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C. de Albuquerque: “Universal access is more about a systems approach than infrastructure alone”

Catarina de Albuquerque, Chief Executive Officer of Sanitation and Water for All

Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) is a multi-stakeholder platform of governments and their partners: civil society, private sector, UN agencies, research and learning institutions, and the philanthropic community, who share the belief that collaborative decision making, led by governments, leads to more effective solutions.

Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) intends to be a catalyst for change, encouraging high-level political dialogue to prioritise water, sanitation, and hygiene. With a remarkable background in human rights diplomacy at the highest level, and after serving as the first UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation from 2008 to 2014, Ms. de Albuquerque joined SWA in 2014 and became its CEO in 2018. From her current position, she provides strategic leadership and is an influential and powerful advocate for the partnership. We had the chance to ask her about how SWA carries out its mission and what we can expect going forward in terms of achieving SDG 6.

When multilateralism seems under attack, it’s a privilege to witness the power of cooperation, as water doesn’t care about borders

You joined the UN-hosted partnership Sanitation and Water for All in 2014 after being the first UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation. Could you tell us briefly about your career path and your current role in Sanitation and Water for All (SWA)?

I’m first and foremost a human rights lawyer. Before joining the water world, I was involved in negotiating United Nations treaties on Child Rights and chaired the ground-breaking negotiations of a new UN treaty that allows individuals to bring complaints against their governments before the UN when their social and economic rights are being violated. I was also a University professor for 20 years, which was something I loved to do, as I do like to talk and try to inspire younger generations! I’ve been lucky in my career because I managed to take on new assignments at exciting times! I was invited to become the first UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights to water and sanitation just before the UN Member States started to discuss a formal recognition of these human rights (which happened in 2010 – this year we’re celebrating its 10th anniversary).

Then I joined Sanitation and Water for All global partnership as Executive Chair just before the Sustainable Development Goals were approved. The SWA partnership was already working towards the goal of universal access to water and sanitation long before the SDGs made it a dedicated Goal (SDG 6). However, the bottom-up development of the SDGs– the importance it gave to the global partnerships, and the demand to move away from the donor-recipient dichotomy to focusing more on the leadership of national governments, made it an exciting time to join SWA.

Now as CEO for the past 2 years, I lead this global multi-stakeholder platform with partners that range from national governments to local NGOs, from international multi-nationals to UN agencies, from universities to trade associations. Different partners united by the ultimate vision of universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene for all, always and everywhere. This diversity is the wealth and the challenge of SWA– it is here that my diplomatic knowledge and skills come handy. As the old proverb says, if you want to go fast, you go alone, but if you want to go far, you go together. In this time when multilateralism seems under attack, it’s a privilege to witness first-hand the power of cooperation, especially around these topics as water doesn’t care about borders.

In terms of priorities for the SWA partnership, especially in a post-emergency world, is to advocate for preventive solutions

The global health and economic crisis has set back development efforts, undoing the progress achieved in recent years. What do you think are the priorities at this time and what are your organization’s plans looking into the future?

That statement is not so straight forward. There was a decrease in aid during the financial crisis of 2008, but it has seen a new increase as the world economy picked up. Recent OECD data indicated a rise in Official Development Assistance in 2019, particularly to the poorest countries. We’ll likely see another decrease as the economic fall-out of COVID hits. So rich countries are stepping up, despite the doom and gloom you read about daily. The last decades have seen more people lifted out of poverty than at any time in human history, so let’s keep our hopes up!

In terms of priorities for the Sanitation and Water for All partnership, especially in a post-emergency world, is to advocate for preventive solutions. Our partners champion solutions that are sustainable and ensure countries can manage their water and sanitation services through national taxes and tariffs (or user fees), decreasing their dependency on external help. This means a move away from just infrastructure and to a systems approach. I can imagine most readers’ eyes glazing over reading “systems approach”. It’s not sexy, but essential.

A systems approach to universal access to water and sanitation is not merely about more money or building more pipes and toilets or more charitable gifts from INGOs. It’s about politicians committing to putting in place the systems and services that make everything work: regulation, legislation, tariffs, capacity building, access by marginalized groups, stakeholder coordination, information sharing, financial transparency, among others. As you can imagine, these are much more complex commitments than building latrines (and offer fewer opportunities for a good photo-op). However, they will guarantee that the latrines are used and maintained and that the waste they collect is managed safely.

Published in SWM Monthly 4 - October 2020
SWM Monthly 4

SWA is organised at the country level. To what extent have you seen governments’ commitments materialising into improvements in water governance? What are the challenges and bottlenecks?

The core of SWA’s work is done by country-level partners. By the governments that are the duty-bearers, and by their partners (civil society, donors, UN agencies, private sector, academia) that play a crucial role in the water and sanitation sector. Joining a global partnership increases the mobilization and energy of the partners at the country level. This is especially true in countries where the government is incredibly active and a champion of a multi-stakeholder approach.

