© Simon B. Opladen

When Do You Invite the Mayor to Visit Your WASH Project?

BY: John Oldfield - 16. August 2022
© Simon B. Opladen

Who will pay the water bills for schools, years after the end of the technical phase of your WASH in schools program? How will local water quality be maintained for decades to come? Who will fix a broken toilet four years after your donor-funded program ends? Will there be financing and technical expertise available for ongoing operations and maintenance, and for expanding the water and sanitation grid to account for population growth and movement?

These and many more questions that are pivotal to universal and sustained access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) will likely be asked — and answered — by advocacy efforts at local and national levels.

What is advocacy?

Ask ten people what advocacy means, and you are likely to get eleven different answers. Advocacy can confuse and intimidate, and there are a lot of reasons not to get involved: advocacy is about politics; it’s partisan in nature; it’s divisive; it’s not technically part of your project; donors don’t fund advocacy in budgets; and no one on your team knows how to do it anyway.

But if we get advocacy right, three important outcomes become more likely: WASH projects will be more sustainable over the long run in technical, financial and socio-cultural terms; individual WASH projects will be scaled up by local and national government leaders alongside civil society, private and faith-based stakeholders; and WASH leaders will have more opportunities to collaborate with and influence stakeholders (health, education, climate, gender) far beyond the WASH sector.

At its simplest, advocacy is about working with governments at various levels, and encouraging them to do more, instead of working in spite of or around governments.

«Advocacy can be tricky, but it is the responsibility of governments to provide WASH to their constituents, and both governments and the people know it.»

John Oldfield (left), Advocacy Advisor for the Swiss Water and Sanitation Consortium, pictured with Marieme Soda Ndiaye, a member of the Senegalese National Assembly

Whose project is it?

The title of this blog is a trick question: it’s not your project. The project belongs to the families, the mayor, the schoolteachers, the children, and the healthcare facility administrators and patients. So, yes, be sure the mayor joins you at the ribbon-cutting ceremony – after all, water is good politics. But more importantly be sure to invite her to join you on day one of the design phase, so that she and her community own the project from its onset. External stakeholders need to buy into and support the community’s ideas, not the other way around.

How can external stakeholders support local and national advocacy while continuing to implement the more “traditional” aspects of WASH programming? First of all, make a conscious, committed decision to do so. With or without a dedicated budget line item or staff, take the opportunity to determine with your team whether public policy advocacy will help your WASH programming achieve sustainability, scale and extended outreach. If the answer is “Yes, we think so,” then determine what proactive steps you can take in the short term.

Mapping advocacy

An advocacy mapping exercise is underway with Helvetas and other members of the Swiss Water and Sanitation Consortium. This exercise is designed to better understand what advocacy efforts consortium members are undertaking as organic, integrated parts of their traditional WASH programming, even without dedicated staff or budget lines. The exercise is revealing that many international and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are actively engaged with advocacy efforts in their program areas, even if they don’t yet call it that or budget for it.

In Ethiopia, one international NGO has been working closely for years with the local government on WASH programming in public schools. This work has been primarily operational in nature: design, implementation, training, and monitoring of projects.  The NGO now also advocates with the local government, successfully getting additional financial resources and technical support from that government for expanded work. The NGO does not currently have a line item for advocacy in their budget, but will add one next year. They hope to expand their WASH advocacy into menstrual hygiene management and rural water systems.

In Benin, the advocacy mapping exercise found that an international NGO has a longstanding working relationship with local mayors on WASH in public schools. This has again historically been more operational in nature, and separate and distinct from advocacy. However, this NGO now advocates to the mayors as well, urging them to extend WASH infrastructure even further, and is advocating to education authorities to add WASH to the curriculum.

Advocacy: the path to universal coverage

Over the longer term, as your commitment to advocacy grows, you might consider:

  • Do you want to build or buy advocacy expertise? Should you train existing staff, hire advocacy experts, and/or partner with an external advocacy organization? There are clear advantages and disadvantages to each approach, but each requires commitment, funding and advocacy expertise — a skillset separate and distinct from traditional WASH programming.
  • What will be the scale and scope of your advocacy? Will you limit your advocacy to urging local governments to ensure the financial and technical sustainability of your WASH program? Can you advocate for scaling up your program with local resources? Is there a reason to aim higher: national, regional, global?
  • How should you manage your donors’ expectations about advocacy? Some may need hand-holding. What inputs, outputs and outcomes are to be expected from advocacy investments? What are the timelines (hint: minimum of 3-5 years)?

Advocacy is not easy, but it is perhaps the only pathway to universal coverage of WASH that we as a WASH community haven’t properly weighted in our efforts to get to the 100% goal. Advocacy is about converting political will —“Of course everyone wants water…”— into political leadership — “No, seriously, here are the specific steps we will take to get there” — and into stronger policies, budgets and accelerated programs. Successful advocacy efforts will make it possible for political leaders across the globe to do what they already want to do — making the desirable, doable.

About the Author

John Oldfield is CEO at Accelerate Global, LLC, advising non-profit, corporate, and government clients in their efforts to rapidly and sustainably accelerate progress toward water, health, security, climate, gender and environment goals. He serves the Swiss Water and Sanitation Consortium as its Advocacy Advisor, and was most recently the Managing Principal at Global Water 2020.


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