Mar 29, 2016

Ferguson on the Frontline: Setting Goals

Determining an economical & effective approach to fulfilling the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

In my December column, I discussed the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that will shape the landscape of worldwide development for the next 15 years and will have an impact on all of us in the water and wastewater business. 

Since the publication of that column, I had a chance to discuss the SDGs with Dr. Jamie Bartram, professor at the Gillings School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina (UNC) and director of the Water Institute at UNC. Bartram also is the former director of the Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Health Unit at the World Health Organization (WHO). He and I had a chance to work together on many projects for WHO.

Making Progress

Bartram mentioned to me that, in his view, there are a number of major considerations of the SDGs that address water, including the remaining work from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), benchmarking, effective monitoring and measurement and development of “systems” within countries. 

We need to first remember the unfinished work of the MDGs. According to WHO, more than 2 billion people in the world still do not have access to as much as a latrine. Another 1.5 billion people use a system without treatment, resulting in more than 50% of the world’s surface water being polluted by untreated wastewater. Bartram pointed out that 800 million people still do not have access to an improved drinking water source—“improved” meaning having some degree of protection from contamination—within a half-hour walk from where they live. These remain basic needs that need to be addressed. 

In developing countries, the provision of basic sanitation and the aim of ending open defecation are, of course, laudable objectives, but there may be conflicts in meeting this goal. Two of the targets under SDG Goal Six (Water and Sanitation) are to assure adequate sanitation but also to reduce water pollution and halve the proportion of untreated wastewater discharged. Often, projects to provide basic sewerage may be little more than piping away waste with no treatment. Sewerage is easy, but treatment is expensive. Providing sewerage to a village that pipes away waste may meet the basic goal of adequate sanitation and is potentially a great benefit to that village, but without treatment it certainly does not do much for anyone downstream. Is there a way to continue to make progress on the targets for basic sanitation while leapfrogging into the next phase by finding a way to include an economical form of waste treatment to meet both goals? 

System Evaluation

Monitoring, measuring and enhancing administrative systems may not be the most exciting topics, but they turn out to be critical for tangible success of infrastructure projects. In my December column, I mentioned the issues related to countries’ ability to absorb assistance and make progress on water and sanitation projects. Countries that do not have sufficient legal, financial and administrative systems will make ineffective use of or outright waste development dollars. 

Bartram and his colleagues have done interesting work in this area, developing a benchmark to evaluate the progress of various nations and their readiness to absorb aid for infrastructure projects. While a full review of the research is beyond the scope of this column, by comparing the current state of a country’s infrastructure—for example, the percentage of people who have access to improved sanitation—with the rate of change of that measure (how fast they are making progress) one notices a wide distribution of progress and performance, even in similar regions of the world. You also can see which countries are the best performers and which are well behind the “performance frontier.” This turns out to be an effective illustration of a country’s absorptive capacity and a guide to where aid dollars may be most effectively used. Those countries making the most progress (i.e., those near the performance frontier) likely will be able to make the best use of aid dollars directly for infrastructure projects, while those farthest away are better served by creating systems and policies for development first, with projects following only when the country is ready.

Feeling the Pressure

I also mentioned in my December column that some of these goals may be moving targets. Factors such as climate change may continue to impact the conditions on the ground and change the scope of the work to be done. But could these factors have an impact other than “on the ground?”

According to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, “The Paris Conference on climate change is seen by many as the first test of political will to implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Paris Agreement is a triumph for people, the planet and for multilateralism.” Goal 13 of the SDGs calls for action on climate change implemented through agreements like COP21. But could this focus on climate action deflect investments otherwise destined for water and sanitation projects?

In my view, it is unlikely—outside of an era with tremendous economic growth—for additional aid dollars to materialize for full funding of SDG and COP21 initiatives. There will be pressure to move aid dollars from one area to another (from water to climate, in my estimation) or perhaps to artificially double count aid dollars toward both accounts.

Bartram said it would be his expectation that there would indeed be pressure to double count, but his belief is that this will more likely lead to positive pressures for far more synergy in the use of development dollars to make each investment count towards the real achievement of multiple goals. That is, more of a drive toward “double benefits” that would honestly merit double counting. 

All of these pressures will nonetheless affect donors and those in national governments making these investments who will want to make sure that the money they are spending is being used wisely. The presumption is that donors are good and acting in an altruistic fashion toward a recipient who also is responsible. Another assumption is that all recipients with a need can make good use of the funding and it is only the donor’s responsibility to make his or her “pick.” But the truth may be different. This is where effective benchmarking and use of tools such as the performance frontier evaluation will help to best direct aid dollars where they can be most effectively applied—not just money thrown at a problem to “tick a box” on a report.

As I mentioned, Bartram is director of the Water Institute at the University of North Carolina, a center for teaching, research, networking and thought leadership in the areas of water and wastewater in both the developing and the developed world. For those interested in learning more about the Water Institute and hearing from and meeting world renowned experts in this field, the Water Institute will be holding its Water Microbiology Conference next month, May 16 to 20, in Chapel Hill, N.C. The Water Institute also holds its annual Water and Health Conference and this year’s event will be Oct. 26 to 30, also in Chapel Hill. 

I want to thank Bartram for discussing these topics. I encourage anyone looking to understand more about this issue to contact him and learn more about the work being done at the Institute.

About the author

Bob Ferguson is a consultant in water and wastewater product safety, certification, analysis and treatment, and is a frequent author on water and environmental topics. Ferguson can be reached at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter @Ferguson9806.

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