Friday, 26 September 2008

Indifference, the enemy of ending water poverty

Today's proceedings started powerfully with a genuinely rousing speech from UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, calling for an end to the indifference and inaction that has blighted the fight against poverty.

Outlining a belief that "our greatest enemy is not war or inequality or any single ideology or a financial crisis; it is too much indifference. Indifference in the face of sole-destroying poverty, indifference in the face of catastrophic threats to our planet," Brown called on the world to take action on strengthening health systems, eliminating malaria, providing education for all and ending hunger.

Sentiments we can all commend, passion we can all empathise with, and causes we must all support. Yet Brown also unwittingly highlighted a theme that has become a millstone around the neck of efforts to end the sanitation crisis - indifference to the needs of 40% of the world's population who need access to a safe and hygienic toilet, and a failure of the aid system to respond both the needs and priorities of the poor, as well as evidence of what works to promote health and alleviate poverty.

For it is indifference and a sidelining of the sanitation and water sector in the minds of policy makers that is hampering greater progress towards not only meeting the targets on these issues, but also those targets on slashing extreme poverty, reducing child poverty, achieving universal primary education and attaining gender equality.

Today, Gordon Brown was not the only leader to neglect the indisputable linkages of sanitation and water to health and education, as statement after statement failed either to highlight their role, or if they did they certainly did nothing about it.

There were a few exceptions, of course. The Prince of Orange, Chair of the UN Secretary-General's Advisory Board on water and sanitation, threw his support behind the UK-Dutch 'global framework for action' and called on others to follow. And others (Australia and Switzerland for example) called for a greater role for water and sanitation.

But overall, the action was elsewhere and while gains have been made at the UN this week, we have some way to go until we see the issues of sanitation and water receive the same attention as they are given by the poor.

The UK-Dutch announcement yesterday was the main show in town for sanitation and water, and whilst it is disappointing that further announcements were not made, progress has been made and the job to bring more people on board - and strengthen the plan with significant levels of funding - starts now.

And further, we must remember to 'bank' what we have so far, while of course remaining scandalised by what has been left undone. A few positives to note:

- The global framework for action (outlined in yesterday's post) is on the table now, is being championed by 2 key governments and will start to be developed and implemented, hopefully with more partners.
- This framework incorporates a lot (but not all) of our policy objectives, and is thanks to your efforts and a growing civil society movement.
- This UN meeting was one step in the process - other important agreements this year include those at the African Union to develop national plans and provide greater domestic spending, and those in the EU Agenda for Action, which commits the EU member states to spend and extra 2 bn Euros on the sector in Africa by 2010.
- The G8 Summit placed the issue firmly for the next year in Italy 2008.

'Banking' these things are fine, but of course we are still a million miles from where we need to be, and there remains as many reasons to be sceptical as optimistic.

- The global framework for action needs broader support to be effective, and countries were not queuing up today to prioritise the sector nor sign up to the framework.
- It needs to ensure sufficient funding and a way to deliver a promise that no country plans will fail through lack of finance.
- The extra money needed is in the billions - the UK-Dutch contribution can only just be the start.
- Even looking at the UK, whose announcement we welcomed, there is still plenty to do to match its rhetoric with action in its own budgets - it spends a paltry 1.5% of its total aid on the sector. This will be true of other donors too. This simply must change.

So we must all start hammering our governments to know (a) whether they will support the global framework, (b) whether they will be increasing their funding to either to meet or match the commitments made, whether at EU or AU level, and (c) whether they will finally consider water and sanitation as an essential and equal partner alongside health and education so that the aid system can work for the poor and we can have a chance of meeting the MDGs and really fighting the broad reality of poverty.

And in doing so we have to tell them indifference will not be tolerated.

Read statements from the High-Level Event

Read about commitments made at the UN meeting
(the 24th September includes commitments on MDG 7, the 25th one does not - no idea why...)

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Going Dutch: Small steps forward at UN, huge leap needed

The sanitation and water world feels a little more orange today, as the Dutch Government, supported by the UK, took a lead at the UN in pushing a 'global framework for action' to achieve the MDG targets.

