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Universal water and sanitation in Ghana through decentralisation

Posted 7 Nov 2016 by Seyram Asimah and Aicha Araba Etrew

Although the district-wide approach of decentralising management of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services has been successful in many African countries, it has stumbled in the country where it was designed: Ghana. WaterAid Ghana’s Seyram Asimah, Programme Officer – South, and Aicha Araba Etrew, Policy Officer, discuss why this is, and why it is crucial that citizens speak up and demand their rights.

In 2015 the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also known as Agenda 2030, became the centrepiece of global discourse on development and poverty reduction. Goal 6, to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030, aligns with WaterAid’s strategic focus of reaching everyone everywhere.

The main task at hand is to walk the talk of this vision. This year WaterAid Ghana began a five-year country strategy to ensure Ghana is on the path to universal WASH coverage by 2021.

Community WASH situational analysis using the scorecard methodology.
Community WASH situational analysis using the scorecard methodology in Wa East District, Ghana.

We are aiming to make the strategy reality through district-wide approach (DWA) programming. The DWA concept puts metropolitan, municipal, and district assemblies (MMDAs) in the lead of development, with increased responsibility for extending WASH services to everyone within their districts, including the most marginalised people. Under this process, WaterAid Ghana and other development actors will provide technical support where necessary.

The district-wide approach in Ghana

Of course, one cannot roll out such a strategy without adequate consultation with potential partners and gathering information on the issues. In 2014, WaterAid Ghana commissioned research on the DWA concept, led by Timeyin Uwejamomere, Technical Support Manager at WaterAid UK. The study reviewed the decentralisation concept in Ghana which sees the central Government transferring governance to local levels, and coordinating internal relationships with and between local assemblies through ten administrative regions in the context of WASH.

Timeyin shared the key lessons and actions from the research with stakeholders at a side event organised by WaterAid Ghana at the 2016 WEDC (Water, Engineering and Development Centre) conference in Kumasi, Ghana, in July. The key findings centred around: long-term strategic planning by MMDAs; the roles, structures, and capacity of these MMDAs to implement programmes; the existing stakeholder coordination platforms and the ability of MMDAs to use these; the sources of financing MMDAs; and the accountability at all levels.

A range of stakeholders attended the event, including: parliamentary select committee members on local government and rural development; staff of the national agency responsible for rural water and sanitation – the Community Water and Sanitation Agency (CWSA); IRC Ghana; UNICEF; the Institute of Local Government Studies; WaterAid staff from India, Ghana, the UK, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Senegal; and more than 50 local and international participants from the WEDC conference.

Discussions centred on the issue of the weak leadership and low capacity of Ghana’s MMDAs to deliver WASH services. At the heart of this was an apparent lack of devolution to the MMDAs, resulting in a lower than expected rate of development of Ghana’s WASH sector. One of the study’s recommendations – to incorporate the CWSA into the MMDA structure to address the issue of weak capacity while giving the MMDAs the opportunity to implement projects directly – was debated by participants, with some agreeing and others not. In summary the need for Specific Measurable Attainable Realistic and Timely (SMART) solutions in strengthening the decentralisation concept in practice was highlighted.

WASH situational alnalysis with service providers in Bawku West district, Ghana.
WASH situational analysis with service providers in Bawku District, Ghana.

Where are the gaps?

Reflecting on the discussions, we felt it was obvious that there are gaps within the current decentralisation system. This feeling was more related to the implementation of the enabling policies on decentralisation than to the policies themselves, given that Ghana’s decentralisation structure has become a model for a number of other African countries. The question then is: why would such a perfect policy, designed by a country with experience of the problem, become so difficult to actualise on the ground by those who designed it while other countries make it work?

The issue of capacity (human and financial resources) to implement WASH policies and programmes at the local government level is still a core challenge to the failure of the decentralisation concept in Ghana. But there is far more to it than just capacity. Simply, most MMDAs do not prioritise WASH development issues enough. Closely linked to this is the lack of political will and commitment to deliver.

Central government is often blamed for failure of policies and programmes, but the ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs), as well as the MMDAs, must do their part and ensure that national planning, budgeting and implementation of the development agenda are all done in a way that prioritises WASH development issues.

Speaking up and holding to account

Our ‘SMART’ solution is this: when we get the leadership right at all levels, planning and budgeting will prioritise WASH, the financial commitment to WASH development will be right, and implementation will be a success. This means citizens need to watch over their elected or appointed political leaders – District Chief Executives and MPs – to ensure they represent the people’s interests in national development.

It is time to put an end to the timid attitude and position held by most people, who, out of cultural respect, would not raise their voice against a leader, even if the leader is in the wrong. Citizens must be repositioned to claim the central place in this whole decentralisation architecture – which is intended to be about them – to demand accountability and performance from their leaders.

In this journey with citizens to address their WASH needs, CSOs and governments must coordinate activities and harmonise communication, technologies and approaches in the provision of WASH services to avoid duplicating effort or misguiding citizens, and ensure effective WASH service decentralisation. Collective responsibility by all stakeholders is key to ensuring everyone everywhere has equal access to WASH by 2030.

Seyram Asimah is Programme Officer – South, and Aicha Araba Etrew is Policy Officer at WaterAid Ghana. Seyram tweets as @seyrama and Aicha tweets as @ara_by

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