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Featured Content: June 01, 2003
G8 Online Interview with Stephen Turner, Deputy Director, WaterAid
Interview conducted by Daniella Aburto and Sheri Watson of the G8 Research Group, University of Toronto.
G8 Summit Media Centre, Publier France
D: Can you perhaps tell us more about your organization?
T: I'm Stephen Turner, I'm deputy director of WaterAid. We're an international non-governmental organization based in the UK, supporting local partners in Africa and Asia on water supply and sanitation improvement. Essentially what we look to do is fill the cusp of local partners so that they will work with communities on self-help with their schemes, looking at low-cost projects, projects that <unclear> themselves and abroad. The typical actions are rain-water collection as well as improvements in sanitation. We use this experience, then, to talk and lobby governments and international donors on different solutions to the ones that they necessarily have chosen.
D: Great. And in terms of your presence at the G8 Summit, is there anything that should, well, anything that in the accomplishments of the G8 that would meet the demand on <unclear> in water.
T: Well following on from 2, 3 years of work leading up to the Johannesburg Summit last year, when water and sanitation were reaffirmed as a fundamental part of the poverty agenda, we were particularly looking that sanitation was included there because most of the health benefits come from combining water and sanitation. If we just look at water, we don't necessarily achieve the health benefits that are so essential within that poverty agenda. And we're following through the pledges and commitments that were made in the North to increase development assistance to water sanitation, and in the South to national governments health prioritizing water sanitation.
D: And in your process of your actual action in terms of lobbying government or overarching international architecture, what's the interaction of the NGO towards this, and having access to it?
T: Well, I mean, we've been able to work quite closely with the UK government and some other governments on recognizing the fundamental nature of water and sanitation in that poverty agenda. So we've brought a perspective that governments themselves often can't achieve, which is, through our partners, the voice of the people is heard. Unfortunately, when international forum are put together, they often need to reduce things to the simplest form of understanding, and that's large-scale, macro-financing, macro issues. If I can give you an example of how the international community reduces an argument, water resource management is often viewed as the conflict between countries over river basins, so there's going to be conflict on the river Jordan between Israel and Palestine, there's going to be conflict over the Nile between Egypt and the Sudan and Ethiopia, and what we say is actually, the real conflict happening on a day-to-day basis is in the valleys where the farmers are taking too much water out of the aquifers and people don't have access to drinking water or the tannery is putting in effluons into the drinking water scheme systems and polluting that that ordinary people have to draw. Real conflict and real issues are down with the people, not in these macro-political agendas, and we want to make sure that governance thinks also from that perspective, you know the build-up action, rather than just taking the global macro-view on things.
D: And in taking that approach, the understanding is important and the complexity that you're bringing, um, what would be another party approach between the G8 and the civil society <unclear>, how can they . . .
T: One area would be, uh, just the arguments made around how much money is needed in order for the world to have access to water and sanitation, everyone to have a minimum amount, sometimes you see massive global figures, I think one figure floating is an extra 180 billion dollars a year, but that makes some assumptions around what level of service, what standards that you're going to work for, which are not affordable for the water resource industry <unclear> and that it's out of reach of the ordinary people to afford to entertain and manage that system, it's totally unsustainable, but it might be viewed that by making it a very big issue you require big solutions to come about. The simplistic interpretation, you know, the big solutions are we need to have a lot more dams or we need a lot more tight network systems in the cities, and the organization, you know, the agencies capable of doing that, the international countries, the international organizations, are almost setting a standard that's very high, you drive a solution that includes, for example, bringing in the private sector. We were saying, you know, those standards are not going to be applicable as the first stage of improvement of water sanitation. It's a gradual step-by-step approach, you know, that standards have to be driven by the people themselves, you know, and if you actually do it on that basis, our estimate is that you're probably looking at 30 million, 30 billion dollars a year. That becomes a much more, in people's minds, manageable, after all we spend 11 billion dollars a year on ice cream, so you know, spending, you know, foregoing 3 times as much ice cream as we currently consume for one year would be sufficient for the water target. So, you know, it's actually quite manageable when said like that. And it's based on the premise that people themselves will be in charge of those developments, and we will be using the international private sector sparingly, it will have a role, but it will be a limited role, and it won't be the all-embracing role that sometimes has been promoted for them.
D: And what's the role of the leaders then?
T: The role of the leaders really is to be much more representative of people's voice, and I think they don't hear that when they come into these forums. And I don't know if these forums are ever going to be able to achieve that. Now I'm here, not as an NGO, I'm here as media, I couldn't come here and sit in on t his meeting and talk to other media people to get the message across without actually being registered media, so that's a real disadvantage. We don't see the missed event of an opportunity to debate and discuss with government and that should have happened already. Governments when they come here are beyond access in that sense, there are, <unclear> have been lobbying steadily with them over the last 3 years on these issues, a bit of lobbying in particular on what the outcomes of this discussion should be, but I've got <unclear> trying to make sure the media see our message and can use it and can actually put it into a story that balances between governments saying, no we have a master plan, a blueprint, and we're saying perhaps the world doesn't work through blueprints like that, doesn't work, you can't just do a single network and through that network everyone will get water, it's much more complex than that.
