Ed note. This is a special guest post from Sarina Prabasi, CEO of WaterAid America.
2.1 billion people around the world lack safe drinking water at home—with 159 million people, most of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa, collecting drinking water directly from surface water sources with risk of contamination. Worse yet, a full 4.5 billion people—more than 60% of the world’s population—lives without a toilet or latrine that protects them human waste. This data was collected in a sobering new UN report, which provides the most accurate, global picture to-date of people’s access to clean water and sanitary toilets. And, for the first time, the report measured access to hygiene. While the data aren’t robust enough yet to create a global estimate, regional evidence shows that a mere 15 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa have facilities at home to wash their hands with soap.
These figures confirm that significant improvement remains before the world’s governments meet their commitment to work together to make water and sanitation available to all by 2030.
The report’s release is especially timely for American policymakers. That’s because the Congress is in the process of deciding how much funding the United States will devote to development assistance next year—including for water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programs. The data also show why it’s so important that Congress maintains support for USAID’s role in administering development assistance that’s focused on areas with the greatest need.
It’s worth briefly establishing context. Last May, when President Trump’s White House released its first budget proposal, the president asked the Congress to make radical changes to U.S. development assistance. He proposed a 29 percent cut to the budgets of USAID and the State Department. And, less reported, he asked Congress to eliminate the Development Assistance account, which USAID administers—the account that funds U.S. support for water and sanitation, among other development priorities. In place of the Development Assistance account, Mr. Trump proposed creating a new entity within the State Department called the Economic Support and Development Fund. This fund would ostensibly take over administration of development assistance from USAID, and at a much-reduced scale.
These are terrible ideas. Scaling back development assistance as President Trump has envisioned would have disastrous, even lethal, consequences for people living on the brink. For example, his proposal would cut water assistance to Nigeria by 80 percent—even while it endures famine that UNICEF says could claim the lives of a half million children. And it would reduce water and sanitation support to Nepal by 99 percent—even while the Nepalese, still in the early stages of recovery from a horrific earthquake, face threats of disease outbreaks as they rebuild critical water and sanitation infrastructure.
Moreover, it would dramatically shift the policy priorities that guide U.S. water and sanitation assistance—to an extent that would potentially flout federal law, in fact. In 2014, Congress unanimously passed the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act to denote the federal division of labor in providing development assistance for safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene programs, as well as to ensure that this support is directed to the poorest of the poor. The law, for example, demonstrates support for the State Department’s diplomatic role in transboundary water issues and related areas. At the same time, it demonstrates support for USAID’s role in providing water taps and toilets to people who have never had them, and in improving sanitation and hygiene to prevent lethal disease outbreaks like cholera and Ebola.
This law aimed to correct an imbalance that emerged after the State Department’s diplomatic objectives were found to be disproportionately influencing the direction of U.S. water and sanitation assistance—meaning that much of it was going to a small number of countries that were strategically important yet demonstrated questionable need for development assistance. For example, in fiscal year 2012, the State Department reported providing approximately $140 million for water and sanitation in only four countries, all of which had between 50 and 90 percent access to safe drinking water. By contrast, USAID’s Development Assistance account provided $107 million to 23 countries with the poorest access to water and sanitation in the world. If enacted as envisioned, the president’s budget proposal now making its way through Congress would likely take us back in this direction.
Fortunately, last week members of the Appropriations Committee in the House of Representatives—the committee that approves funding levels, on which the full House must then vote—began taking steps to reject at least some of the most misguided aspects of the president’s proposal. They declined to eliminate the Development Assistance account. Instead of agreeing to dramatically cut WASH programs, they proposed sustaining last year’s funding at $400 million. And they retained support for other core functions that are co-dependent on WASH, such as basic education. As the broader Congress now weighs in, they should look for further opportunities to strengthen America’s development assistance.
To be sure, it’s not America’s responsibility to provide clean water and sanitation to every person on earth. But the reality is that 892 million people today, living without sanitary toilets at home, are left with no choice but to defecate in the open. Such conditions are not only inhumane; they contribute to national instability and social unrest—conditions that are in America’s interest to help mitigate.
While challenges remain, we are achieving unprecedented progress toward eliminating extreme poverty in the world—and America has played a leading role. If we step back now, it will lead to loss of life and will undermine U.S. leadership abroad. As it continues to shape next year’s federal budget, Congress should ensure robust funding for development assistance. And it must protect USAID’s vital role in administering it.