By Evan Thomas
In spite of good intentions, the fickle flow of funds for development engineering creates incentives for new projects, not the sustained delivery of services.
The new Sustainable Development Goals were announced with fanfare by the United Nations in September 2015. And the intent of the 17 goals—everything from “ensure access to water and sanitation for all” to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere”— were admirable. What was less apparent was how actual impact and success would be measured.
The same problem dogged the predecessor Millennium Development Goals, the eight objectives for 2015 that the U.N. established in 2000. The U.N. claims that many of the MDG targets were met, but the standards and measurements it used were often too weak or insufficient to justify those claims. The fear is that if the new Sustainable Development Goals proceed without measurable standards directly aligned with the intended impact, they too may also fall short.
That’s a trap a lot of development agencies run into. Recently, the United States Government Accountability Office released a report commending the United States Agency for International Development for its water and sanitation efforts, while highlighting that, even by USAID’s own metrics, they were likely overstating impact.
For instance, USAID recommends using annual indicators such as “number of people gaining access to an improved drinking water source” in assessing programs. However, such indicators don’t meaningfully address such important factors as measurable water quality, sanitation level, or health impact. And often, USAID failed in many cases to collect any data at all.
This isn’t an indictment of USAID or the United Nations, but rather examples of the status quo in delivering well-intentioned environmental health interventions. The finite and fickle flow of funds begets incentivizing new projects, and not sustained delivery of services. And the lack of objective data on program performance contributes to a subsequent lack of accountability and misallocation of resources.
New tools and policy mechanisms may help. For instance, continuous feedback rather than annual data collection may spur communities to remain engaged with development agencies, which can then respond promptly to problems. That approach could raise the quality and accountability, and with access to monitored data on the appropriateness and success of pilot programs, investors and the public could make better informed decisions on funding.
These issues were on my mind as I finished work on a book I edited, Broken Pumps and Promises: Incentivizing Impact in Environmental Health, published in March by Springer. My expert co-authors and I highlighted some of the challenges in the current models of global environment and health efforts, and offered case studies of how to leverage feedback mechanism to prove—and improve—impact.
Case studies by authors from the Rockefeller Foundation, Yunus Social Business, and the World Bank explored feedback tools, including performance-based payments. For instance, the Freshwater Trust has leveraged clean water crediting for ecological restoration in the United States, and DelAgua Health uses carbon credits to provide water and air quality public health interventions in Rwanda.
New technology tools, such as cellular sensors and mobile money payments, are being used by an Oxford University program to deliver water pump services in Kenya and by social enterprises including Nairobi-based Sanergy Ltd. to deliver sanitation services. Similar tools are used to monitor—and monetize—the health impacts of improved cookstoves.
Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.” That’s certainly been the experience of many in global development. But with these innovations, perhaps this flaw in the global development model may soon be addressed.