Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest coverage for access to sanitation services worldwide, with more than 70 percent of the population still lacking access to toilets and hand-washing facilities.
In 2000, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set the target of reducing by half the number of people without access to adequate sanitation by 2015. If current rates of progress do not increase in the region, it is not expected to meet its sanitation target for another 200 years, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
“The UN system is trying to push, but if national government leaders are not interested it means that funding will not come forward and that the women, men, and children in those countries will not get safe water and decent sanitation,” Dick de Jong, Advocacy and Communication Officer at the IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre, told MediaGlobal.
However, some countries in the region demonstrated good results in recent years, spreading optimism about progress toward the MDGs. Rwanda stands as a frontrunner, being the sole sub-Saharan country to achieve its goals so far with 58 percent of the population now possessing access to basic sanitation services.
Political stability is the key
One essential lesson: strong political motivation more than economic development, is the key for fostering improvements in the delivery of sanitation services. Countries in the region that witness improving political stability, like Rwanda, have seen significant improvement in recent years, compared to countries in which the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was increasing but unaccompanied by political reforms.
Between 1990 and 2008, more than 4 million Rwandans gained access to improved sanitation services, according to the World Bank. “Rwanda’s sanitation program scores better than many richer African countries, similar to other countries that had gone through intensive post-conflict and poverty reduction strategy programs,” confirms de Jong.
A politically stable country is better able to delegate power and funds to local authorities and communities, which are often better informed on local needs and capacities. “In a few years, Rwanda managed to considerably improve its public financial management and more than 30 percent of its national budget is now allocated to Rwandan district authorities,” adds de Jong. “Local authorities are thus empowered to implement national sanitation and hygiene policies at district level, and organize trainings for local authority staff.”
Delegation to sub-national levels is essential for sanitation supplies as consequent differences remain between sectors, between the rich and the poor, and between rural and urban areas. Programs such as the Local Millennium Development Goal Initiative (LMDGIs), launched in 2004 by WaterAid, an international NGO dedicated to improving access to water and sanitation for the poor, aims specifically at that.
“The Initiative takes the global targets down to a local level and works with local government to build up and execute proper plans to help achieve the goals at a local level. In the countries in which this has so far been used, there have been considerable successes,” explains Daniel Yeo, Senior Policy Analyst (Water Security and Climate Change) at WaterAid, to MediaGlobal.
International aid should encourage national leadership
As highlighted by this program, external development partners still play a crucial role in sanitation projects. Although African countries may become increasingly independent in the future, some projects necessitate high levels of funding and scientific research, rarely affordable for sub-Saharan African countries alone.
A good example is the “toilet contest” launched by the Gates Foundation and involving top international universities. “The Reinventing the Toilet Challenge seeks to support upstream research and development of a toilet that is hygienic and sustainable for the world’s poorest populations; the toilet cannot rely on water to flush waste or a septic system to process and store waste,” a Gates Foundation spokesperson told MediaGlobal.
Experts agree that development partners must involve local stakeholders in their projects, including local communities, civil societies, workers, and aid recipients. In the long term, foreign actors should withdraw from project implementation in order to let African countries take themselves the leadership in the delivery of these services.
“The ideal outcome of a sustainable sanitation strategy would be that local governments and communities take over and lead projects by themselves, from their design to their implementation and review,” concludes the Gates Foundation in its exchange with MediaGlobal.
As Rwandan President Paul Kagame said two months ago in his speech to delegates of the Third Africa Conference on Hygiene and Sanitation, held July 2011 in Kigali, “We should be able to start sanitation initiatives like the provision of clean water, availability of toilets and clean and tidy neighborhoods without having to wait for outside support.”
For the time being, however, providing basic sanitation to every person in the world is an international responsibility. “All stakeholders should get involved in the issue: foreign and local governments, private investors, banks, UN organizations; in order to provide the $6 billion necessary for reaching the 2015 MDGs,” insists de Jong. “Even then, reaching MDGs means halving the people without safe water and sanitation. So we need to think and plan now for beyond 2015.”