By Guy Norman, Head of Evaluation, Research and Learning at WSUP Mon, 04/13/2015 - 11:00

Today we launch Public Finance for WASH. It's like being in a hot-air balloon... mooring ropes away, and whoosh! You can find out more about the initiative elsewhere on this website: but here, I wanted to talk a little bit about the personal story behind what we're doing.

The idea to start something up around public finance first came to me over a year ago, in January 2014. It seemed like everyone was talking about social enterprise and transformative technologies, but very few people were talking about public finance. Enterprise and technology: they’re sort of cool and sexy. Why can’t public finance be cool and sexy too?

So the first thing I did was chat to a few people, in WSUP and beyond. John Oldfield of WASH Advocates was massively helpful: we chatted first on a crowded evening beach in Dakar, with beer and grilled fish and kids playing football! Arne Panekar of GIZ was great to, though that wasn't on a beach. And a key person here was Patrick Moriarty, CEO of IRC. Like me, Patrick is convinced that we’re simply not paying enough attention to domestic government investment. Like me, he believes that donors and implementing agencies are putting too much faith in technology and small enterprise. They’re both very important and can make big contributions, of course; but what’s really critical is government commitment and government money. Enterprise and markets need support!

Government money essentially means... taxes! Yikes! Taboo word! Everybody hates taxes! But in fact – even in strongly market-led economies like the US – water and sanitation services were and are heavily dependent on taxes (see our Finance Brief 2). Unless African and Asian governments raise more taxes, and spend them effectively to improve basic services, there is NO WAY universal water and sanitation is going to be achieved.

So after Patrick put his (metaphorical) weight behind this, the initiative began to start moving from idea to reality. We decided to invite Sophie Trémolet on board, in view of her massive technical experience in WASH finance, and from IRC Patrick was joined by Catarina Fonseca, another leading sector economist with a hugh knowledge of the actual costs of WASH. So now we have Catarina and IRC’s remarkable experience of national-level advocacy and (especially) WASH costs; we have Sophie’s encyclopedic knowledge and understanding of finance mechanisms; and here from the WSUP side, we bring our close involvement with urban water and sanitation, and financing at the city level.

In October 2014 we organised a concept development workshop at the UNC Water and Health Conference, aiming to expose our fledgling ideas to critical scrutiny. We got useful feedback from a bunch of very smart people including Clarissa Brocklehurst of SWA, Henry Northover of WaterAid, and Eddy Perez (then of the World Bank Water & Sanitation Program). There was no shortage of hard critique! But the general message was “go for it”, so we did...

We’ve been working hard since January. Special thanks to Iwona Bisaga, Research Intern here at WSUP: Iwona has provided the energy and talent to really get this moving. I also want to thank Vera van der Grift, brilliant communications specialist at IRC, and Sheila Urbanoski for her incredible web design skills. Thanks!

Our focus so far has been to develop the branding, to create this website, and to begin to develop our publications library. You’ll notice that we chose the colour purple, traditionally associated with wealth and prosperity!

Now, with the website live, we’ll be working hard to provide up-to-date news and opinion around public finance, and we’ll be continuing to build the publications library. Meanwhile, in the “back room”, we’ll be mapping the detail of how to take this forward... we’ve got ambitious plans, but we’re going to need a bit of time. [To get an idea of what we're aiming to do, who we're trying to reach, etc., check out the "About" and "Q&A" sections of this website.]

We’re certainly going to be working closely with other organisations doing similar things, both in the grey North and the sunny South. Key initial collaborators include SWA, WaterAid and WASHwatch. However, we're hoping to go much wider than this, and are eager to hear from individuals and organisations who are already "fellow travellers", or who might be persudaded to become so! We believe that domestic resource mobilisation will be the driving concept for development over the coming decade. We aim to create a movement that inspires, informs and supports the effective application of public finance in the WASH arena. We'd love you to join us!