We all know that "he who pays the piper calls the tune" - but what if the tune is the wrong one for the times? Can pipers push for new tunes? IRC's CEO Patrick Moriarty thinks so.
On September 25, 2015, 193 world leaders committed to 17 Global Goals. One of them is to provide every human on the planet with sanitation and drinking water services. To achieve this we not only need to get sanitation services to 2.6 billion people who currently don't have them - but also to make sure that once received the services work forever.
People who work on the frontline know that building new toilets using charitable money isn't the answer. There's not enough charitable or aid money in the world, and outsiders lack the skills and local market knowledge to ever create something sustainable. So the solution lies not in building new toilets as charitable outsiders, but in building the local systems that can provide sanitation services. Systems that are led by national governments while drawing on the skills of national businesses and citizens organizations to actually provide the services.
Put simply, International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) have to stop being service providers and become systems builders. To do that, we need our donors and supporters to make this change with us.
Slow, messy and transformative vs. quick, measurable and trivial
"We know that what they're paying us to do is wrong, they do too - but it's where they want to put their bloody money anyway:" (nameless INGO colleague)
More and more sanitation (and drinking water) organizations emphasize the need to support system strengthening. They get that if we just keep doing what we're doing, we'll never reach everyone by 2030. And more seriously, even if we do reach billions of people, progress won't be sustainable with only aid funding.
Yet the bulk of aid money continues to flow to projects delivering new taps and toilets.
This is not surprising given that boards of philanthropies and national parliaments want hard numbers of "people we've helped", numbers that aren't easily extracted from messy and notoriously difficult to measure processes of systems strengthening. The challenge then is how to sell this critical work to either the no-nonsense business people who make up the boards of philanthropies, or parliamentarians representing aid-fatigued voters who want to know that their taxes are being well spent.
Honest donors that challenge themselves
For INGOs to move away from building toilets to building systems capable of providing sanitation services, donors too have to change - and there are positive signs of this. Visionary foundations like the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and Osprey Foundation are supporting a systems building agenda. The onus is on INGO's to find ways to encourage more donors to follow - in part by findings answers to the entirely legitimate requirement for clear measurement of impact. We need to show it works. We need to show that stronger systems deliver better water and sanitation services. We need to provide answers to questions like: How can we show progress? How can we evidence efficiency and effectiveness over time? This is something that many of us are already engaged in, but it undoubtedly needs further work.
But there's also an onus on donors to be honest with and challenge themselves. To accept that however big they are, their financial contribution is trivial in comparison to the need and ambition set out in the SDGs. They must ask themselves challenging questions about their organizational theories of change, which in non-development jargon means: how can their contributions impact on billions rather than a few thousand? How can they work together with other donors to achieve bigger collective impact and trigger the transformation needed at local and national level to ensure that everyone, everywhere will have access to sanitation service... forever.
How we can make change today
The good news is, we can start to change the way we work by building national systems today. With our partners Aguaconsult, WaterAid and Water for People we've developed a global Agenda for Change with guiding principles. Our ask to both our fellow INGOs and donors (not just our own - but all people who fund work in sanitation and drinking water) is simple but challenging:
1. Join us in the work of system building - district by district, country by country. Share our vision of a world where everyone has access to toilets, a world where aid or charity are not needed to provide sanitation services indefinitely.
2. Accept that the road to change will be long, expensive and messy - and that it will sometimes be difficult to share quick results or explain exactly which share of the change is directly attributable to you. Rather: understand that you are part of an unprecedented movement that changes the world.
3. Hold us - as implementers - to account: demand that we develop the tools and numbers not only to build national systems, but to do so effectively and with evidence. At the same time, provide your boards and ministers and parliamentarians with the data that they rightly demand.
We're convinced that it is only by fundamentally changing and strengthening the national systems that deliver water and sanitation services in a country, that the SDG ambition to achieve sanitation (and water) for everyone will be achieved by 2030. It starts with leadership, from donors and INGO's, challenging lazy assumptions that doing what we have always done has any chance of real success. There is another tune for the piper to play and its time to dance to it.
Find out more and join us : www.ircwash.org/blog/but-what-is-it-that-you-actually-do
Or get in touch! www.ircwash.org