The day began with a presentation of our issues - alongside a powerful video and a petition supported by over 960,000 people - to the Dutch Prime Minister, Jan Balkenende, and the Minister for International Cooperation, Bert Koenders.

The reaction was positive. Today's 'partnership event' saw a significant step forward for End Water Poverty's campaign for global action to achieve the sanitation and water MDG targets, albeit one that requires further work and support to be truly effective.

The Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Jan Balkenende, and UK Minister for Development, Gareth Thomas, today announced support for a 'global framework for action' that mirrors many of End Water Poverty's key demands. In the joint initiative, the two Governments announced the following, which will also be represented by the Prince of Orange at the UN High-Level Event tomorrow :

- A global high-level meeting to be hosted by UNICEF in 2009, and repeated annually thereafter, that brings together key figures from governments and multilateral bodies.
- €100m over 5 years of new money (we are told...) as an initial investment - with hopefully more to come - to support the development and implementation of national water and sanitation plans in 20 off-track countries.
- Consideration of a catalytic 'fast-track' fund to kick-start programmes and capacity
- €6m to support the administrative and technical costs in setting up the framework of action
- A commitment to try and bring other key governments and bodies on board.

But let us be clear - the above is not the end of the story, and this agreement alone will not be sufficient to turn the tide in the sanitation and water crisis. The new money announced can only be the start - far more is needed to make a deep impact that will transform the fortunes of people living without access to the most basic facilities. But it is a genuine step forward - and truly testament to the work that has been happening across the world - and one we can welcome.

The task beyond the UN summit seems to be to make this the start and not the end - our issues and calls are on the table, being championed by key governments and bodies (and should be supported by some others). This represents progress. Yet the fact that this was the only real and tangible announcement in a meeting otherwise full of commendable sentiments, but devoid of ambitious commitments, suggests we have a lot more work to do.

There is an immediate task for our leaders too. We need governments to support this initiative at tomorrow's discussions at the main High-Level Event in order to build momentum and start to deliver action as well as words, to ensure that this issue is prioritised by governments to the same degree as it is prioritised by the poor.

The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon summed things up very well. Calling on leaders to step up action, and increase investments substantially, he stressed how a situation where thousands of parents watch their children die unnecessarily every day because of preventable diseases "diminishes us all".

And in a message that all heads of state failing to match rhetoric with investment should heed, he added "we often say that water is life, let us act as if we mean it".

'We shall overcome' - singing in the aisles, 23rd September

As a socially awkward Brit keen on avoiding public emotion, taking part in a rousing chorus of 'we shall overcome', that great anthem of the civil rights movement, in a packed chapel is not something experienced on a daily basis. Yet that's exactly what I found myself doing today - admittedly maybe humming more than roaring, shuffling rather than dancing - at the finale of today's civil society 'poverty hearing'.

At the event, organised by the Global Call to Action against Poverty (GCAP), representatives from social movements all across the global south stood up on behalf of their communities, testified to their experience of poverty and spoke out to send messages to heads of state assembled at the UN. Speakers included a young girl from India enchanting the audience about how education gave her an escape from exploitative labour, a Masai woman speaking on the twin challenges of climate change and the food crisis on pastoral communities in Kenya, and Jamillah Mwanjisi, Coordinator of the African Civil Society Network on Water and Sanitation (ANEW), speaking on the global sanitation and water crisis.

Eloquently outlining the fundamental importance of providing safe sanitation and water in order to achieve the MDG targets on poverty, education, gender equality and child mortality, Jamillah asked of the audience 'who is prepared to wait 100 years for a safe place to use the toilet?'. She called on leaders to empower the voices of citizens to drive social progress, and to support the development and financing of national water and sanitation plans. Leaders of north and south have the duty, she said, of implementing the promises made in the International Year of Sanitation to make a breakthrough in the provision of sanitation and water.

