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...)

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