Citizens & Communities Need a Voice in Water Sector Policy

Building Trust and Sustainability through Integrity - WWWeek Event

I believe higher levels of sustainability and trust in the water sector can be achieved when citizens and communities are taken more seriously. Indeed, examples of community and citizen’s participation provide evidence that the bottom-up approach can work. A favourable environment for participation makes a big difference in the kind of impact such approaches will have. This environment is influenced by political support, the legal options for participation, and cultural practice. However, there remain considerable and significant challenges to local involvement, especially in relation to international policy processes — including the creation of the post-2015 development agenda and the OECD Water Governance Initiative.

As we head into Stockholm World Water Week 2015, we need to acknowledge what stands in the way.


When Top-Down Trumps Bottom-Up

Citizens and communities seem to have lost trust in politics: in UN institutions, in their governments, and in water sector institutions. This phenomenon is global but most acute in countries with a large proportion of people living in poverty. Together with high urban growth and scarcity of water resources, water pollution and intermittent or failing domestic water supply services, this situation presents a risk for stability in many countries.

Restoring trust is therefore important and, in my view, should be addressed as a political priority. Promoting processes where priorities have to be set in each country through national stakeholder dialogue is needed, with greater involvement of communities and citizens at appropriate levels. Engagement should bring community concerns closer to policy priorities, just as it makes clearer to communities what options are possible. Transparency and honesty, especially regarding governance and integrity challenges in different cultural, political, and economic contexts, is essential in this context. This requires a change of political culture in many countries where top-down approaches are predominant or where corruption thrives.


Lofty Goals, Bitter Realities

During the 8th UN General Assembly in September 2000, heads of state and government issued the Millennium Declaration, an important statement of intent underpinned by an ambitious political agenda. It declared values and principles which needed to be upheld and included points on the need for good governance. This declaration implied a strong commitment to principles and values of integrity and helped mobilize funding and energies. All in all though, it offered much less than what was needed.

Universal declarations and principles do not help when power, politics, and organized crime move realities into the opposite direction. Policy development and implementation processes typically have serious flaws, which I believe can in large part be associated with a lack of integrity, including a lack of participation.

During the 15 years of MDG implementation, a top-down approach from the international level has prevailed. Voices from the bottom were hardly heard. Monitoring of MDGs showed an enormous gap between officially reported progress and the situation on the ground. Most strikingly, monitoring implementation of MDGs did not make the connections between different goals at local, regional, and national levels. As a result, monitoring has not been used to inform policy and reduce the gap between policy intentions and implementation.

The GLAAS (UN Water Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and drinking water) approach was a reaction to this situation but it came very late and does not yet include a clear and sufficient perspective of good water governance and integrity. As such, it does not really bridge the information and communication gap between local realities and national policy and programmes.


New Opportunities or New Barriers?

The proposed 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, published in August 2015, including the new SDGs, will come into force in 2016. The document shows that some of the lessons learned in the last 15 years since the Millennium Declaration are acknowledged. The SDG declaration states:

“The new Agenda builds on the Millennium Development Goals and seeks to complete what these did not achieve, particularly in reaching the most vulnerable.

In its scope, however, the framework we are announcing today goes far beyond the MDGs. Alongside continuing development priorities such as poverty eradication, health, education and food security and nutrition, it sets out a wide range of economic, social and environmental objectives. It also promises more peaceful and inclusive societies. It also, crucially, defines means of implementation.”

The emphasis on inclusion is important, as is the emphasis on local community participation for the improvement of water and sanitation management (target 6.b). Goal 16, which explicitly mentions “build[ing] accountable and inclusive institutions”, is an important addition.

However, in all the debates, lobbying, and negotiations around SDGs, the energies — while united to achieve a dedicated water goal — were definitely not united when looking at the formulation of the goals and the choice and formulation of targets. Vested institutional interests of governments, different UN organizations and international NGOs influenced the discussions, leaving less room for values and principles. The set of 17 proposed SDGs is a complex and even more ambitious agenda than the one laid out in the MDGs. I believe the result can be somewhat confusing: there is something of a grab bag of goals and targets for every interest group, but a reality check with communities and citizens is lacking. Transparency and integrity are also not taken up in the SDGs, nor is the issue of trust.

For the water sector specifically, I believe the OECD Principles on Water Governance agreed on in June can serve as a valuable basis for discussion between and in countries to support the implementation of the SDGs. The principles were developed in a large multi-stakeholder consultation and, although they can still be questioned, they do address transparency and integrity explicitly as essential elements of improvement. I sincerely hope they will be used as universal guiding principles.


There are many more unanswered questions that require further debate and engagement to push the global agenda forward. We certainly need to ask:

  • To what extent have the values and principles of the Millennium Declaration been upheld?
  • Are community actors and local behaviour responsive to international norms and principles? Can they be?
  • Would the increased involvement of communities and citizens have made a difference? Would it have been possible?
  • Where do we stand in terms of scaling up participation of women and girls to levels on par with that of men and boys for decision-making and monitoring in the water sector? How can we deal with potential resistance at the community level to more inclusive participation of women and girls?
  • Could more have been achieved with the resources available?
  • Where do we stand now? Is there a real change of paradigm in terms of equity and sustainability with the SDGs?
  • Will the SDGs open up space for communities, civil society and their representatives to participate in decision-making processes?
  • Can dialogue around the SDGs and supporting principles such as the OECD Water Governance Principles help restore trust and mobilize energy, skills and knowledge to find solutions?


There is more to be said and even more to do. So, where do we start?

Join me for a discussion at “Building Trust & Sustainability through Integrity” at Stockholm World Water Week 2015. Wednesday, August 26 at 4 pm, room FH Little Theatre/Lilla teatern.

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