With the testimonies being collected by a prestigious panel of elders including Mary Robinson (former UN Commissioner for Human Rights and President of Ireland) and Ela Bhatt (one of the worlds most remarkable pioneers in grassroots development), the recommendations are meant to be fed into the formal proceedings being concluded this Thursday. Certainly the themes outlined by Jamillah were recognised - with Mary Robinson berating the injustice of lacking access to water and sanitation, and fellow elder Serigne Mansour Sy (Co-President of Religions for Peace) stressing how providing access to clean water helps girls get into school and allows women to spend time productively earning an income, working their way out of poverty.

Above all the key messages from this event were the central role of respecting human rights and promoting empowerment, the simple need for all to inject an urgency in the keeping of promises made but never kept, and the criticality of - as Archbishop Winston Ndungane (Archbishop of Cape Town who was imprisoned in Robben Island during the struggle against apartheid), put it - "stiffening our spines and taking the voices of the poor to the corridors of power".

Tomorrow we will ourselves be taking these voices to the corridors of power - first by presenting a petition of over 960,000 actions to the Dutch Prime Minister Jan Balkenende (who has been one of the more progressive leaders in this process), and secondly by participating in the 'partnership event' being organised by the Governments of Germany, Japan, Netherlands and Tajikistan.

So a powerful show from civil society, but it remains to be seen whether leaders will respond. An ambitious deal still seems hampered by a number of countries reluctant to grasp the opportunity ahead of them, happier to put their head in the sand than act with vision and conscience. I'm not sure we will be singing in the aisles tomorrow, but I will be the first to clear my throat in the event that we should.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

The Jamboree Begins - but how will it end?

Tuesday 23rd Sep, 0500 GMT

Monday saw the start of the proceedings in the big apple - with parts of New York ground to a standstill as leaders, ministers, and assorted VIPs began to descend on the city for the week's activities, followed by a smattering of civil society representatives labouring without the security convoys and sharp suits.

This is the week when New York gets taken over by the UN General Assembly. Already the news agenda includes protests over the arrival of the Iranian President and concern over the aftermath of the crisis in Georgia - but is most of all saturated by the resulting traffic jams... Nuclear proliferation, international conflict and global poverty seems unable to compete for airspace with the sight and sounds of a sea of yellow taxi cabs and their horn-honking drivers.

Today's focus on 'Africa's Development Needs' saw African Heads of State agreeing a political declaration outlining their common view of what needs to be done on a range of issues from debt, aid and trade to health, education and climate change. All clear, desirable and uncontroversial, yet the declaration was worryingly short of detail, not least on water and sanitation. Offering nothing beyond the reiteration of past commitments, the declaration was silent on how these commitments should be delivered, what they would do to implement them, or what donors needed to do to support them.

Surely an example perhaps of what we need to avoid this week. The last thing we need is another paper simply compiling the same unmet promises, another document to add to the burgeoning library of repeated - and repeatedly ignored - commitments. Surely we just need an outline of concrete actions to deliver them, not a process to negotiate once again what has already been agreed. Otherwise this could all be done by teleconference and we could save New Yorkers the trouble of sitting bumper to bumper in traffic while world leaders move at an equally slow pace (and possibly in a less certain direction).

But what of the rest of the week? The two big days are on Wednesday and Thursday - the former being the date of a 'partnership event' being organised by Germany, Japan, Netherlands and Tajikistan that is meant to provide leadership and ideas for action in the water and sanitation sector, and the latter being the main day where leaders get together to discuss and agree actions on achieving the MDGs. Although cynics might say that 'discussion' may mean reading pre-prepared statements, and 'action' may mean anything but, I will reserve judgement...

The outcomes of these two days remain uncertain and partly open. On the one hand, there could be some positive announcements and commitments from individual countries taking forward some of things End Water Poverty has been calling for. On the other, a comprehensive, ambitious, collective agreement of the sort needed may be harder to achieve. This UN meeting won't be the place where a final agreement is reached to agree a global action plan to meet the sanitation and water MDGs, but it could be an important step on the way.

