Big promises from the Ministry of Water

I caught this news broadcast from (Tanzanian) Radio One yesterday, reporting the Ministry of Water making some big promises:

Here’s a translation:

“The Ministry of Water has said that in the next three years, 74% of Tanzanians will get access to clean and safe water, compared to 65% in the Millennium Development Goals. Responding to a question in parliament, the Deputy Minister of Water, Binilith Mahenge, said that in the first year of the Big Results Now initiative, 7.1 million people will get water. He told parliament that in the second year, 7 million would get water, and the number of people who would get water in the third year of the plan was 1.3 million. As such, the number of people who will get water in the next three years is 15.2 million, which will bring the total to over 50 million Tanzanians after three years. “

A little further searching confirmed that the final “over 50 million” figure is an error of the broadcaster, it should be “over 30 million”, as in this Daily News article. But the article otherwise confirms that Deputy Minister Mahenge did indeed say what was reported by Radio One. The other numbers match.

And indeed, checking the targets (pdf) produced by the Big Results Now (BRN) “water lab” earlier this year, the figures match here as well.

These targets are extremely ambitious. They require delivering water to over 14 million people in the next two years, and doubling the number of people with access to clean and safe water in just three years.

In comparison, look at the Water Sector Development Programme, which began in 2006/7 with a budget of $1bn. Ten villages in every district were promised new water projects, but by 2010 only a handful of these villages had got water, and the plan was scaled down to three per district (and the budget increased). The 2012 Water Sector Status Report stated that 750,000 people in rural Tanzania gained access to clean and safe water in the previous 2 years. The BRN target and the Ministry’s projection in parliament for the next two years is nearly 20 times that number.

For me, this can’t happen. And I’m pretty sure almost everyone in the Ministry, not least those who set the BRN water-lab targets and whoever prepared the figures for the Deputy Minister, would agree.

I like ambition – aim for the stars and you might reach the moon. But there are dangers involved when you set unrealistic targets.

First, a big lesson of the WSDP is that over-promising raises expectations that can’t be met. The MP who asked this question might very reasonably go back to his constituency and promises a transformation in local water supplies (after all, it has been promised by the Ministry). Others might do the same. When this is not delivered, the result is frustration and cynicism among both MPs and the general public, and we all lose.

Second, over-ambitious top-down targets can quickly become an excuse to bend the rules. Will procurement procedures be set aside to speed things up? That’s a recipe for corruption. Will tricky issues like community ownership and management lose attention? That’s a recipe for water schemes that break down and don’t get repaired – or never work properly in the first place. Will decisions be taken centrally (to speed things up)? That’s a recipe for making people unhappy when locally-agreed, locally-appropriate arrangements (e.g. on the price of water) are swept away with no sensitivity to local context.

As an example from another sector, look how one teacher has interpreted Big Results Now as a licence to bend rules in education:

Image posted on Facebook with the heading "Big Results Now"

Image posted on Facebook with the heading “Big Results Now”

Third, pressure on local governments to deliver results at speed can encourage them to exaggerate progress. If they’re responsible both for delivery and for monitoring, there’s a good chance that routine monitoring data will become even less reliable than it has been until now.

I don’t want to be a cynic, assuming the worst and undermining progress with negativity. But I do want to be a sceptic, which is different – scepticism challenges and questions, uses reason, asks for truth.

If the targets are met and 15 million more people get access to clean and safe water, wonderful, the Ministry and others will deserve a lot of praise. And they will get it.

But I fear that by setting such ambitious targets today, they are sowing the seeds of tomorrow’s problems.




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  1. Pingback: Tanzania’s ongoing water sector mess | mtega

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