Water, water – not everywhere

Water is all around us. We drink it – although most of us should probably drink more of it – I know I need to. We shower in it – at least I hope we all do. We swim in it – that is, if you are one of the lucky ones considering the British summer. We are even made up of water ourselves. And it’s a deadly serious area of international development policy.

After becoming the Liberal Democrat Shadow Secretary for International Development, (I know – my title is such a mouthful these days) I looked for guidance from the party members. What did we care about? One of the issues that came up was water, not least because of the previous Conference Motion on water but also because of the correspondence I receive about it. The idea of a water war no longer seems unrealistic. In fact, it is already happening. The UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon recently blamed climate change and the lack of water behind Darfur killing.

Even though the Darfuri genocide is a complex issue and situation to grasp, the lack of water was certainly a contributing factor to the escalating violence there. Water is not only vital to get right as it can, and in my belief will, be the cause of violence, it is vital to get right as it is a common natural resource. That means that our water is just as much the Darfuri’s water and the water in Darfur is just as much our water.

It is therefore essential that the provision of water, especially with regard to aid projects, is effective. Yet this is far from the truth today. The answer from the Department for International Development (DfID) to solving the water crisis in the developing world is through the Public-Private Infrastructure Advisory Facility (PPIAF), a World Bank programme aimed at helping developing countries improve the quality of their infrastructure through private sector involvement.

The Government is pouring its money into the PPIAF, by far its biggest donor. I realise that private projects are not always inherently bad or destined to fail – constructive co-ordination between communities, non-governmental organisations, governments and the private sector is the only way for developing nations to develop sustainable water supplies. However, there is a significant problem with the PPIAF – it ain’t working! Now – surely if something isn’t working you either fix it or, failing that, try something else? I would like to see the UK review whether our aid for water – and, for that matter, sanitation – is being spent effectively through the PPIAF, and if not, to cease its funding. Otherwise, we risk just throwing money away.

So what is the Government’s response? Sheer ignorance.

As it seems like our taxes do more bad than good through the PPIAF, I have tried to highlight this huge problem. Firstly, I asked the Secretary of State if he was aware that Norway has withdrawn its funding for the PPIAF, because its projects involving water have so often failed and been so widely criticised. I asked how he scrutinised the use of UK taxpayers’ money, and if he were unable to do so effectively, was he likely to withdraw British funding from the PPIAF.

Hilary Benn quickly got up on his feet to defend PPIAF and he did so using an example of a PPIAF project that had been a great success. The only problem was that it was not an example of a water project – it was a telecoms example! Obviously my question was too hard to handle.

His answer had nothing to do with my question and that demonstrates where the problem lies. I do not believe that the Government knows much about the workings of the PPIAF or its effectiveness. At present, there is little or no scrutiny. That is why it is allowed to continue working in the way that it does, that is why it is allowed to continue to fail, and that is why our money is going down the drain for no apparent reason other than ignorance.

To add grist to the mill, I was recently informed by the World Development Movement that Italy has also formally withdrawn from the controversial PPIAF funding, as well as Norway. Now that two countries have judged the PPIAF inadequate, it is over to the Secretary of State to consider whether he too will make that judgment. It is crystal clear that we must review its work and ensure that our money is being spent effectively. I brought this to the attention of DfID ministers in several debates but this time, instead of at being fobbed off, I just got completely blanked. It was as though someone had implanted a chip in their ear switching to deaf mode as soon as the abbreviation PPIAF came out. What’s a girl to do? Only one thing to do – scream louder!

This article first appeared in Liberal Democrat News. For subscription details, click here.

(c) Lynne Featherstone, 2007

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