D: Ok sure, in terms of Africa, the G8 has given a strong momentum to Africa plans and actions, and water is certainly an issue in the Africa plan, in, I mean, do you see that these forums have increased the awareness of the water issue in that continent and have brought about, maybe, promises on how it could be resolved.
T: Promises that, yes I agree, promises are there. What we're short of are specifics and action. I mean, you've got to remember, we've been going through targets and discussions, you know there was an International Year of Freshwater, an International Decade of Freshwater, set in 1980, and that was a UN discussion in 1977 that led to a decade, then we have the Rio Conference in 1992, Agenda 21 talked about water for all, so, you know, it's not that we don't know water's important, it seems very strange and I don't know what the issues are here - why, when governments, when they go and talk to their people in a participatory manner, will that <unclear> strategies, and we know this from experience. In countries like Tanzania, or <unclear> or Zambia water will feature very very highly on the agenda of the people when they're asked, what are your priorities, it's always within the top three. When governments then, take that information and take other information together, water slips down the agenda, so that the amount of money that national governments allocate doesn't represent the voice that the people have made saying, yes, this is one of our most pressing issues. I think we have to understand why governments aren't reflecting their countries' own needs. There may be a number of different reasons, I think that a perplexing and complex one that needs to be tackled. To the extent that the international community can all agree that water's important, it gives strength to the national governments to pilot that.
D: In terms of perhaps, what's happening outside the summit, as a forum, I mean, we're seeing the surrounding, in Annemasse, do you think, in that way, the G8's an opportunity for civil society to engage and create networks, as a magnet bringing them to it . . .
T: I wonder whether the G8 has become so big now that it's lost . . . that opportunity is gone. I think that for the Jubilee, campaign for debt write-off, that the ringing of the Birmingham conference center in 1998 supported the debt relief in being able to impress upon the leaders that this is what their own citizens wanted to see, you know, northern governments do, it was very very powerful. I don't think that the negative campaign, the oppositional aspect pre-recent summits which has resulted in larger and larger exclusions, larger and larger rings, fencing, steel fencing as they're going to increase dialogue. So I think G8 itself has become overblown and become greater than expectations can deliver the first concept of it. Maybe some of its time has gone, it was very useful at a certain point, it's now become very difficult to manage. But I think there's that reflection. I think also, I think the governments are only people, well they're all men, yes they are men, you know, as leaders are important, but somehow, just by having 8 individuals in a room talking about the issues of the world and somehow coming to some agreement suggests that we're being led by this process where as in fact maybe they should be representing them and I think some of that, ah, big powerful people aspect is, may have got negative overtones now rather than being a useful way of dialogue. After all, what was the press conference they had this morning, you know, President Bush is going to see 8 or 9 people with half hour interviews, what difference can be done in a half-hour interview one after another. You wonder whether has it lost its, has it had its time.
D: So, I mean, how can people I guess, involving discussion with civil society, how can civil society, how do you see mediation in general from the G8 actions to <unclear> . .
T: Well I think, as opposed to the UK government which is the only <unclear> I have, um, the government could do a lot more in its' preparation for the summit, talking to society and they have talked with some parts of civil society, it's been an exclusive group and I think it's tended to focus on those that already have access and not broadened it. But I think summits like this are a culmination of a lot of other things and I think the civil society engagement in those preparations has been broadened up rather than attendance at the summit itself. After all, leaders would tend not to come to a summit if they knew exactly what they were going to sign up to. So I think the work is before we get there, I think that's where civil society should be arguing stronger with their national governments to get engaged, civil societies across the G8 countries talking to each other to actually understand what the different G8 leaders are talking about so there's a stronger movement amongst civil society of the G8.
D: And is that happening at the meetings . . .
T: There are networks, I don't think they're necessarily focused on the G8, there are good networks that are established, and they're certainly in the water sector that wouldn't have been there 5 years ago.
D: Ok, talking about water, I mean, in terms of your analyses, I mean, should we proceed that way . . .
S: Sure, I noticed with your report card here that you address every country in the G8, and I was wondering what you thought of the EU's work with different water initiatives, specifically the one they're sure to be talking about here at the Summit with the 1 billion fund for water.
