An ongoing conversation: support versus subsidies for the most vulnerable

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In the era of SDGs it is clear that there are no more easy wins and there is a need to move beyond the low hanging fruit. Sustainability studies show that slippage and poorly built or dirty latrines are most likely with the poor or most vulnerable in communities. There is clearly a need to make sure these groups are not slipping through the cracks. With many challenges around the issues of caste, gender, institutions, it is not enough to assume that intercommunity support is automatically given to those who need it the most.

I attended a thought provoking side session at World Water Week, where Jamie Myers (CLTS Knowledge Hub, Institute of Development Studies(IDS)) and Michael Gnilo (UNICEF) presented the discussions from the workshop ‘Supporting the Least Able’ which was co-convened by UNICEF and IDS in the Philippines in May 2017.  We learnt that workshop participants discussed the issue of how to provide support to those least able to help themselves, provocatively using the term subsidies in the title for this World Water Week session to generate further discussion and debate.

The earlier workshop in Manila looked at how to strengthen the CLTS process by introducing support mechanisms, the identification and targeting of those most in need, clarifying sequencing, roles and responsibilities of different actors and here at Stockholm we heard the emerging principles which followed from these conversations. There is still an issue around appropriate terminology, specifically regarding the definition of the most vulnerable, the least able and the terms “support” or “subsidy” and their connotations.

This session I attended in Stockholm provided an opportunity for further reflections on the workshop report and the issues it raises.

During the panel discussion with Mr Arun Baroka, Indian Joint Secretary, Professor Juliet Willets, University of Technology, Sydney and Dr Andres Hueso, WaterAid, both Mr Baroka and Professor Willets reinforced the assertion that the term “least able” has negative connotations. However, the consensus from the panel discussion and also from the group feedback indicated that finding a suitable term would not be easily resolved.

Mr Baroka advised that the Indian National Guidelines (2015) incorporate the need to consider the most vulnerable, emphasising women’s and transgender issues.  He explained that basic principles are clearly defined but that there is flexibility for each state to adapt their approach based on the individual state’s experience. With this flexibility in the implementation, there has been a positive outcome with the linking of incentives to innovations.

Juliet Willet reflected that while the guiding principles presented address the tension between quality and scale, in practise it is more complex, with issues of resources and time and a need for recognition of nuances. It is important to have a better understanding of who the groups are that need to be reached, their needs and the barriers to meeting these, providing them with a voice – only then can we recognise the way to address these needs. She also stressed that there it is important to consider gender issues and recommended that women, along with children, should be recognised as key actors in behaviour change, and should be included in discussions.

Andres Hueso reflected that programmes have moved quite quickly from a position of being heavily subsidised to zero subsidy, it feels that the process went a step too far and it is clear that not everyone is captured by CLTS. With the CLTS Knowledge Hub and UNICEF reflecting on the issue, this is a good opportunity to regain and maintain some equilibrium while remembering the importance of not stepping too far backwards.

Andres felt comfortable with the use of the broader term of “support”. However he highlighted that there is a risk that the use of subsidies takes the focus away from behaviour change, and also that they do not necessarily reach the right people. It is important to be conscious of the risk that external support will miss the vulnerable in the verification process, and to further explore the area of equity checks. By sampling households, using Google maps to identify the hard to reach areas, and mapping those on the outskirts of communities who are often missed out.

The groups fed back from discussions that a movement should be created, with the government as the duty bearer responsible for leading it, but that it should be laterally diffused and adopted by all stakeholders – sanitation is everyone’s business. Government presence is needed but it should be the community leaders taking this forward, ensuring that people have easy access to materials, without having to travel long distances to access them and that it reaches the poor and marginalised. It was recommended that governments should work with specific groups i.e. women’s groups to make sure that no-one is left behind, utilising local groups such as community theatre to communicate key messages. Health agents who understand communities can also bridge the gap between the community and the government. Money should be provided directly to the community who can then invest this in the right places, with the community making the decisions and identifying who should receive any support. The question of climate change issues and whether more needs to be invested in latrines in areas of flooding, as well as the additional pressure this may add to communities, should be taken into consideration.

The issue of subsidy versus no-subsidy in relation to CLTS is a discussion of the past; in order to reach those who are being left behind it is now important to be more open-minded in terms of providing support, how it can be provided and to whom. There should be more emphasis on identifying appropriate incentives, developing existing experiences and government systems rather than building new ones, i.e. subsidies on interest rates, voucher systems. The example of Ghana was cited where, having used previously used subsidies, their removal resulted in a backslide in ODF statistics. UNICEF is currently sponsoring research into better understanding the reasons behind this.

It is clear that there are issues here of equity, inclusion and sustainability and it is important to consider who is missing, who is not seen, who is stigmatised, who is on the periphery of society. If we are not actively looking to include these individuals and groups, they are likely to be missed.

The questions that arose during this session at Stockholm highlighted to me and many others present the need for clarity and also recognition that one size does not fit all, what works for one country or environment cannot necessarily be directly be replicated in another. With the need to reflect on these concerns as well as the contrasting, often strong, views on the subject of subsidies or support in the context of CLTS, it is evident that this in an ongoing conversation.

Stacey Townsend is a Programme Officer with the CLTS Knowledge Hub at IDS.

Date: 12 September 2017