When I ask ministers responsible for WASH about bottlenecks, the most common answer is finance: this can mean different things

In Zambia, for instance, a dormant multi-stakeholder platform used by the government to consult partners has been brought to life and since then organized a Joint Water Sanitation and Environmental Sector Review. The government added a partners-consultation process to its National Plan for Drinking Water and Sanitation. In Pakistan, the government uses the SWA language to align work between national, regional and sub-regional levels.

When I speak to ministers responsible for water, sanitation and hygiene, and ask them about bottlenecks, by far the most common answer is finance. This can mean different things. In some countries, it can be persuading the financial decision-makers in the government to prioritize water and sanitation. For other countries, it can mean having the systems in place that allow them to absorb the financing they already have. In yet others, the challenge is about balancing the money coming from tariffs from more affluent households or urban areas to ensure the population in more remote (and more expensive to serve) areas have access. This, to me once again proves how reaching universal access is more about systems – a holistic approach to water and sanitation - than infrastructure alone.

Achieving the water, sanitation and hygiene targets of the SDGs requires unprecedented levels of funding and finance. Can you tell us about any breakthroughs in terms of ways to attract investments to the WASH sector?

The World Bank has estimated that US $114 billion per year are required to achieve universal basic access to water and sanitation by 2030. Access to safely managed water and sanitation (as required by the Sustainable Development Goals), will need at least three times more. This estimate does not even count maintenance and operation costs or the expected impact of climate change.

These are daunting figures, and as you can imagine, it will discourage any financial decision-maker. Historically, water and sanitation have been considered a burden on national budgets. Water and sanitation suffer from the interlinked challenges of underinvestment and a poor performance record. Without the required ongoing investment, performance declines, undermining confidence in the sector’s ability to deliver good services; this may discourage further investments, in a vicious cycle.

A systems approach is about politicians putting in place the systems and services that make everything work: regulation, legislation, tariffs

To break this cycle, SWA is engaging ministers of finance in conversations that are about making the business case for investment in water and sanitation. This would help the ministers’ focus on the impact that this sector has in the economic development of the country, such as health, environment, education, tourism, etc. – and how it can even act as a source of revenue for the state.

This perspective, under the context of COVID-19, will be the focus of our 5th Finance Ministers’ Meetings. This year, instead of one global meeting, we’ll organize three regional ones. Our recently-launched publication ”Water and Sanitation - How to make public investment work: A Handbook for Finance Ministers” will be the basis for these meetings. The mix of hard evidence and successful examples of countries whose investment in water and sanitation paid off has been very well received and shifted the conversation from ‘brain of budgets’ to ‘sound investment’.

How do you raise political will to work on sanitation and water for all in times of economic recession?

By ensuring that, in more stable times, all actors in the sector align; they cooperate, have a unified vision, and speak with one voice. We motivate our partners to ensure that the evidence is sound for informed policymaking, messages are strong, and champions are mobilized. Then when hard times come, they are in a much better position ─ as the water and sanitation sector has the prioritization it deserves as a tool that mitigates the impacts of an economic crisis. The equation is simple ─ less focus on water and sanitation equals more illness, a more significant strain on healthcare systems and less productivity.

Has SWA identified any strategies for those left furthest behind, to eliminate inequalities and address gender issues?

The elimination of inequalities is one of SWA’s Guiding Principles and is critical for realizing not just the human rights to water and sanitation, but all other human rights. The SWA global multi-stakeholder partnership exists to mobilize its partners to better work together to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, including ensuring that no one is left behind. We have incorporated this principle into our activities, including our High-level Ministerial Meetings. Besides, several commitments are made by SWA country partners with the specific aim of reducing inequalities.

Let’s be clear – SDG 6 will only be met if by 2030 all women and girls can access adequate water, hygiene and sanitation services. Still, equally, women and girls must be empowered to engage and participate in decision-making and action on achieving SDG 6. SWA High-Level Meetings are increasingly diverse, with women represented throughout the sessions whether giving keynotes or joining the panels. This is facilitated through a marked increase in the number of female ministers leading the water and sanitation sector in many of SWA’s partner countries.

Let's be clear – SDG 6 will only be met if by 2030 all women and girls can access adequate water, hygiene and sanitation services

The UN has highlighted the importance of timely, quality, open and disaggregated data, to manage the effects of the pandemic as well as to accelerate actions to achieve the SDGs. Based on your experience with high-level stakeholders, how can this be managed going forward?

The time to hide behind national averages is over: leaving no one behind means that the furthest behind must now be reached first

COVID-19 has shown us the importance of timely, open and disaggregated data in reaching the most marginalised. The time to hide behind national averages when setting development goals is over. The principle of leaving no one behind means that the furthest behind must now be reached first, rather than aiming for the lowest hanging fruit as a way of achieving rapid success in meeting general targets. Data must be disaggregated according to identified inequalities, including gender, disability, age, specific ethnic or indigenous groups, language, geographic location, occupation, and poverty. This would help Governments create effective and equitable measures and policies to build forward better.