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Flushed down the toilet: why aid projects don’t always deliver

A new toilet in Kenya

A new toilet in Kenya - but inaccessible to those with disabilities. SuSanA Secretariat under a Creative Commons Licence

This year, Australian taxpayers will contribute more than $300 million in development assistance to Kenya – but how much of it will actually make a difference?

A 2012 audit by the European Union of their own development assistance sanitation projects in sub-Saharan Africa revealed that only half of these projects were actually successful. And this is not restricted to the money donated via Brussels.

The World Bank – one of the biggest aid development organizations in the world –declared that 39 per cent of its projects in 2010 ultimately failed.

Unsuccessful projects have the potential to leave local community members disillusioned with sanitation, compromising their health by increasing barriers to future adoption of sanitation practices.

Improving sanitation in a country with limited access to sewerage, high population density, and low per-capita incomes, is obviously more complex than hiring a plumber and buying a toilet from the local hardware store. Many stakeholders are involved, and some of the first players on the scene are donor organizations.

The commendable transparency of donor organizations reveals numerous problems that can arise at all stages of projects, from planning to evaluation. These problems have contributed to the failure of projects to deliver benefits after donors have withdrawn. Improvements in transparency facilitate valuable international exchange of knowledge and help to bridge the gap between popular opinion about the ease of aid development work and reality.

Often, projects are initiated by a non-government organization (NGO) that identifies a need and applies for funding from donor organizations such as Australia’s Agency for International Development (AusAID) to carry out the required work. Donor organizations will screen the projects to make sure their values are in line with their own, and to check the planned budget and intended outcomes. Most of the emphasis is placed on the initial infrastructure costs, with only limited thought given to the operations and maintenance of the sanitation infrastructure.

Operations and maintenance should be receiving equal focus to infrastructure implementation; any project that has an insufficient post-construction plan is likely to require continued support, or worse, may fall into disrepair after donor withdrawal. Therefore, grant applications for sanitation projects should request future financial plans.

A post-construction financial plan for a sanitation facility must include a means for funding future operations and maintenance. In Kenya, this is often a pay-per-use or tariff scheme for communal sanitation facilities. Sometimes the tariffs are set too low and cannot cover the ongoing costs, resulting in a liability for the community.

Therefore, grant applications could show a researched tariff scheme for communal toilet facilities. A successful tariff system for a similar community in the area would suffice.

Operations and maintenance are also given limited thought in applications. But what is the point of building a toilet if there are no means for the facility to remain hygienic?

To address this, there should be requirements for applicants to propose potential local service providers that can ensure the upkeep of these facilities.

A lack of local ownership is a common reason for project failure, and perhaps one of the hardest to deal with, given its intangibility. The donor organization could share responsibility in ensuring good community engagement by funding or completing research into best practice methods and ask the applicants how they could integrate these into their project.

This way, NGOs will be made aware of methods that have resulted in positive community engagement in the past, and be required to think critically about the community engagement methods they are intending to use. If a local community does not adopt the technology, it will not be able to provide the intended function of improving people’s lives.

Donors can improve project success by increasing selectivity of projects. However, a balance between the detail required in written funding applications and the efficient use of NGO time must be struck. Voice interviews could help reduce time consumption but still be highly effective in screening projects.

A 2011 AusAID report mentions that it ‘takes a long-term approach that involves donor co-ordination, training for service providers and improvement of financial systems, management and policy’. This demonstrates a laudable level of responsibility AusAID feels towards its beneficiaries.

In the 2012-13 fiscal year we will spend over 12 times more on encouraging procreation than on the 17,000 Kenyan children that will die from diarrhoea. Thankfully, the Baby Bonus is now exiting the building, but this does not solve the problem of infant mortality due to a disease that should no longer be responsible for deaths in the 21st century. The success of sanitation projects is a pressing issue, its import emphasized in the UN Millennium Development Goals.

Let’s make every cent count, and ensure every sanitation project survives after the external support is withdrawn.

Rebecca Dracup is a student at The University of Western Australia and was a Global Voices youth delegate to the Nairobi Study Tour on Sustainable Development.

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