New information note: The UK’s changing approach to water, sanitation and hygiene

7 Apr 2022

  • New information note from Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) provides an account of the evolution of the UK’s water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) portfolio since 2016
  • Report highlights how UK set and met ambitious targets for WASH programming – including reaching 62.6 million people in the period 2015-2020
  • But observes steep decline in UK bilateral aid for WASH from 2018, raising questions given the importance of WASH in the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic
  • ICAI’s report identifies areas meriting further investigation, including the UK’s appetite to rebuild its comparative advantage in the WASH sector in its new programmes.

The UK’s aid programming on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) comes under the spotlight in a new information note published today, Thursday 7 April, by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI).

The report from the aid watchdog – which as a factual information note is not evaluative and is not scored – provides an account of the evolution of the UK’s WASH portfolio and approach since its 2016 review of the topic, including the response of the portfolio to the pandemic. The note observes a fall of two-thirds in bilateral WASH expenditure since UK aid for WASH peaked in 2018, at £206.5 million, to an estimated £70 million in 2021, with the full effects of these reductions on programming still emerging. This reduction in expenditure pre-dates the COVID-19 pandemic and has continued as a result of reductions in the UK aid budget in 2020 and 2021. During the evidence gathering for this work, ICAI was told by FCDO that new WASH programmes are in preparation, as part of ongoing business planning launched under the current three-year spending review.

ICAI Lead Commissioner Dr Tamsyn Barton, who oversaw the report, said:

“After a steep decline in UK bilateral aid for WASH since 2018, new programmes are in preparation, but the UK’s level of commitment to the sector remains to be seen.”

“Despite the UK moving quickly to support a global drive on hand hygiene early in the COVID-19 pandemic, and continuing to view this as central in the response, overall, UK bilateral aid for WASH has continued to fall. It is not yet clear if the FCDO’s renewed focus on women and girls will lead to increased WASH programming.”

ICAI’s note describes the introduction of a change in approach to WASH programming in 2018. This change was motivated by concerns that past investments in basic WASH facilities in poor rural communities were not sustainable, and not doing enough to improve health outcomes. This approach involved a shift of focus towards supporting national WASH systems by building institutions, raising service standards and mobilising other sources of finance, including by encouraging communities to pay for services. The watchdog notes that the change in direction is not yet fully implemented, as the launch of new programmes has been delayed by budget reductions. Nonetheless, it is visible in recent and forthcoming programme designs.

ICAI notes that even beyond health outcomes WASH programming is particularly important for girls and women across the world, who are disproportionately impacted by inadequate WASH access. Given the UK government has committed to making women and girls central to its approach to international development, it is significant that the UK’s approach to WASH, announced in 2018, recognised the role that WASH can play in supporting gender equity, reducing violence against women and girls and improving health outcomes for women and children.

The note reflects that the UK has been a leading investor in WASH related research for many years, but that its WASH research portfolio has been curtailed by UK aid budget reductions, with some research programmes seeing substantial budget reductions. It also observes that early in the COVID-19 pandemic, hand hygiene was identified by global health experts as a first line of defence against the virus, and that the UK moved quickly to support a global drive on hand hygiene. The UK also contributed to the formation of the Hygiene and Behaviour Change Coalition (HBCC), which succeeded in reaching 1.2 billion people with its COVID-19 and hygiene messaging in the first year.

The note concludes that seven areas of the UK’s changing approach to WASH would benefit from further scrutiny:

  • The UK’s potential for reviving intellectual leadership in WASH
  • The adequacy of the UK’s investment
  • Whether FCDO is retaining sufficient technical capacity
  • if FCDO’s system building approach is viable in fragile contexts
  • Whether WASH objectives integrated into health and education programmes will be given priority
  • FCDO’s consideration of gender and climate change
  • Whether waning concern about Covid will reduce the success of FCDO’s investments in hygiene behaviour change.

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