The latest World Development Report focuses on Digital Dividends. This is a timely topic in the water sector, where information and communication technologies (ICTs) are seen to have a great potential to help improve the reliability and sustainability of water supply services. But have past ICT initiatives in the sector walked the walk? Our findings, published in the latest IDS Bulletin on Opening Governance provide some answers.
In line with other contributors to this Bulletin, we find that ICTs can provide technical solutions to support solving a policy problem when there is political will or a commitment from the private sector to address it. For example, Nairobi Water introduced a mobile phone app called Maji Voice where citizens can log and receive updates on complaints they have made. Closure of complaint rates has increased steadily since its introduction in 2013 and indications from interviews are that complaints are addressed at a quicker rate than they were raised.
Our findings also echo the wider conclusions from the IDS Bulletin’s introduction that, for ICT initiatives to increase accountability to citizens, feed-back loops need to be closed. By this we mean that government or private sector responsiveness needs to be built into the system. A good example for this is the concept of the Smart Handpump Initiative highlighted by Robert Hope in his recent blog on the potential contribution of mobile monitoring to water security. The key difference between this initiative and other rural water supply crowd-sourcing initiatives that we examined as part our research project is that the use of ICTs does not stop short at reporting hand pump break downs. The initiative includes a responsive operation and maintenance service that relies on pooled financial contributions from a number of communities. Under this model, the ICT reporting system is directly linked to a performance-based operation and maintenance contract to ensure rapid hand pump maintenance.
In line with the findings of the World Development Report, we conclude that ICTs are not a magic bullet to enhancing social accountability. Rather, any ICT initiative aimed at improving services for citizens needs to have a design that is built on a responsive service delivery model. In the water sector, we still need to continue to work on overcoming the governance stalemate embedded in the sector’s outdated ‘community-based management’ model. Having done this, ICTs can provide technical solutions to help improving rapid response to breakdowns, easing payment, informing citizens of water quality issues and in many other ways.
Katharina Welle, January 2016