A huge question remains, however. One being asked all over the world. How long can we wait? On current trends it will be 100 years until the target to halve the proportion of people without access to sanitation is reached Sub-Saharan Africa - 93 years later than promised by world leaders at the start of the millennium. If waiting 30 minutes in a traffic jam is something to get upset about, something to fill a news bulletin, how about this? How about having to wait 100 years to be able to use a safe toilet without the indignity or health hazards of open defecation?

Yet it doesn't have to be like this. There are things that can be done. To deliver them requires a different mentality. There are a few things that leaders in New York need to keep in mind this week:

Firstly, that there are big wins available by tackling the sanitation and water crisis, big opportunities to make real progress with comprably modest investments. Historical evidence shows that the provision of sanitation is perhaps the single most effective development intervention in improving public health. And the UN estimates that investments deliver a nine-fold economic return.

Secondly, that the world just won't succeed in the fight against poverty and disease unless they tackle the sanitation and water crisis. Without action, poor sanitation will continue to kill more children than any other single cause, hundreds of millions of school days will keep being lost, and the lives of women will continue to be blighted by hours of daily labour collecting water.

And finally, that they just would not stand for this situation if it was their family suffering the indignities and health hazards of public defecation, or their child lost to an easily preventable diahrreal disease.

Surely inaction and prevarication would be not only be foolish and short-sighted but unconscienable too?

Friday, 19 September 2008

UN High-Level Event on the MDGs

19th September 2008

Welcome to the latest blog from End Water Poverty.

Between 22nd and 25th September I will be keeping you up to date on the latest happenings at the United Nations in New York. Heads of State are gathering to discuss measures to accelerate progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), including the crucial targets on water and sanitation.

Falling at the mid-point towards the deadline for achieving the MDGs, and towards the International Year of Sanitation, the UN meeting provides a real opportunity for world leaders to do more than say the right things. They have the chance to take concrete action in support of the 2.5 billion people around the world who have no safe place to use the toilet, and the 900 million people who have no access to clean water.

Will this be the breakthrough we need, or will it be more of the same?

Read more about the meeting at

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Day 3: It ain't over 'til it's over

1540 GMT

Most toilets flush in the key of E Flat. Allegedly. I don't know who worked that out. Slow day at the office? And obviously that might not apply in Japan, where (as mentioned already) toilets come with a full orchestral background.

So what's the final verdict? And what's next?

As always with the G8 it's a mixed bag: a bemusing combination of warm words, cold hearts, closed wallets and promised lands. Not everything you want but still just enough to hold out hope that serious progress is just around the corner, just as long as we can pin them down once and for all... Maybe its like nailing jelly to the wall - it will cause a mess, people will be annoyed, it won't work out as you hoped, but something will stick.

Anyway, enough of the rubbish metaphors. Of course, we didn't get everything we wanted - no global action plan, no new money, no end to the crisis in sight just yet.

But does that mean the effort wasn't worth it, and does that mean we should all give up? Of course not. This last week we have seen some genuine progress, even if it's quite clearly not enough. Sanitation and water has been discussed at the top-table for the first time in years, and the commitments could - maybe, if we follow it up right - be the start of a process that puts sanitation and water at the centre of efforts to boost health and combat poverty.

Whilst we don't have a solution to the sanitation crisis this week, we do have a better platform from which to go forward - more commitments, greater recognition, more allies and the promise of a process that starts now, stops off at the UN in September, reports at the G8 in Italy next year, and continues onwards.

We have also built critical momentum. Leaders across Africa and Asia have promised to step up efforts to tackle the sanitation crisis, and G8 leaders now have too. And there is a growing public movement backing this up - 940,000 of you taking action in support of the campaign so far. There is no doubt that this made a difference, no doubt it has to continue.

And media too - reports in the BBC, Financial Times, Guardian, Independent, Lancet, Ghanaian Times, and many more show the silence on sanitation is finally being broken.

