UK Aid Cuts: Who will carry the torch to replace essential investment into WASH access?

In April, a leaked memo revealed that UK funding for water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) projects in developing nations is set to be slashed by more than 80%. This comes as part of an overall reduction in foreign aid from 0.7% to 0.5% of gross national income – a cut of over £4 billion – undermining the United Nations pact it shares with 29 other countries.

The move has surprised and dismayed many and impacts numerous areas of development in some of the most deprived communities, with almost all 2019 funding going to countries in Africa and Asia. Looking at WASH access in particular, a decrease in development projects will mean large numbers of avoidable deaths and poorer livelihoods. 

According to data published by WHO and UNICEF in 2019, in 2017 there were 1.7 billion cases of diarrhea among children younger than five years old, with 446,000 dying (mostly in developing countries), amounting to 9% of the 5.8 million deaths of children younger than five. There were also 95,000 cholera deaths and 129,000 typhoid fever deaths – both water-borne diseases that could be avoided with safe water access. Analysing the data, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) surmises that water, sanitation, and hygiene has the potential to prevent at least 9% of the global disease burden and 6% of global deaths.

A move to decrease WASH development projects will be particularly devastating in the context of the covid-19 pandemic. The focus on handwashing and disinfectants to curb covid-19 spread has highlighted the importance of WASH access in reducing transmission – exactly the same principles apply to other viruses and infectious diseases.

While the UK is currently the only country that has announced foreign aid cuts in advance of the 2021 G7 summit, it is crucial that the importance of the sustainable development of WASH infrastructure in developing countries is not overlooked as countries responsible for large sums of foreign aid investment focus their attention on domestic recovery from the pandemic.

Covid-19 impacts in the near-to-mid term

In many developing countries, a dual challenge exists in directly dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. Firstly, transmission is more rapid in deprived and densely populated areas where social distancing becomes impossible and communities are less well equipped to take measures to curb the spread. Secondly, public health systems tend to be less well equipped to deal with a surge in demand and a need for specialist equipment and increased resources (such as trained staff and PPE).

The importance of a robust public health system has been clearly demonstrated across the globe in treating patients, organising vaccination programmes and maintaining other important health services alongside dealing directly with Covid-19. As seen recently in India, healthcare infrastructure is ill-equipped to handle mass demand and can quickly crumble.

Similarly in Kenya, as in many other countries, informal settlements in its major cities have made social distancing extremely challenging. Over half of Kenya’s 47.5 million people live in these informal settlements, without adequate water, sanitation and health care. Poor access to clean water and disinfectant products also means that many citizens are unable to follow guidance around hand-washing and surface sanitization to stem virus transmission.

Just as transmission rates are likely to be higher, hospital infrastructure is likely to less well equipped to deal with the resulting pressure, leading to higher death rates not just due to Covid-19 but also other causes as all services and resources become strained.

In addition, developing countries are also less well positioned to recover from the pandemic in the mid to long term due to later access to vaccines, poorer infrastructure for rollout, higher levels of hesitancy and lack of stimulus power from governments to aid economic recovery.

A little goes a long way

What has perhaps been undervalued is the disproportionately large positive impact investments into WASH infrastructure can have when considering both indirect and direct benefits. A UK aid report published in October 2020 states that “[i]t is possible to achieve near-universal access to improved sanitation in a short time frame”, based on data collected across a number of projects funded to the sum of £122 million by the Department for International Development (DFID) in developing countries.

The CDC also states, based on 2017 data, that water and sanitation interventions have demonstrated economic benefits ranging from $5 to $46 per $1 invested.

Given the wealth of direct and indirect impact that access to safe and clean water and sanitation bring, it is paramount that the focus on these development projects is not lost. However, only 1.4% of Kenya’s national budget was allocated to the water and sanitation sector between 2014 to 2018, according to an assessment by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Social Justice Center Working Group. Given the immediate need to funnel investment into directly dealing with the global pandemic and the country’s recovery, it is unlikely that a dramatic national increase in WASH funding is on the horizon.

Finding a sustainable approach to WASH investment

 Even without foreign direct investment (FDI) cuts and the UK’s move to slash WASH funding, foreign aid has been largely unsuccessful when it comes to solving Kenya’s WASH access challenges. Historically, despite large sums of development assistance, there has been a severe disconnect between funding and impact, clearly pointing to a poor investment approach which the government has so far failed to effectively grapple with.

In fact, the success of the WASH projects conducted by DFID was largely attributed to the NGO-led suppliers that delivered and maintained access. The same UK aid report later highlights “[t]he results presented here indicate that large-scale NGO-led programmes can achieve very impressive results in a compressed time frame and maintain them for at least one to two years after the implementation phase.”

The importance of maintenance to support longer-term access cannot be understated, but relying on suppliers will only suffice until the allocated project funding dries up. Even if a pocket of funding were cordoned off for maintenance of projects, countries will prioritise their domestic challenges, as the recent UK funding cut indicates, and disruptions to funding flows are likely to occur over time. Educating and supporting local communities to continue to uphold the services themselves is therefore the only viable and sustainable option.

Communities need access to safe water for drinking and sanitation, and the need for projects like ADC’s Nyansakia primary school initiative has never been clearer. ADC aims to raise £50,000 to build new toilets and a water borehole, with a goal to complete construction by the end of 2021.

We at African Development Choices believe that empowering communities and increasing public participation are essential and indispensable aspects of any sustainable development approach. Through better resource management and improved access to essential services, communities can achieve real and lasting change. Crucially, it’s all about choices. African Development Choices strives to help ensure that they are much better ones, now and in the future. 

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