Thinking out of the box

Development Policy15 Nov 2011Evert-jan Quak

The Water Operators’ Partnerships conference of 2 November 2011 in Amsterdam was for me a dive in the deep ocean. I entered a world I didn’t know before. Of course I know the struggle to make water and sanitation facilities accessible for the poor people especially in the rural areas. And I know about the public versus private discourse to deliver these services to the people.

However, I entered this world of dedicated specialists in the water industry but also one that surprisingly has an in-crowd culture. There were only water specialists around, not that that is strange during an International Water Week, but I think that the subject of capacity development to improve water utilities’ services cannot be seen as an isolated area in the developing debate. But there was not such a linkage to other interesting experiences and knowledge like capacity development and the global common goods.

Ok, the partnerships (WOPs) work with local knowledge of water operators to develop capacity in the hope that public water utilities will transform into healthy organisations that deliver the best services to their existing and future clients. But I refer to academic research and new insides about the concept of capacity building and its impact on development – to let capacity building be useful as a tool for development in general.

For example, there is research going on and new discussions about what capacity is, and more importantly how capacity can be made useful for a broader development with the help of external donors/mentors. Capacity building in itself cannot generate development; it only can do if it is embedded in a structure that includes other actors and decision makers at different levels.

Organizations like the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the World Bank, as well as non-governmental organizations, expertise centres and other initiatives have been working on the capacity development concept – and its predecessors ‘Technical Assistance’ and ‘Capacity Building’ – for many years.

Hence, I had the feeling participants wanted to learn from others who aren’t working solely in the water operators’ world. During the conference some mentioned clearly the distinction between working on capacity building on a peer-to-peer base and influencing development in a broader way. They couldn’t find the answers. So there was for sure a demand to know more about how to make capacity work for development. And that’s important, because otherwise it would be hopeless to talk about the Millennium Development Goals or about a contribution to development in programs like the WOPs.

An integrated approach (bringing capacity to development) is timely and vivid. But the only thoughts outside the box during the conference were how to make the public water utilities and partnerships bankable – how to get the financial institutions on board. A very valid and important question, of course, but loans are one part of the story; there are many other ways of finance. It would have been better to look at the alternatives. But the alternative approach has to deal with much more complex organization structures. It will be more political too, something most of the participants were not looking forward to.

But water is a political subject – if you like it or not. You cannot avoid politics if you talk about making water accessible for the people, because it is a public good, also if your focus is primarily on capacity building and on how to finance drink water projects.

If development is really the ultimate goal of the Water Operators’ Partnerships the experts involved shouldn’t look with a narrow perspectives to the issues of finance, nor should they focus on water problems as such. No, it should open the doors, discuss the political dimensions and take citizens’ participation more serious. One of the most important contributions capacity can make to development is to create better conditions and solutions for local development dynamics and to make policies more responsive and conductive to local realities.