And what's next? More work, more campaigning, more toilet puns. Obviously. This G8 has not been flushed with success, we're still waiting for them to spend a penny (or more), but there is no doubt that we're on a (toilet) roll...

Looking forward we have a couple of key moments ahead, not least at the UN in September. This will be when all the world's leaders - not just those privileged enough to eat caviar and sea-urchin in Japan - will gather to agree measures to try and save the Millennium Development Goals.

This is crucial, and getting a focus on sanitation here could be the next small victory on the way to one day ending the sanitation crisis.

It shouldn't be this hard for everyone to have access to a safe toilet, shouldn't be so difficult to prevent over 2 million kids dying each year from such preventable causes, but for some reason it is. And it's our job to convince them.

G8 Day 3: Kimono folding extravaganza as major economies leave 1.7bn people behind

1400 GMT

I know you've all been sitting on your toilet seats waiting for this next update. Supposedly the average person spends 3 years of their life going to the loo, so dont feel too bad. Just wash your hands, please.

What happened on day 3? The G8 invited some more pals along - leaders of the 8 'major economies'* joined messrs. Bush et al to discuss climate change and the world economy. Astonishingly, these 8 countries represent countries where over two-thirds of the world's population who lack safe sanitation live - over 1.7bn people. A reminder both that poor sanitation is not just an African issue, and that economic growth and a burgeoning middle class does not necessarily equate to social improvements for all.

Day 3 was again dominated by the world economy, Zimbabwe and climate change - very much the leading stories of the summit alongside the food crisis.

And for light entertainment (and a poor advert for gender equality) there was the G8 wives (and husband) learning to fold kimonos while their husbands (and wife) sort the world out. Sort of.

*Australia, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, South Korea

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

G8 leave 2.6 billion people with nowhere to go

1200 GMT

And here it is, the G8 statement on Africa and Development. The collective wisdom and energy of the 7 most powerful men - and the world’s most powerful woman - on the continent’s development.

And what does it say?

Not a lot. Certainly not enough to satisfy the hundreds of thousands of campaigners who demanded a global action plan to provide sanitation and water for all. And certainly not enough for the 2.6 billion people around the world who have no safe place to go to the toilet.

To be fair, there are some positives – sanitation and water have been discussed at the top table for the first time in 5 years. They recognised it as central to improving health and development, acknowledged the need to accelerate efforts to meet the millennium development goals and started a process which will be reviewed at next year’s G8.

But really, lets not get too excited. Imagine if you were one of the world’s most powerful people (maybe you are, if so call me). Imagine you were discussing ways to stop kids dying with your 7 extremely powerful pals. Imagine you knew that poor sanitation probably kills more children every year than any other cause. What would you do?

• Issue a statement that provides almost no concrete commitments – and no money - to deliver more taps and toilets to the world’s poor?

• Set up a working group to report in 1 year (by which time 2.4 million children will have died from poor sanitation), based on implementing a failed plan agreed 5 years ago?

• Actively veto suggestions made by your powerful friends that might actually improve the health of 40% of world’s population?

If last night you ate a meal with 18-24 dishes (depending on which paper you read) then you might well have done all of the above.

In many ways we’ve forward since the 2007 G8, when neither water nor sanitation got a look in. We have a platform to go forward to the UN meeting in September. But is this pace of change, this level of ambiguity, this lack of money really acceptable to someone living in a slum next an open sewer, sharing 1 insanitary toilet with hundreds of other people?

Messrs Brown, Burlosconi, Bush, Fukuda, Harper, Merkel, Medvedev and Sarkozy: what do you think?

And whilst we’re at it, leaders of Africa: is this what you were looking for?

For the official response, read the End Water Poverty press release

Read the G8 communique on Africa and development

More toilet trivia while we're waiting...

Did you know that the typical Japanese toilet comes complete with musical background, seat warmer and automatic deodoriser? It's true, and you can pay over $5000 for a top of the range one. And currently under development is a one that takes samples from your urine to test blood sugar levels, calculate your bodymass index and then automatically email your doctor through fibre optic broadband. Seriously.

