Smarter, sustainable investments can ease sanitation crisis—new paper

Poor planning and a lack of attention to maintenance means that traditional work to address problems with water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) often wastes substantial amounts of capital, according to a new paper published today by the Stone Family Foundation in collaboration with consultancy and think tank NPC.

This poor planning results from funding approaches—such as giving toilets and water away for free­­—which mean that access to WASH cannot be sustained in the long-term. How to spend a penny argues that funding more innovative, entrepreneurial initiatives can offer more effective, enduring solutions.

The Stone Family Foundation has invested more than £10m in WASH overseas since 2010, funding NGOs through 20 separate grants and working in countries including Cambodia, Zambia, and Ghana, making it one of the UK’s largest private funders of WASH. The Foundation aims to use its position of independence to focus on higher-risk, market-based solutions that others cannot or will not fund. How to spend a penny presents ten lessons drawn from this work, including:

  • It’s more than just ‘toilets and taps’
    The infrastructure most associated with WASH­—toilets, wells, waste treatment plants—will not solve the crisis on their own. Technology is only useful if businesses can get products and services to the people who need them, and the Foundation has prioritised development of new models to achieve this.
  • Donors need to better understand the motivation of customers
    Health benefits are the main reason donors fund WASH, but customers are often motivated to invest in safe water, sanitation and hygiene for other reasons. For example, to improve status (so that families avoid the shame of telling guests they have no household toilet) and family safety (so that there is no need to use public latrines at night, keeping their daughters safe from harm and from the risk of snake bites). Donors should therefore direct funding to organisations which put customer motivations first.
  • People will pay for better hygiene and sanitation, but this is too easily undermined
    Even low-income households are ready to pay for the right WASH products and services, especially where sustainable, better quality services are offered at a similar cost to those which already exist. But this is in danger of being damaged if products are given away for free yet do little to resolve long-term problems.    

How to spend a penny will be launched at an event on 12 June, at which the Stone Family Foundation will share the lessons it has learnt from its own WASH funding to encourage other philanthropists to invest in this area. The event will be chaired by Maya Prabhu, Managing Director of the Coutts Institute, and other speakers include John Stone, founder of the Stone Family Foundation; Rob Whitby, Head of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Team at Department for International Development; Sam Parker, CEO of Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP); and Lena Baumgartner, Deputy Director of Research and Consulting at NPC.

The Stone Family Foundation says:

‘Clean water, sanitation and hygiene are basic necessities that we all take for granted.

‘But today over 740 million people do not have access to safe drinking water and one in three do not have a hygienic toilet. This has devastating consequences: water-related diseases such as typhoid kill two million people every year, and diarrhoea is the second biggest cause of death among children under five. Despite this shocking situation, investment in water and sanitation is woefully lacking.

‘Our experience suggests that for a sector to flourish it needs a range of funding sources, including from philanthropic foundations that have fewer restrictions on their funding than government and large NGOs and are willing to take risks’

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