EADI: Blog | #WorldWaterWeek – Water Operator Partnerships after 15 years: Re-politicising the debate

Just over 15 years have passed since the UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation (UNSGAB) published a plan that proposed, inter alia, the concept of Water Operator Partnerships (WOPs). In this plan, which was released in March 2006, WOPs were envisioned as “a structured programme of cooperation among water operators, based on mutual support and on a not-for-profit basis.” The idea was to use peer-to-peer learning and knowledge exchange to develop the capacities of water operators, so that they could deliver reliable, good-quality services on the way to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Today, the concept of WOPs is well-established within the UN system and is becoming more and more popular among water and sanitation utilities worldwide. Working towards Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6, many water professionals are looking for ways to make universal service coverage a reality by 2030, and WOPs are increasingly considered a promising approach to this end.

According to the Global WOPs Alliance (GWOPA) – a multi-stakeholder platform that was established in 2009 and is part of UN-Habitat – about 250 WOPs have been formed to date. These partnerships have taken place in various constellations and at different scales. The GWOPA Secretariat, now based in Bonn, Germany, is engaging in advocacy, fundraising, and knowledge management to further increase the number and effectiveness of WOPs.

From political to technical debates

When listening to policy discussions about WOPs these days, it is interesting to note that the conversation mainly revolves around technical issues: How can WOPs be scaled up? What financing mechanisms exist? What are the main lessons learned so far for making WOPs successful? The early, highly political controversies seem to have waned somehow.

This was different when the WOP concept first emerged: there was a heated debate among academics, civil society organizations, trade unions, and the private sector about whether private operators should be allowed to participate in WOPs and how the principles of not-for-profit support and solidarity could be safeguarded if the partnerships would be opened up to private or heavily commercialized operators. Concerns against private-sector participation were raised, for instance, by the Municipal Services Project, the Transnational Institute, and the Public Services International Research Unit. In the end, all operators, whether public or private, were allowed to participate in WOPs, under the condition that they would uphold GWOPA’s guiding principles and code of conduct.

Today, it has become evident that very few private water companies have actually been interested in a sustained involvement in WOPs. Overall, GWOPA’s guiding principles and code of conduct seem to be fairly well-respected. But does this mean that the political debates around WOPs are resolved? Should we all be focusing on upscaling now and leave the controversies behind?

Of course, making WOPs better known and widespread is crucial to ensure that as many operators as possible can benefit from the approach. In a WOP, colleagues from different places get the chance to exchange experiences and learn from each other. Exposure to a new device, insight into innovative processes, or hands-on training with a new system or tool can sometimes go a long way in bringing about improvements in service delivery. WOPs are aimed at building the capacity of existing workers rather than replacing them with private consultants, hopefully leading to more sustainable changes at a lower cost. Even if WOPs tend to be cheaper than consultancy services, the partnerships of course still need a certain amount of funding (e.g., to cover the cost of exchange visits). There is now evidence to suggest that WOPs lead to the best results when they unfold over a longer time period and when they are coupled with larger infrastructure investments (see, e.g., the research by Coppel and Schwartz, 2011 and Wright-Contreras et al., 2020).

Talking about upscaling and (long-term) financing solutions is therefore timely and important. But I believe that there are at least three other issues that deserve more – and more critical – attention.

Interests and power dynamics

First, interests and power dynamics should be more explicitly discussed. The risks of involving private operators in WOPs were extensively debated in the early years, but less is known about the motives of public and corporatized operators, many of whom are already active, or eager to engage, in WOPs in the Global South. My research on the Dutch water sector suggests that there are various motivations at play, including staff development and trade-related interests, but more work is needed to understand why operators would want to participate in WOPs as “mentors” and how their motivations impact learning and capacity development in WOPs (the same goes for the motivations of “mentees”). Interesting case studies on the “mentor” side would be corporatized operators like EPM of Colombia and ONEA of Burkina Faso, or the German water sector, which has recently embarked on its own WOP program with partner operators in Jordan, Morocco, Ukraine, and Zambia.

