A mark of a good event is that it generates further debate, questions, and ideas. “Water and International Development: A Dialogue
,” a recent discussion at The Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies, was such an event. Geoff Dabelko, director of the Environment Change and Security Program
at the Wilson Center, and Aaron Salzberg, special coordinator for water resources at the U.S. Department of State, went head-to-head to discuss water’s role in international development.
The discussion between Dabelko and Salzberg touched upon many issues I ran into while trying to program Water for the Poor Act
funding while working as a natural resources adviser for the Economic Growth Office at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) mission in Ghana
. Once we received the funding, there was an intra-office debate among:
In short, too much energy was put into the semantics of the earmark language, which ultimately stymied creativity and forward-thinking ideas. Ultimately, the ongoing drip-irrigation project received some funds, and the rest of the money was given to the health team to disburse as they saw fit.
- People who wanted to make drip-irrigation work we were already funding fit the Water for the Poor Act definition;
- People who thought the funds should be spent on a narrow set of water and sanitation interventions, such as borehole/latrine construction and water purification tablets; and
- People who thought the funds should be spent on the larger-scale water and sanitation infrastructure that Ghana so desperately needs.
USAID mission offices have specific strategic priorities and associated operational plans, which dictate the makeup of the staff employed at any given time. In this case, there was no one water specialist who could take on this important task. I had an M.S. in water management, so I was passed the baton. If the Water for the Poor Act is going to have a significant impact, USAID missions must have the technical capacity to assimilate the funds.
Dabelko and Salzburg’s discussion brought up even more questions for me: How can the United States reconcile its bilateral earmark funding for water with the growing trend toward donor coordination—for instance, under the 2005 Paris Declaration, or, in the case of Ghana, the Multi-Donor Budget Support fund, which encourages donors to contribute direct financial support to the Ghanaian government to implement its Growth and Poverty Reduction Strategy? Is there a need to have water specialists assigned to USAID missions, rather than relying on specialists in Washington, D.C.? How can we make municipal financing mechanisms for infrastructure more attractive to Western funders and host-country governments? Although Dabelko and Salzburg might not have had all the answers to these questions, I’m heartened that they and other water experts are tackling the tough issues.
David Bonnardeaux is a freelance consultant on rural development and natural resource management for the World Bank, USAID, and CARE, among others. He is also an amateur photographer (www.davidbonnardeaux.smugmug.com). His next port of call is Vietnam.
Photos: Top: Boy pumping water, Volta Region, Ghana. Bottom: Girl collecting water from lake, Volta Region, Ghana. Courtesy of David Bonnardeaux.