A political economy analysis of WASH that ignores donors?

ODI have published a new political economy analysis of WASH, based on case studies of Sierra Leone and Vietnam. Great, I thought, the sector has long been dominated by engineers and administrators whose ideas of how planning should work tend to be limited to top-down blueprint planning, an injection of political economy thinking could be very useful.

But I’m very disappointed with the paper. For one thing, it comes across as having been put together by folks with little or no prior understanding of the water sector. For example:

The research project results suggest that there are two key distinctions that are relevant when carrying out PEA in the water supply and sanitation sector. First, the distinction between water supply and sanitation: the institutions, actors and incentives that influence the provision of safe drinking water differ substantially from those that influence the provision of improved sanitation. Second, the distinction between rural and urban environments: the available modes of delivery of WASH services are very different, while peri-urban areas and newly-developed small town localities present further variation.

Anyone with experience in the sector could have told you that before you began.

But a more fundamental problem is a major omission from the analysis: donors.

Donors are key players in WASH, dominating policy decisions, budget setting debates and even practical issues like the appointment of consultants and contractors. National politicians are sidelined from key decisions.

At least, that’s my experience of Tanzania. But I’m pretty confident that it is true more widely. After all, he who pays the piper calls the tune, an idea that political economists should be pretty familiar with.

Donors would perhaps like to think of themselves as non-political, floating outside (above?) national politics – James Ferguson memorably titled his seminal analysis of the development industry in Lesotho as the “the anti-politics machine.” But that is simply not the reality. By virtue of the money, knowledge and power that donors bring (or are thought to bring), donors are inevitably major political players. To think otherwise is deluded.

So why treat donors as effectively outside the political environment when in truth they are key players in it? This is what the ODI paper has done, and it undermines the whole paper as a result.