Mission impossible? How can WASH services contribute to peace and stability?

Conflict and fragility are holding back development efforts and the poorest and most vulnerable people are at the sharp end of the impact.

Despite the current investment of 30% of all international aid into ‘conflict-affected and fragile states’ (CAFS), not one has achieved a single MDG. Development progress and results are being achieved, but not at the scale and pace needed and are hampered by insecurity and weak governance, to name but two.

But there is renewed interest and energy to tackle this. A New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States was launched last year by the G7+, whereby many countries classed as CAFS are seeking to work in partnership to “reform and reinvent a new paradigm for international engagement”. DFID’s practice paper ‘Building Peaceful States and Societies’ outlines the desire to tackle conflict and fragility head on through development efforts, to include peace-building and state-building in a mutually reinforcing manner.

All great stuff, but what does this mean in practice?

I’ve been thinking about the implications for addressing conflict through the delivery of basic services, such as access to clean water and basic sanitation. To what extent and in what ways can peace and state building be improved through increasing access to water and sanitation? To find out Tearfund teamed up with ODI to carry out research in eastern DRC and South Sudan, with the help of DFID funding and advisory input from conflict specialists SaferWorld. The reports will be available at the end of the year, but I shared some initial reflections at Stockholm’s World Water Week recently and do so below:

We need to be realistic but aspirational. The causes of conflict in both countries are complex and contributions from organisations such as Tearfund to the peace efforts will be minimal at a macro level. But opportunities do exist at the local level and these small efforts, across sectors and combined with other non-state actors, are vital for maximising peace building and state building efforts.

But there would be significant implications for the way we work -such as the skill set of our staff, the time frames we work within and the modality of WASH service delivery used – and donors need to be prepared to support this new way of working

Building the state means tackling visibility. In one project area in DRC, for example, Tearfund was seen as the visible service provider, while the government was not regarded as having the capacity or legitimacy to provide services.  Although Tearfund aligns its work with government priorities and helps to build the capacity of local government officials, in efforts not to create parallel systems, communities can still take a very different view. As one respondent shared ‘Who is the government. Who are they? I have never seen them. They have not brought the schools or clinics to the village.’

ImageThis research also touched on another common debate – how to improve the transition between relief and development work and raises the question at what stage is it appropriate to bring in peace and state building elements? However, in reality the relief/development dichotomy is often an unhelpful distinction. It’s rarely about agencies exiting once the relief efforts have been met and new development agencies coming in – we’re often the same agencies. The relief-development relationship is rarely, if ever, linear. It can be cyclical and a bit messy and as NGOs we need to be able to be more flexible and blend and mix approaches appropriately.

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