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In the context of more than 1 billion people lacking access to safe drinking water and 2.4 billion people lacking basic sanitation facilities, the Department for International Development’s (DFID’s) projects to improve access to water and sanitation in developing countries have been largely successful, the National Audit Office reports today.

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Between 1997 and 2002 DFID has completed 193 dedicated water and sanitation projects. The Report shows that individual projects have led to beneficial changes in developing countries.  Where information was available, three quarters of projects completely or largely achieved what they had intended.  However, there is often not enough evidence to determine the extent to which improvements have been sustained.

The most common problems which the NAO found were that insufficient attention had been paid to operation and maintenance issues in individual projects, a lack of local capacity in developing countries and an inadequate understanding of local circumstances when designing projects.  Although sustainability represents a difficult issue for all donors, Sir John Bourn, Head of the National Audit Office, recommends that DFID develop further its approach to project evaluation to provide better information and identify those factors which lead to a lasting beneficial impact.

In 2001-02 DFID disbursed £290 million, nearly one fifth of its bilateral aid programme, through budget support.  This involves the disbursement of aid directly into the national budgets of partner governments to support the host government in its implementation of an agreed poverty reduction strategy.  There are potential benefits but also a different set of risks.  DFID has taken a leading international role in addressing the financial risks and is implementing a range of measures to provide assurance that funds are being used for the intended purpose of poverty reduction. Sir John points out that there remain a number of challenges to achieving the desired outcomes.  In particular, there is scope for DFID to work closely with other donors to improve the capacity of partner governments to deliver the necessary service improvements.

DFID has to balance what it spends in the water sector against the demand for resources from other sectors, such as health and education.  Compared to some other sectors, DFID’s bilateral assistance to the water sector in developing countries is relatively modest.  In 2001-02 DFID spent £87 million on water resources, water supply and sanitation components in 691 ongoing projects covering all sectors. DFID’s expenditure has been broadly constant over the last three years but new commitments to the sector have fallen from a peak in 1999/2000, particularly in Africa, largely due to the use of new aid instruments.  DFID’s water expenditure is significantly less than some other donors and there are few substantive country water programmes.

Internationally, DFID plays a highly influential role within the international development community in raising the profile of water and sanitation issues. For example, it pushed successfully for the adoption at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 of the target to halve by 2015 the proportion of people without access to adequate sanitation facilities.

"The achievement of the targets to improve access to water and sanitation remains a huge task. It is clearly important that DFID makes an effective contribution to addressing global water needs. At the international, national and local levels, DFID can point to success in its work in the water sector and new initiatives to improve its performance. The aim of my report is to assist the Department in make sure that its assistance has a great and lasting impact."

Sir John Bourn


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