Making Swachh happen: turning political will into action

by | Jan 16, 2017 | Blogs

How can India turn political will into action and accelerated progress in sanitation?

Blog post written by Andres Hueso, Senior Analyst for Sanitation at WaterAid. Blog originally posted on Swachh Bharat Mission Gramin website, as of 12 January 2017.

Globally, sanitation has been lagging behind due to lack of political will. But in recent years, we see more and more governments voicing their commitment to achievement of universal access to sanitation, with India being the strongest example. However, as the recent history of sanitation programmes in India also exemplifies, turning this rhetorical political will into actual progress is not as easy as you would expect. One essential step is to translate the high-level political commitment to sanitation into its prioritisation across all government levels and departments, and into course correction processes that enable identification of and adaptation to implementation challenges.

WaterAid recently commissioned the London-based Overseas Development Institute to research these processes in Indonesia, Ethiopia and India (with a focus on rural Chhattisgarh), paying attention to the incentives at play.

We found, for instance, that values of modernity and cultural heritage, along with political and professional return, galvanise prioritisation. However, status and power relations between institutions can undermine prioritisation beyond the core ministry or department leading on sanitation agenda.Incentives for prioritisation tend to also foster course correction, but in cases have a negative effect. For instance, professional return can lead to over-reporting and under-reporting, in the absence of a learning culture and solid verification mechanisms.

I will focus on recommendations in this blog, but for a more comprehensive summary of the findings, have a look at the research’s policy brief. Or get all the details from the synthesis report and the case studies.

Two key recommendations emerge for national governments committed to delivering universal access to sanitation:

  • To cascade political prioritisation to lower tiers of administration and across critical ministries. How?
  • Foster buy-in by aligning with the world views of key stakeholders, linking sanitation with notions of nation-building, modernity and cultural heritage.
  • Tap into personal aspirations, ensuring sanitation efforts receive recognition and result in career progression.
  • Enlist influential figures to drive prioritisation across all ministries and departments.
  • Work with the financial, legal and political realities of decentralisation affecting decision-makers at local levels.
  • To invest in timely course correction to address bottlenecks. How?
  • Invest in reliable verification systems to reduce misreporting and build trust in data.
  • Nurture a culture of learning, providing space and flexibility for trial, error, learning and adaptation.
  • Use informal sharing and reporting mechanisms, such as WhatsApp groups, that cut across hierarchies and enable a rapid and regular flow of information.
  • Set up review mechanisms, ensuring quality over quantity and involving those with decision-making power as a way to ensure it all leads to progress-chasing policy implementation.

Based on my experience and exposure to SBM, I now reflect on how these recommendations relate to India’s rural Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), and how they could be put into action on ground.

In the first set of recommendations, linked to prioritisation, I feel India has made tremendous progress. The SBM has been framed as a vital national cause and contains references to Mahatma Gandhi (1.a), public recognition to sanitation efforts is constant (1.b) and states have flexibility to adapt the SBM guidelines while district collectors play a major role in implementation(1.d). The Prime Minister’s Office is championing prioritisation of sanitation across ministries (1.c), although on that front, similar leadership might be missing in many states, where sanitation is a single-department issue and areas such as school sanitation are neglected.

It is in the second set of recommendations,on course correction, where the biggest challenges for SBM lie ahead despite encouraging developments.

Starting with the latter, SBM is tapping into informal mechanisms (2.c) such as WhatsApp groups, and there is scope to use them more purposefully for gathering insights from on the ground realities and use these to adapt.Similarly, more and more district collectors are regularly meeting to review progress and address bottlenecks. If done at more levels and more systematically –it currently happens primarily at district levels and only in districts with committed collectors– the benefits would be multiplied.

When it comes to the learning culture (2.b), SBM showcases the tensions between prioritisation and course correction.In the rush to reach the 2019 target, quantity trumps quality, speed trumps learning and innovation, and construction overshadows behaviour change. For instance, over the last financial year, only 12% of the allocated Information, Education and Communication financial target was spent. A way forward when planning at the local level would be not to expect immediate results, but to set targets that follow an exponential trend, whereby there is an incubation period of low progress while the SBM machinery gets ready and an army of front line workers to promote behaviour change is trained.

Finally, progress on verification (2.a) has been slow. For example, take uploading of latrine pictures, one of the key changes introduced to ensure real progress is reported: only over a quarter (28%) of the toilets reportedly built in the SBM database come with the required photograph. Some measures to put recommendation 2.a into practice:

  • Ensuring physical progress (reporting of latrine construction) is only accepted into the database once the associated geo-tagged photograph is uploaded
  • Establishing Open Defecation Free status verification protocols that are clear and uniform across states, and that don’t depend solely on the departments delivering SBM (to avoid perverse incentives)
  • Conducting periodic third party surveys to verify toilet use and Open Defecation Free status, as a regular health check of the reliability of reporting and of the coverage-usage gap.

Over two years into the SBM and building on the momentum the mission has across the country, it is pressing to address these course correction related issues, making sure that each step effectively leads to progress in the direction of a Swachh Bharat.

For all further information regarding the research discussed in this post, visit the WaterAid website and follow Andres on Twitter @andreshuesoWA