And at the same time over 40% of the world's population have no access to any toilet at all, putting them at huge risk of sickness and disease and killing up to 2.4 million children every year.

Doesn't sound quite right does it...

Day 2 at the G8

0630 GMT

Before the whole G8 business, ponder this: 1 month ago NASA spent $450m launching a space mission in order to fix broken toilet on the International Space Station. It spends less than 4 times this amount on sanitation in sub-Saharan Africa...

Back on earth, at the G8 summit, coverage of yesterday's outreach with African countries focused largely on Zimbabwe, although water and sanitation was raised alongside the food crisis as priority areas by the African leaders. Other hot topics around the summit appear to be the food crisis, oil prices, the state of the world economy, climate change and fears of backtracking on previous aid and HIV commitments.

(as i write this the documents on the world economy have been released)

As we get closer to the main announcement on Africa - probably happening late this afternoon (Japan time) - it has become increasingly clear how negotiations have watered down proposals on tackling the water and sanitation crisis. Comparing leaked drafts of the G8 communique dated before and after key negotiation meeting shows how proposals to establish an annual review and meeting to drive global progress were vetoed.

We'll have to see what comes out in the end but brace yourselves for ambiguity. On the one hand there will be positive recognition of the issue's importance and some hope for future processes. But on the other, don't expect a detailed action plan to end the crisis once and for all - or access to the G8 bank account - just yet... I'm more likely to be flying to the moon to fix a toilet.

Monday, 7 July 2008

The G8 Day 1


Welcome to my End Water Poverty G8 blog, coming straight at you from rain-soaked Hokkaido, where I will be reporting back on the global circus that is the G8 summit. As 7 men and 1 woman luxuriate by Lake Toyako, putting the world to rights, deciding the fate of billions of people across the world, this intrepid but bleary-eyed correspondent will endeavour to keep you informed and updated.

7th July 0600 GMT, Hokkaido, Japan

The G8 officially kicks off today, with its day of 'African outreach' - whereby heads of 8 African states are invited to join the party. Whilst there will be a drip feed of news and rumour, as as a press conference, the bigger statements on Africa, climate change and the world economy are expected on Tuesday and Wednesday.

So as the jamboree starts, what do we expect to happen? A lot of words and back-slapping for sure. But concrete action to deliver for the 40% of the world's population who have no access to safe sanitation? Hmmm not if current rumours and intelligence are anything to go by...

Newly leaked drafts of the G8 communique show how commitments have been watered down in negotiations, with few commitments and even fewer measurable actions.

So clearly there is quite a fight ahead at this summit and beyond to get agreement on a genuinely ambitious global plan of action on sanitation and water, but at least now we have made it to the battlefield...

In other news, WaterAid launched a new report today, detailing evidence showing that poor sanitation may be the biggest killer children in the world today. Accounting for a quarter of all child deaths, the lack of a safe place to go the toiled could be killing 2.4 million children every year.

So a question for Frau Merkel, Monsieur Sarkozy and friends - which of you are blocking measures to stop this public health scandal, and what are you thinking?

For more information about End Water Poverty, visit

Thursday, 3 July 2008

End Water Poverty to blog from Japan

End Water Poverty campaign coordinator Steve Cockburn will be writing a daily blog live from the G8 meeting in Japan. You can read his first entry on Monday 7 July.

As hosts of the 2008 G8 Summit, the Government of Japan have led the G8 by committing to putting water and sanitation on the summit agenda - a step warmly welcomed by End Water Poverty campaigners. Yet fears remain that this crucial opportunity may be lost if leaders fail to take concerted action.

End Water Poverty are calling on leaders to agree a global action plan on water and sanitation, including a commitment that every country will have enough money to deliver the 'taps and toilets' needed to provide life and dignity to their citizens.

Steve Cockburn (pictured, right) will be sending daily reports from the Summit in Japan, so do come back next week to find out whether the demands of the End Water Poverty coalition are addressed at the Summit.

Find out more about End Water Poverty here