Political economy analysis of rural sanitation in Vietnam: changing Theories of Change

The WASH sector is beginning to explore how donors can more explicitly analyse political economy issues in order to better understand how they can influence WASH sector reforms. This is part of a wider growth in other sector-level political economy approaches. Paraphrasing Edelmann (2009), this trend is due to increasingly open acknowledgement that development is political, development aid is political, and stating a ‘lack of political will’ as the explanation for failed development projects is insufficient analysis. We need to understand politics better, and sector-level support requires sector-level political analysis.

The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) has developed guidance on how the water and sanitation sector can analyse political economy in practice. A recent working paper applies this approach to Vietnam, working with DFID to answer the question: why is performance so poor in the rural sanitation sector in Vietnam, and why have apparently effective innovative pilot projects not been scaled up?

Firstly, the paper identifies general WASH sector incentives which constrain efforts in rural sanitation: greater demand for water services and greater opportunities for rent-seeking from water projects and associated benefits to the political and social networks of decision-makers. Responsibility for sanitation has also shifted between government agencies but with little incentive for ministries because of the lack of associated budgets or staffing.

Beyond overall resource allocation issues, there are further barriers to the adoption of innovative approaches. The approaches in question – typically based on Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) or Total Sanitation and Sanitation Marketing (TSSM) – are demand-led, software-focused, low- or no-subsidy and require more involvement of the private sector and non-state actors than the government. So these may not be attractive policies for the government to adopt as national strategies given historical expectations of the government as service provider – if the state is not seen as the direct provider, is there any political benefit for the central government? This lack of support from above is not countered by sufficient demand from below (due to low public awareness of the importance of rural sanitation) to give local governments enough incentive to take risks and adopt innovative practices which differ from central government guidelines, even if official discourse supposedly ‘encourages local innovation’.

The report concludes that if the innovative approaches are to spread, certain institutional reforms are needed. To minimise the political risk for local sanitation planners, there should be a legal basis for them choosing different approaches, for example from a ‘menu of options’ of sanitation activities. They will also need the funding to do so, probably from increased budgets for recurrent expenditure on sanitation, because of the emphasis on software rather than hardware in these approaches and the difficulty of implementing innovative approaches under the project/tendering requirements of investment expenditure.

So how can donors actually influence this? The report suggests that donors need to be more rigorous at analysing the recurrent costs of the pilot projects they support in order to demonstrate how these approaches could be taken to scale with government backing, and not be prohibitively expensive. I agree with this – I am working with WaterAid in Mali on similar analyses of the rural water service approaches that they promote to other actors – but I think it raises another interesting question on recurrent costs given the earlier observation about rural sanitation being an unattractive mandate for ministries because of its low budget. Is there an increased level of recurrent staff and resource costs – for example, for supporting follow-up visits to supposedly open defecation-free communities – at which rural sanitation would actually become politically attractive to central ministries? This is similar to a point made by Nick Burn from Water for People at last week’s learning event for sustainability that perhaps at high levels of rural drinking water coverage, monitoring and support issues will become more politically important to water ministries in order to justify their ongoing role.

A final question is why donors have not fully engaged with these issues before – as I suggested in my last post, donors need to analyse themselves as well as the wider political economy. In this case, the report suggests that DFID in Vietnam had previously noted the importance of the government shifting funding allocations for rural watsan further towards recurrent financing, but that this element subsequently seemed to become “marginalised” in DFID programming. Understanding the influence of internal donor issues on their wider engagement seems an essential part of such political economy analysis.

This work on political economy analysis highlights the benefits of clearly specifying the assumptions and theories of change behind a development programme. Chris Blattman argues that the first thing many development programme evaluations do is point out that the original assumptions and theories underlying the intervention may not have been thought through as well as they should have been. The Vietnam example described here shows how critical analysis of why a hoped-for change has not in fact happened can help adjust subsequent theories of change and suggest different approaches for donors.


4 Comments on “Political economy analysis of rural sanitation in Vietnam: changing Theories of Change”

  1. Mtega says:

    About bloody time. Water supply (and sanitation) have always been about politics. The politically connected get services, everyone else has to wait. More interest in sexy (and expensive) new investments than boring sustainability, software or sanitation.

    And you are absolutely right that donors need to think of their own role within the politics of the sector. The World Bank (and other donors) are under more internal pressure to keep money flowing than to ensure value for money.

    Even WaterAid can be pretty clumsy in their awareness of politics. They focus on new projects more than old. And they speak of accountability and strengthening domestic civil society while arguably hogging the only (or at least the best) civil society seat at the table.

    • dietvorst says:

      Dear Mtega, you have been submitting provocative comments to WASH debates here and on other blogs like those of Oxfam and The Guardian. Would you be interested in writing an opinion piece in E-Source – http://www.source.irc.nl/ ? Please contact me at dietvorst[at]irc.nl.

    • dietvorst says:

      Dear Mtega, you have been posting provocative comments to WASH debates on blogs like this and those of Oxfam and The Guardian. Would you be interested in writing an opinion piece for E-Source – http://www.source.irc.nl/? Please contact me at dietvorst [at] irc.nl

  2. […] between competing priorities and interests makes more sense than trying to ‘admit failure’. Approaches to political economy analysis may help identify certain drivers or blockers but also highlight the limited influence of external […]

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