Speaking of “mentors” and “mentees,” it should be noted that the mentor-mentee terminology is still commonly used by WOP practitioners. But it is also important to point out that this terminology, which implies a one-sided learning experience, is not always accurate in practice and can be harmful to feelings of agency and self-worth on the part of “mentees.” Some “mentor” partners, on the other hand, seem to have an interest in maintaining these labels due to the reputational and material advantages that come with the “mentor” status. With operators and donors having their various interests at stake, questions of power should be more openly discussed within the WOP community.

Indicators and measuring results

Second is the issue of indicators and measuring results. Pascual Sanz et al. (2013) already suggested some time ago that so-called Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) – quantitative performance metrics that are commonly used to evaluate the performance of water operators – were not well-suited to determine the success of a WOP. In their view, these indicators tend to overlook smaller achievements and are often blind to the “soft elements of capacity” that can later translate into more tangible gains. My research in Malawi supports this conclusion, showing how a strong fixation on KPIs (in this case, non-revenue water) damaged relationships and stood in the way of fruitful collaboration.

KPIs have been criticized for other reasons as well. McDonald (2016), for instance, raises a number of concerns about benchmarking frameworks for water utilities. One of his main concerns is that existing frameworks tend to neglect public-spirited dimensions of water provision, such as affordability, equity, accountability, and participation. Similarly, Carolini and Raman (2021) point out that, in the water and sanitation sector, “the performance benchmarks used in practice remain skewed by a logic of efficiency in a growing quest to appeal to private investment.” With efficiency being prioritized, they argue that “equity-based distributive measures” are given too little consideration.

The use of efficiency-oriented KPIs is thus problematic in several respects, but these problems and limitations are rarely discussed when donors talk about the need for “proof of concept,” i.e., the need to (quantitatively) demonstrate the effectiveness of WOPs vis-à-vis other forms of technical assistance.

Pro-poor service provision and social equity

Third, and relatedly, more debate is needed on the question of how WOPs impact the poor. Part of the official definition of WOPs foresees that the partnerships should support water and sanitation operators in delivering “a better service to more people, especially the poor.” Pascual-Sanz et al. (2018) indicate that some WOPs (approximately 20 percent) have indeed addressed the issue of water services to low-income households and the poor, but, according to their analysis, operations and maintenance, non-revenue water reduction, and asset management are still the most prominent areas of focus.

Apart from this indication, the pro-poor element of WOPs has not been studied in-depth so far, and it often falls by the wayside in policy circles, where discussions tend to quickly center on upscaling and finance. To what extent are WOPs geared towards pro-poor service provision and the realization of the human rights to water and sanitation? How, if at all, are the water access challenges of the poor addressed and attenuated by these partnerships? If efficiency and financial viability is what counts for water operators in getting access to donor funding or private finance, we can hardly blame them if they foreground these aspects in a WOP (rather than focusing on improving access for the poor). Of course, WOPs should be “demand-driven,” i.e., they should be focused on the needs and priorities that the partners set for themselves. Perhaps what is needed then is a change in incentives, so that progress on social equity is valued and rewarded in the same way as progress on operational and financial performance.

In conclusion, I would like to argue here that a critical discussion on WOPs is still needed. Support for new and existing partnerships, financing and investment, and best practices and lessons learned are important topics to be addressed, but there are other, more political issues – relating to power dynamics, indicators, and pro-poor service provision – that should play a larger role in the current policy debate, including at the upcoming Global WOPs Congress. Considering these issues is vital to make sure that WOPs truly contribute to the goal of safe water and sanitation for all.

Andrea Beck completed her PhD in Sustainable Development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in May 2020. This blog post is based on her dissertation, Water Operator Partnerships: Utility reform and the struggle for alternatives to privatization.

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Source: European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes (EADI), Blog: Debating Development Research, Andrea Beck, 24 August 2021