The Sanitation and Water For All initiative is both bold and somewhat rudderless at this stage. And that is to be both accepted and welcomed as sometimes great things happen when confusion exists in the early days around bold ideas.
Day one of the partnership meeting was hard for a few reasons.
First, I am not convinced everyone in the room understands fully what SWA is and is not. At times it is seen as an implementing body with possible access to cash (or the ability to access cash) to help countries plan, advocate and monitor. At other times it is viewed as a platform for debate and support to countries to help them move towards “sanitation and water for all”. And still again as either/all of the following: an advocacy voice for change, a global monitoring champion and/or a planning agency.
Second, there are clearly politics at play that I do not fully understand. I was somewhat startled by the debate around “targeting” where some seemed to think that the geographical spread of “Sanitation and Water For All” should focus only on particular “at risk” countries that are struggling with their water and sanitation challenges. This flew in the face of data presented early on that suggested that a full 80% of the people in the world without sanitation live in “middle-income countries”. The argument seemed to center on whether, by supporting more countries, it would dilute the already hard challenges SWA faces in even getting its feet moving in the smaller number of countries already. The whole debate on targeting and prioritization seems to fly in the face of the groups title – are we “Sanitation and Water For All” as a movement or are we really looking at “Sanitation and Water For All For Some Lucky Countries Chosen by Somebody Somewhere”? It is here where the SWA title enters the dangerous world of aspirational but unrealizable jargon
Third, I think the emphasis on national level action, with lots of role players and voices, may be what cripples the initiative (whatever it is in practice). Great movements that have radically changed the world or moved towards eradicating a major problem – from diseases like polio and smallpox to social movements like civil rights in the United States (which many would argue is still not a truly completed outcome) never started from the top and worked down. Never! That is not how movements that bring about big changes succeed. Instead, they start from the bottom, build models of success and drive towards a situation where the desired outcome becomes inevitable, and the naysayers fall away against the overwhelming evidence that the desired outcome that once seemed so impossible is not only possible, but there is a trail of success that makes it visible for all to see. Getting those successes is where the energy is focused (and it can be ugly and frustrating just modeling success as the desired outcome is not easy to achieve at all), building upwards from success using all mediums at our disposal (and there are many now), and creating momentum and demand for change that moves people to act. Frankly, great movements have never been built by emphasizing policy, frameworks, “processes”, high level consultations and global monitoring. Proclamations from high-level leaders to address the problem and allocate more money to achieve the result always fall on barren lands if the way forward has not been tried and tested. That is the lesson that distinguishes great movements for change that succeed with great ambitions that never gain traction.
The participants in this meeting are truly amazing. They all want to see the water and sanitation challenge resolved. Day One showed that the energy and wisdom for action is in the room, if only the focus could switch from grand strategy to bold, localized action that models what “Sanitation and Water For All” might look like in practice. Lets see if we can get closer on Day Two.