Participation is key for WOPs efficiency and accountability

This article was written for the workshop on 'Participation in WOPs: Why and How to do it' in the WOPs conference Each One Teach One (2nd November 2011) during the Amsterdam International Water Week. .

Participation is key for WOPs* efficiency and accountability
* Water Operator’s Partnerships

The participation of labour unions, water users and other civil society actors can make a strong positive contribution to the success of not-for-profit partnerships in Water and sanitation services. This is the starting point of the workshop on Participation in WOPs: why and how to do it. The above statement is not merely supposition. We have in the last 10-15 years witnessed a positive trend in which an increasing number of public utilities and local communities have introduced new approaches to achieve improved water and sanitation for the poorest.

There are many inspiring examples that public water companies have developed  partnerships with communities and users and work together as equal partners to overcome many difficulties and achieve social objectives (connect marginalized people with water and sanitation services). Examples include participatory public budgeting in Brazil, community-controlled water supply in a number of Latin American and African countries, and democratisation of rural water management in Tamil Nadu (India). The Tamil Nadu state water company (TWAD) committed itself to improve the situation in some 500 villages, in rural areas that had been neglected for decades. This commitment resulted in new forms of partnerships between the public water operator and rural communities, in which the communities are engaged in the decision-making about water solutions. Supported with funding and expertise and empowered to take responsibility for running water systems,  this approach proved to bring rapid and lasting improvements.

Nairobi City Water & Sewerage Company has recently introduced an ambitious ‘social connection policy’ and works with residents in the informal settlements to lay water pipes to connect individual households as well as communal water points. While Nairobi Water is responsible for expanding the networks, community members contribute to the works with their labour and are trained to sustain the water systems.

These and other experiences show active citizen's participation in water and sanitation initiatives are of crucial importance to ensure sustainable improvements in water services for the poorest. The role of civil society organisations, community groups and trade unions is essential to secure accountability and responsiveness of public utilities.

The importance of participation has been acknowledged in European Union water sector funding. In 2010 the EU earmarked €40 million of the ACP-EU Water Facility to support water partnership projects in African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries. These are not-for-profit partnerships intended to: “develop capacity in the ACP water & sanitation sector, leading to better water and sanitation governance and management, and to the sustainable development and maintenance of infrastructure” (European Commission, 2010: 5). There are some innovative elements in the ACP-EU Water Facility. One of them is that the guideline of call for proposal explicitly encourages the involvement of local trade unions and civic organisations as “supporting partners” (European Commission, 2010: 5, 9, 19).  Emanuele Lobina, a researcher at the London based Public Service International Research Union (PSIRU) states that the involvement of civic actors beyond operators helps facilitate the orientation of partnerships towards sustainable and socially acceptable institutional development.

We began discussing this issue seriously within the Global Water Operators’ Partnerships Alliance (GWOPA) a half year ago when the Reclaiming Public Water Network hosted a thematic session on “Participation - harnessing the potential of civil society and trade unions in making WOPs succeed” during the GWOPA congress in Cape Town, South Africa. MS Vaidyanathan (an engineer of CEC, which is a key actor in public authority and community partnerships in Tamil Nadu, India) stressed that communities and their traditional knowledge to conserve limited water resources in rural areas is a critically important element in their partnerships.  Representatives from AEOPAS (the Spanish Association of Public Water and Sanitation Operators) and OSE (the state water company of Uruguay) as public water operators shared how they develop a holistic perspective (not only technical aspects but social, cultural and environmental aspects) in project planning by working with different actors. Dutch public workers union Abvakabo highlighted the importance of labour participation in WOPs. One factor is to secure support among the workforce.  As a WOP project tends to focus on increasing efficiency it is also likely to result in workforce cuts.  From the mentor side, trade unions could question why money is used outside of the country, which would cause layoffs among workers at the recipient water operator. The success of a WOP project depends on worker’s understanding and participation, both on the mentor and the recipient side from design of projects.

 In fact, Dutch Water company Dunea is developing a partnership with  the Mwanza water and sewerage authority, Tanzania under the the ACP-EU Water Facility. Trade union ABVAKABO participates as supporting partner in this project. They encouraged the Tanzanian Union of Industrial Workers (TUICO) to participate in this project. Having trade unions’ participations, the partnership proposal includes prominently workers training.  Needless to say, workers are at the frontline of water services provision.  Their commitment to improve water services is essential. Moreover this training aims to enable workers to take an active role in dialogues with citizens and increase their capacity to engage in lobbying their government in support of quality public water services.

Adriana Marquisio (Uruguay State Water Company OSE) and Luis Babiano (AEOPAS Spain) will be speakers in the workshop. They will introduce some of the most advanced practices in terms of internalising participation in the values and practices of public water operators.  AEOPAS is a unique water professional association: mainly consisting of water operators but also include civil society (unions, NGOs), research centers, consumer organizations and neighborhood associations, public administration as equal partners.  AEOPS is developing a partnership project with a water operator in Machakos, Kenya, with two main features.  Firstly, it aims to create a system for collecting data on access to water services, consumption; water quality; water sources; non revenue water; incidence of water on diseases, etc.  Secondly, the project focuses on improving transparency and accountability and aims to establish a mechanism of social participation which will involve the municipal authorities, the Kenya Union of Commercial Food and Allied Workers, consumers and civil society representatives.

AEOPAS brings practical experience in this field from the innovative reforms introduced recently among Spanish public water operators such as the municipal water company of the province of Sevilla. In the words of Jaime Morrell of Sevilla water utility: ‘…participation is applied both in the internal logic of the association as well as in its external suppositions. We are attempting to reshape the public model in Spain not only regarding ownership but so that it becomes a public model that is legitimized by society.  In the end, this is the principal guarantee to ensure that this service will be carried out according to the principles of citizenship’.

The Uruguayan state water company OSE is a leading player on different fronts. Internationally OSE is implementing cooperation projects in Ecuador, Peru, Paraguay and elsewhere. Domestically OSE has taken on the challenge to achieve universal access to water and sanitation for the entire rural population, using the public-community partnership methodology. OSE’s strength is its determination to be the implementation arm of the Constitution, which defines water as fundamental human right and public good. OSE carries its duty to provide access to water to all citizens and to ensure citizen participation in water management. The coherence between OSE's internal (domestic water management) and external (international) projects is clear. OSE has created a department of cooperation and international solidarity, which includes all the political institutions, the union and social organizations. OSE’s international projects are based on these two values: the human right to water and participation.

During the workshop we will demonstrate the practical benefits of participation by drawing on practical examples.  Benefits of successful stakeholder participation include the mobilising of local knowledge and building public support for the partnership project.  Engagement with citizens will help more effectively meet the technical, social and environmental objectives of WOPs initiatives, and is in the interest of all.

Amongst others, the greatest benefit for WOP implementers is that participation helps build public support for the partnership project. This is particularly important to distinguish WOPs from any kinds of attempts to take over management of local water services which has a very bad reputation and track record in many developing countries.

There is ample evidence that participation and transparency helps ensure accountability in water provision as well as boosts effectiveness. We need to demonstrate that this must apply to WOP projects. The effectiveness is particularly important in the sense of cost effectiveness of international cooperation.

Since the WOPs framework is relatively new, it is too early to evaluate the role of participation in WOPs projects. However, the above-mentioned examples highlight the potential contributions of partnerships with civic actors in improving water and sanitation services. We need to learn from these experiences - and the underlying values - so that the benefits of civic participation in WOPs is better understood by WOPs implementers and that civic participation becomes the norm in WOPs.

Satoko Kishimoto
Transnational Institute (TNI)