term, and they can lead to multiple positive impacts in terms of economic development and self-governance.
WASH empowers women. Freed from the often dangerous trek of many miles daily to retrieve water,women can engage in more prodcutive activities, and girls can go to school – key to improving their future. Time and again, we see evidence that improving conditions for women has major impact on a country’s overall political and economic development.
WASH is tied to other water issues. Water will soon equal energy as the top resource issue for the entire planet. Water conservation, and multiple uses of water for agriculture, industry, and environmental protection, all figure in our shared global water future. Nations cannot address these intertwined water resource issues without addressing the need for water and sanitation for humans.
WASH is part of global security – and in US security. Strife over water issues is predicted by the just-released (March 2012) National Intelligence Community estimate. Officials in the Defense Department and elsewhere see water issues as connected to preventing conflict and improving stability. This ties directly to America’s broader security and economic interest.
WASH aid is popular with the American people. Most Americans have a vague negative view of foreign aid, when it is posed to them as a general question with no context. Overwhelmingly, they don’t know how “foreign aid” works, how much it is, or that it is usually carried out in partnership with charities they trust (such as MWA’s members) and with other nations making their own substantial contributions.
But dig deeper – as we have done in opinion surveys – and you find that most Americans, across regions, demographic groups, and even political parties, still believe that America must be involved in redressing global poverty, and they especially like helping people to have clean water to drink and safe sanitation. WASH is, in a very real sense, “foreign aid” that is popular.
The US taxpayer has partners. The US government is a major WASH funder for US-based NGOs, but it is not alone. Other sources of funding for the WASH sector combine to surpass USAID grants.
MWA members draw their funding from the small and large donations of individual Americans, from foundations such as the Hilton Foundation and corporations such as Coca-Cola and Procter and Gamble, and from key partnerships with the US government and multilateral government-sponsored institutions such as the Inter-American Development Bank.
Also contrary to misinformed opinion, other governments are deeply invovled. The US government is surpassed by some others in terms of its WASH investment, notably the Netherlands and Germany. The important idea here, however, is that other nations share in the obligation and cost to advance WASH, including the developing nations themselves. Perhaps as much of 70% of the investment each year in water and sanitation infrastructure in developing nations is made by the national governments themselves.
But the enormity of the problem means that even with such investment, large numbers of people remain left behind, and the multiple negative impacts of poor WASH continue to unfold. Progress is being made, but the climb is very long.
Is There Real Progress?
The inadequate WASH conditions for nearly 2 billion people is impossible for any one nation to address alone. The UN Millennium Development Goal of improving access to safe drinking water for at least half of the nearly 1 billion people who don’t have it is on track to be being met; the MDG of halving the number of people with poor sanitation – estimated to be nearly 2 billion – however, is far from being achieved.
That this seems so daunting does not mean it is hopeless. The millions who have improved access today, thanks in some part to the work of MWA members, are proof that effective public-private partnership can bring real-world results.
There has been far more success with WASH interventions than not – we all must do a better job of sharing that important news.
Working with the WASH Community in the US and Abroad
MWA is one of the central players in developing strategy and sharing information to help the community speak with a united voice. As a member of InterAction, the broad coalition of US NGOs working in international development and poverty relief, MWA serves as co-chair of the InterAction WASH Working Group, a public policy forum that is open to all WASH organizations.
- MWA capitalizes on its internal expertise and the expertise of other organizations to share the responsibility for creating and implementing effective coalition advocacy; at this time, the coalition includes more than 40 US-based organizations, among the most active to advance legislation being MWA, InterAction, CARE, WaterAid America, and WASH Advocates. We share our information and work extensively with the broader WASH community.
- MWA is active in coalition events and other public methods of informing Congress, the Administration, the news media, and other institutions.
- We directly lobby Congress, and we meet regularly with USAID, the State Department, and other agencies to share knowledge and spur greater commitment.