It's not about the money. It's not about any other resources either. 'Listening', a report published by the Water Supply & Sanitation Collaborative Council, Geneva, to be released on March 22 - World Water Day - brings together a selection of voices of people who work with communities to promote safe water, sanitation and hygiene. The unanimous contention among these many voices - Asian, African and Latin American - is that conventional approaches are defective, and that the solution is in the willingness to learn lessons from both past failures and current successes. That, it says, is the only way forward.
This combination of "what not to do" and "what to do" is an interesting one. And it holds the potential of a workable strategy for the future.
Take the United Nations' decision to double the resources, including financial aid to reach its goal of "halving, by the year 2015" the proportion of people without access to safe water and basic sanitation. This decision doesn't even begin to solve the problem.
Indeed, as Nepal's leading campaigner Umesh Pandey says, "Three decades, millions of dollars, and hundreds of kilometers of water pipes have not been translated into better health for the people." Former Colombian Director of Water and Sanitation Services Augusto Osorno Gil echoes this, "Despite decades of investment, half of Colombia's people lack access to safe water and basic sanitation." And Bolivian civil engineer Marco Quiroga asks, "Why after millions of dollars of investment do so many people still suffer?"
Success in places like the western Indian state of Maharashtra and particularly in the villages of Bangladesh also serve to convince, that to the core of the solution process must be added the "community participation" factor.
A lot of the experts currently practice "Community-Led Total Sanitation", with visible results. Kamal Kar, an independent specialist who has worked for many years in Bangladesh, talks about many villages where community efforts have resulted in "total sanitation". Some of these villages proudly proclaim, "No one in this village defecates in the open". And then there are villages in Maharashtra, one of which displays a board within its boundaries, declaring, "Daughters from our village are not married into villages where open defecation is practiced".
Says Nelly Guapacha, a successful campaigner in Columbia, "Politicians will do nothing.... The job of getting things done falls to the people who actually live here. If you can get them moving, anything is possible."
Another core problem is that very often, people and organizations have attempted to tackle the problem from the outside. This comes as a most patronizing attitude - governments think that making a few ambiguous gestures is enough to make a change. Or even when the intention is right, the thinking is that it is possible to do the right thing without being part of the problem, or understanding the problem from within its ambit.
As Jockin Arputham, President of India's National Slum Dwellers Federation suggests, "No progress is possible until the urban authorities stop trying to hand down centrally planned solutions. The urban elite is still clinging to the notion that they are the greatest experts in solving problems faced by the poor. It is an attitude which has led to literally thousands of failed projects."
Sheela Patel, Founder and Director of the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres, says: "Despite the fact that they have been elected by the poor, city politicians adopt the role of patron to the slum dweller - the one who can stay an eviction order, the one who can be bribed into helping a family or solving a particular problem. Often their very survival in office depends upon their ability to portray themselves as 'protectors of the slums'. In this scheme of things, it is essential that the slum dweller remains passive and vulnerable."
This criticism however, does not mean that the role of the government - central or local - can be done away with. This, despite the report's rather simplistic assessment of the pros and cons of governments across the regions under discussion. Maybe, as the report suggests, the role of the government needs to unfold in conjunction with NGOs and communities.
The way through, evidently, is that roles for both segments have to be better defined - for the poor as much as for the powerful. Because as Founder of Society for Life and Development in Nairobi, Kenya David Omayo says, "Communities sit and wait for the 'white people' of the donor organizations, or someone from the City Council, to come and do it for them".
Add to that the key issue of recognizing the problem for what it is. And this applies both to the affected and the outsider. Pandey iterates that "Just as the problem of HIV/AIDS cannot be discussed without talking frankly about sex, so the problem of sanitation cannot be discussed without talking frankly about shit".
The problem has to be brought home, allowed, and even encouraged, to roost. But why hasn't this succeeded in all these years? For one, such projects might not be lucrative enough for anyone, especially for governments. Two, as best phrased by Sait Damodaran - Founder of Gramalaya, a highly successful NGO working in parts of Tamil Nadu (India) - because "Even the best new policies are weakened or destroyed by the time they reach the ground. It is like passing a block of ice through many hands - by the time it reaches the poor, there is nothing left."
While recognizing the 'whys' and the past failures has to be the first step up a successful ladder, the more critical part is the future and the discussion on how things can begin to change. This implies a combination of efforts - not repeating the steps that led to colossal failures; and a dual, direct and dynamic co-ordination between NGOs, governments and various agencies, both independent and government-affiliated.
No solution can be the perfect one, especially as we discuss a problem that affects about a billion people, kills approximately 6,000 children everyday, stretches across three of the six inhabited continents of the world, and occasionally raises its head even in the other three.
The solution has to be: Area, people and concern-specific, which is what makes the whole issue a "Common Global Responsibility". Money - or aid as is the case - has to be part of the solution; this is the unanimous decision of the voices in the report. As must be the unlearning and relearning process.