T: The EU water initiative was launched at the Johannesburg Summit and has a stakeholder approach, and so that they have within the, a stakeholder forum that meets every two or three months, and I'm actually part of that forum. So I think that the idea that civil society's actually engaging in initiatives created through that mechanism, so, some progress there. We're quite concerned about this billion euros that's being proposed. First of all, it's not new money, it's money that has already been allocated, transferred to Brussels by member states, so, if Britain allocates 25% of its budget to the EU some of that million euro has come from that allocation. So when Britain said it's spent 0.3% of GNP on aid, that 0.3% includes its' transfers to Brussels. So when the EU announces it's going to launch a new fund with a billion euro, let's not count it twice, Britain's already counted it as aid spending. We have a problem, in that the money hasn't been spent, and I understand that Brussels and the European Union has something like 12 billion euro of unspent aid money, which says why, if they haven't spent money in the past will they be good at spending it in the future. So if it's unspent in the past, what are the problems, should it be more of the same. So we're a bit concerned that it's actually not new money, and it's also, well you have to understand why it's not been spent in the past if we're going to say it's a useful vehicle to spend in the future.
S: So you think there's a lot of potential then, for any future accountability to be established to address this any better? To generate new money?
T: The European Union is a really complex bureaucracy, and I think there is three elements that compete, there's the interest of member states, so 15 member states grown to 25 member states, who all have their own agendas; the Commission itself has its' own agenda, and then the national governments do as well. And each of those issues is actually an administrative charge, so in a way we allocated a billion euros on water, and a billion euros won't get spent on water, but a high percentage, and I think the actual figure is 35% might get spent on administrators and taken out of that billion. And it's because it's this complex bureaucratic structure, so the question asked is the efficiency of European aid. The second question is the idea of a global health fund and now there's the idea of this water fund. We're keen to see that in Africa governments don't have this plethora of funds, that they've got to apply for funding from, and be accountable to these funds. We want to see that governments have the resources, for them to meet the obligations that they've set themselves, in their own policy structures. So lots and lots of different funds, in a sense undermines the ability of governments themselves, to take control and be responsible. So we're cautious again, about setting up independent and separate finance funds, whereas a lot of pressure in <unclear> assistance in southern Africa is to channel money into budget support, so national governments can make those decisions.
S: Would you place any merit, with water being such a big issue at the summit this year, it seems likely that non-EU member governments will be invited to make similar pledges and donations . . do you see, without the complex EU bureaucracy, there being a greater prospect for success with that?
T: Hopefully there will be, because the need, the issues, and the amount of money on the table don't match up, the more that countries can pledge the better. This isn't just a northern aid issue, it's about countries in the south committing and pledging in their own expenditures, so it's not an issue that's resolved by aid. It's an issue where aid can be a leader as well as a support to initiatives. So, you know, we're talking about setting up a fund, you know, a billion euros equals about 6 months worth of work if we're going to meet Millennium Development Goals. You know it's not a fund of a billion, it's a commitment to increasing on a sustained regular basis both aid money and national southern governments expenditure. You know, the fund itself, sort of gives everyone the satisfaction, you know, oh we've put a big fund together, actually, it's not sustainable, you've got to keep doing that. That's why we call at WaterAid to see the percentage of expenditure rate on a regular basis, rather than these sort of. . gimmicks at conferences to say we've signed something up.
S: Then your target in attending the summit this year, would be, sort of to harness the power of the media, to educate and garner support for your work as opposed to, I guess, encouraging the leaders and delegations to . . .
T: Yes, yes, we, attendance here is about talking about why water and sanitation should continue to be high on the agenda this year, uh . . talking with governments but not expecting any policy changes in governments, it's a media opportunity that we're following on the media opportunities and relationship that we've developed over the last few months. . .we had articles in the Independent on Saturday and in the Observer today, so we see a regular feed-through of material that the media picked up, and we'll continue to press on that arena.
D: And it seems to me like we have forgotten to check with you, why water is important . . .
T: Ok. Well water and sanitation are part of the Millennium goals, and I wouldn't want to undermine them and say results aren't important, but the thing about the health goals or the education goals, you aren't actually going to achieve that unless water and sanitation are also a part of that. So there's seems to be as part of the Millennium goals, cross-cutting issue that needs to be addressed - you know you don't get girl children in school unless they stop collecting water, you don't get girl children in school unless you have proper water and sanitation in the schools themselves - that's just documented irrefutable research that proves that if you do have good water and sanitation you get better results in literacy, you get better teachers going to schools, the schools get better attendance records, all of those things. So water and sanitation is one of those fundamental aspects that underplay things. You know, you think about the local health fund and the really important push on HIV/Aids awareness and funding and those issues - you know if you don't have a clean healthy environment, you know, you dispose of feces and you have good sanitation, and good latrines, compromised immune systems are going to be attacked. So water and sanitation can play an important part in health, in education, and HIV/Aids management, and fundamentally, you know, you won't get to those poverty targets without water and sanitation.
D: Is there anything else that we should add to this interview, any perspectives . . .
T: No, I think you've been very comprehensive.
D: Ok well you have been great, thank you so much, thank you.
T: My pleasure.
D: And it's great that you're here.
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