Mr Phiri’s story – bypassing local government doesn’t lead to lasting services

Mr Phiri’s story – bypassing local government doesn’t lead to lasting services

An excellent presentation by Mr. Edgar Phiri – district Water Officer from Mwanza District Council in Malawi – during one of the parallel sessions on day one (the proceedings don’t seem to be on the RWSN blog yet – but as soon as they are I’ll provide a link).  Giving a district’s eye view of three positive and negative examples of external agents working to provide water services within his district.

From Mr. Phiri’s point of view, the two ‘negative’ examples consisted of external agencies (both INGOs) coming to work in the district without sufficient effort to coordinate with his office, leading to poor uptake, poor sustainability and technical problems.  During the subsequent Q&A he clarified that one had initially got in touch but then let the contact fizzle out, the other had simply gone straight to the communities – bypassing the district altogether.

On the other hand, a UNICEF programme took the time to involve local government leading to better results – particularly in terms of functionality.

The problem of external agencies – particularly but certainly not uniquely (I)NGOs – working in districts with insufficient coordination with local government is a constant theme in our work on sustainability.  The tempation, of course, is to bypass ‘inefficient’ or ‘weak’ or ‘corrupt’ local government and go ‘directly to the people’.  The reality is that while this may – to some extent – improve the efficiency of project delivery – it cannot lead to services.  Provision of (or at least oversight and regulation of) basic serivces is pretty much by definition what local government (and lcoal governance) is about.

What is great is to see empowered local government officials starting to speak out about this problem more actively – and to see NGOs, donors and others hearing and responding to their message.


Mr. Songola’s story

Mr. Crispin Songola presenting on the second day (as always – a link to papers will be added when available) reinforces the same point.   Also from Malawi, he presents another case of NGO’s cooperating and not cooperating with local government.  In this case the cooperative NGO was ActionAid who worked closely with the District Water Offices in all stages of the work.  ActionAid basically implemented a scheme that was designed by the WaterOffice and after 4 years, functionality was still at 97%.

In the counter example the NGO failed to collaborate with the district leading to misinformed technology choice and a series of deserted boreholes (and wasted money)

The point of both of these excellent presentations is not that NGOS are all bad or that local governments are all good.  It’s that NGO working in isolation risk on the one hand losing out on the wealth of local knowledge that district level technical staff normally have and on the other leaving communities with systems that are fundamentally ill-suited and un-sustainable.

On the flip side, NGOs working with local government can help to implement district level plans that may otherwise remain un-implemented due to lack of finance and, by working closely with local government staff, can help build the capacities that will be necessary in five years time when the system has broken down and the NGO has moved on to a new district.

Mr. Songola’s recommendations: that districts maintain and regularly updated their plans – and that NGOs respect and support those plans.  Creating a fully integrated NGO/District Government Development Machinery.  As he puts it ‘a SWAp at district level’’

My take home quote from this forum “I’m going back to Sudan to empower communities and local government.”  By a gentlemen from South Sudan who gave feedback at the video booth.  For me, this is the critical message for the rural water sector – that by empowering local government as well as communities we are creating the foundations for sustainable services.


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