Wednesday, 6 July 2011

The rising importance of the ‘Foundations’ – and some advice

Fleur Anderson, International Coordinator of End Water Poverty, shares here some reflections on the potential of Foundations to make an impact on the sanitation and water crisis, and share some advice on how they might do this in partnership with civil society. Do take a read, and discuss through the comments section!

I recently visited End Water Poverty members in the US and was very struck by the increasing importance of the ‘Foundations’ in funding water, sanitation and hygiene programmes. Last year we were involved in a piece of research by the Gates, Buffet and Hilton Foundations looking at the sector to assess where they thought US advocacy efforts should best be put. This considered and collaborative approach to working in the sector also bodes well for future work together.

The Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation has already joined the Sanitation and Water for All partnership and later this month will be launching their new sanitation programme at the AfricaSan 3 Conference in Rwanda. It hopes to spark a second ‘sanitation revolution’ and will be funding advocacy for sanitation policies that prioritize the poor and under-served, as well as innovative designs and working with whole communities to reduce the number of people who practice open defecation.

The huge and urgent need to tackle the water and sanitation crisis has led world leaders to get involved in the issue as well. Former US President Clinton is leading a high level panel to provide global leadership on water issues, which includes former Mexican Presidents Vicente Fox and Ernesto Zedillo, and former prime ministers Yasuo Fukuda (Japan) and Gro Brundtland (Norway). The Chirac Foundation is also focusing on water as a priority. The Margaret Cargill Foundation was also mentioned several times as another funder.

The Gates Foundation has a clear theory of change which sees the vital importance of research, media and public action, as I have seen before with the Gates Foundation’s partnership with GCAP’s Project Accelerate Programme. So, this new form of funding seems to have good foundations for strengthening civil society’s voice and working with – rather than bypassing – people. Just as international NGOs are always grappling with the challenge of maintaining a meaningful relationship with supporters in the global North and partners in the global South, so the Foundations have a challenge of accountability. But through their strategic, reflective and collaborative approach, they are winning friends and proving effective.

It’s not only in America that End Water Poverty members are working with the Foundations. For example, member organizations in India and Uganda are receiving funding for research and programme work. So far, so good.

Now the main challenge is for the Foundations to keep balancing their desire for results and ability to spend money on big programmes, with an ability to support civil society. Ramisetty Murali is the Regional Convenor for the Freshwater Action Network in South Asia, and he shares this advice for the Foundations: ‘Consultation among the civil society organisations to learn from their experience and perspective of the local realities is vital. Rather than limiting to direct or indirect service delivery projects, strengthen the civil society capacity development process and provide required resource support for civil society organizations to effectively advocate for transparency, accountability and responsiveness of the local governments with regards to their responsibility and mandated role of catering to water, sanitation and hygiene needs of the people.

‘The interventions of these major foundations should not exclude the process of questioning State’s responsibility in providing for the water, sanitation and hygiene needs of the people. When the governments fail to deliver quality services there is a spontaneous response at least from some of the communities and civil society organisations to fight for their services. Thus there is a process of collective citizens action to pressurize the state to perform better. Such local processes must be valued and strengthened by external interventions from these kind of Foundations. Otherwise Governments tend to escape by highlighting these new agencies as gap filling service providers. Finally, the major programmes of Foundations should not induce privatization of water and sanitation services or reducing state subsidies for the poor.’


This requires a real partnership with civil society for development which will requires a long-term view, rather than needing short term results, and a continuing active desire for social change which will lead to the sustainable changes we all want to see. We look forward to these new ways of working. Bring on the Sanitation Revolution!

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