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