The key arguments I picked up include:
(a) water and sanitation are political (much more than food, which is comfortable with being commodified) and the dominant politics has been at the global or “high” level, crowding out the more local or “low politics” where the tradeoffs between public and private, and quality, access, scarcity and use are played out and where simplistic notions of community prevail
(b) related to this, there has been a failure to blend expert and lay knowledge on water and sanitation
(c) the water and sanitation field has been fractured along various vested interests, but now greater coherence is being achieved, in part, through international meetings
(d) for water and sanitation, the MDGs have been helpful (raising the profile) and a hindrance (incentivising meeting the needs of those who are the easiest to reach but are not necessarily the neediest)
(e) sanitation remains somewhat of an “orphan sector”, lagging behind in the numbers.
There are many more messages, but these are the ones that resonated with me. Some reflections:
- The progress on access to clean water, if the numbers are credible, is impressive (although one of the authors says the world is only “slightly better off”). It’s all relative I guess: the number of people who have access to improved water in 1990 was 4 billion and in 2008 it was 6 billion. Even when you look at deficits, the gap between population and access has dropped from 1.2 billion to 0.89 billion, a reduction of 25% in absolute numbers. All I can say is that reductions like this in hunger would be a major success. Definitely a glass half full.
- The failure to blend expert and lay knowledge is a challenge for all sectors and is hardwired into the way experts are trained. I think this is the pressure point to change the way knowledge is constructed.
- On thresholds and targets, I have just finished a draft paper with Tony Lake of UNICEF reviewing evidence that suggest focussing on the poorest and most excluded might be more expensive, but the impact of doing so more than justifies the costs. I will make that paper available once it is finalised.
- On fractured water and sanitation communities, until very recently this was a good characterisation of the nutrition community—it took a food price crisis and the leadership of a handful of people to turn that around—I wonder what might be the trigger in the WASH community to fix this busted flush?
- Sanitation as everyone’s business (pardon the pun) but nobody’s responsibility –this also sounds very familiar from the nutrition world and we are doing research trying to understand how incentives can be better aligned across ministries and vertically between national and local levels to generate a more collective sense of responsibility to the sector.