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Does Outside Aid Offer a True Water Crisis Solution in Africa or Mask a Deeper Problem?

Hult Social Entrepreneurship
Hult Social Entrepreneurship | Tuesday April 30th, 2013 | 1 Comment

oxfamGovernment and foreign aid are interlocked when addressing the water crisis in East Africa. This region has 187 km3 of renewable freshwater resources per year, yet governments and organizations are in a crusade against the odds to provide water to its inhabitants. Although the Millenium Development Goal (MDG) to increase water access was reached on a global level last year, in East Africa the change was not evident. Only 55 percent of the population in East Africa has access to improved sources of drinking water, which is 23 percent below the target set for 2015. In fact, the majority of the countries in this region are expected to experience extreme water stress by 2025.

Authorities struggle to find long-term solutions, yet the population of this region has been suffering from some of the harshest drought conditions ever recorded in the last few decades. The government’s receptiveness to any outside aid and favorable conditions in the economy made it propitious to innumerous NGOs, international organizations and social businesses to attempt to alleviate the issue. Are these external pursuits only patching holes or are they contributing to a brighter future?

Government in Eastern Africa

Every country in East Africa is amongst one of the 50 least-developed economies in the world. Due to these circumstances, these countries suffer severe problems with respect to both human capital and infrastructure. This undeniable truth makes these countries extremely vulnerable to natural disasters, war and other disruptive forces. As a result, every sector becomes a top priority for government assistance. Even though government resources are scarce, officials understand that water accessibility is a natural human right and have allocated significant effort into solving the problem effectively.

Since the 1970s, governments have cultivated countless policies to eradicate the water problem. However, substantial results have been rare and overall superficial. Tanzania’s National Water Policy (1991), Ethiopia’s Water Resource Policy (1999), and Uganda’s Poverty Eradication Action Plan (PEAP, 2000) and Sector Wide Approach to Planning for Water and Sanitation Sector (2002), are all examples of policies that represent government action in attempting to solve the water crisis. Each and every policy had the the same result: there is a vast gap between the creation of policies and their implementation.

Government corruption is one of the biggest barriers to development in East Africa. According to the Corruption Perception Index, Tanzania has the best corruption ranking in the region, occupying the 102nd position out of 176 countries evaluated. Kenya and Uganda were not much worse, representing the 139th and 130th position respectively.  The corruption results in a misallocation of resources that culminates in programs that theoretically should be efficient, but in reality do not fulfill their purpose.

One successful attempt to both minimize corruption and provide water was created in Kenya. The Water and Sanitation Services Improvement Project was established recently and is a project that combines Water Action Groups, use of water and sanitation report cards, and a real-time feedback mechanism. Although results of the program are still too premature to measure, the success of the policy comes from the structure allowing for accountability.

NGOs stepping up to the problem

The diverse number of programs and policies have not been capable of producing palpable results. However, the open arms policy towards foreign aid has been crucial to saving lives in Eastern Africa. The intervention of NGOs, social businesses and other philanthropic organizations who have attempted to address the water problem have proven to be essential to these countries. In 2008, the Ethiopian government enacted a policy to put a stop to foreign aid in the most vulnerable region of their country. In just a few months, this policy was overturned due to the number of people suffering and the inability of the government to provide adequate resources.

There are a number of initiatives targeted at eradicating this issue that have proven themselves indispensable. The Global Water Initiative (GWI), International Water Management Institute (IWMI), and the International Rescue Committee’s International Water and Sanitation Centre are all examples. Water filtration devices, such as LifeStraw and Biofit, which are distributed through a number of NGOs, have helped millions of people in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia access clean water. Policies that allow non-governmental institutions to resolve fundamental problems might hinder long term development in the region.

Are these solutions long term?

The UN has declared that access to water is a human right and stated that water is a social and cultural good, not an economic commodity. However, in East Africa, achieving this goal is complicated due to the manner in which water supplies are managed.

George Ayittey, the president of Free Africa Foundation, based in Washington D.C., stated that foreign aid is not free and cannot create development on its own. Foreign aid brings an external workforce, money and technology; it does not try to mend local market problems, but instead goes around the government to achieve its own goals. When taking a look at programs initiated by foreign aid in East Africa, it is easy to identify with Ayittey’s argument.

Governments in East Africa are overwhelmed by the situation in their countries. Without the necessary resources to resolve the water crisis on their own, because of various internal struggles, these governments have turned to external aid. With the purpose of saving lives, NGOs, social businesses and other external forces are doing their best to help and are focused on the immediate and short-term impact; masking the true extent of the problems these countries are facing. These conditions push long-term development to the background, leaving East Africa extremely susceptible to irreparable water conditions.

By Andrea Filgueiras, Jiuyi Zhou, Lina Shalabi, Maria Spiridonova, Ruben Piza, Xuan Zhang. The authors are Master of Social Entrepreneurship candidates at Hult International Business School.  

[image credit: Oxfam International: Flickr cc]


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  • Paul Hicks

    Thank you for your attention to this very important issue.

    I was a bit confused on the exact message of your article. You say: “Policies that allow non-governmental institutions to resolve fundamental problems might hinder long term development in the region.”

    I was also a little surprised to see IRC and GWI included in LifeStraw as indispensable solutions. IRC is a “think tank” that analyzes and advocates for good policies for sustainable water services. And GWI tries to put these ideas to work. In contrast LifeStraw is a technology for filtering drinking water for individuals and families; it’s a great technology but not a solution to fundamental problems.

    It would be helpful to review this article a little more closely to make clear what the main points are.

    thank you