Published on The Water Blog

How a human rights based approach to water and sanitation improves institutions for the poor

This page in:

In our previous blog, we looked at how water and sanitation came to be recognized as a human right, and what that means in practice. Today, we look at how formal and informal institutional practices influence the realization of the right to water and sanitation, as well as how the World Bank is contributing towards solutions through the WASH Poverty Diagnostic.

The water and sanitation sector includes and relies on a vast array of institutions – from village water committees to urban utilities, health extension workers to ministries of health, and community irrigation associations to river basin offices.  Helping build the capacity of and roles played by these institutions is a critical element of the Human Rights Based Approach (HRBA) to water and sanitation. Formal and informal institutions influence the way in which WASH access-expansion programs are designed, planned, funded, implemented, and monitored. As such, they play fundamental roles in delivering water and sanitation for all.  


A young girl carrying home water from a solar based system built under a UNICEF project which 1350 people benefit from.

Machaze District, Timbe-Timbe. © Tommaso Rada

The recognition of how these formal and informal institutions operate is key to understanding how they interact with other actors, including implementing agencies and end-users. It also means understanding country-specific realities. These can come in the shape of formal institutional practices, such as decentralization policies, political cycles, human resources, and prioritization. They can also come in the shape of informal institutional practices, such as patronage, leadership, social norms, power structures, and inclusion or exclusion of vulnerable groups.  

The importance of institutional practices is one of the reasons why the World Bank has conducted WASH Poverty Diagnostic studies; applying rigorous research methodologies and covering a large number of countries. The findings of this global study suggest that informal and formal institutions of the WASH sector are underperforming, resulting from information asymmetries and a lack of transparency  which frequently make it difficult for citizens to know what they can reasonably expect and demand from service providers and politicians.

These issues are manifested in most countries that were part of the study. Where the sector is unable to expand services at a faster rate than demand growth, country cases reveal a lack of participatory processes in the allocation of expenditures and responsibilities, resulting in poor planning and coordination across different implementing agencies. This results in local governments failing to adequately assign roles and responsibilities for design and implementation of projects. Consequently, it is common to observe sectors with implicit transfers of responsibilities to the local level without a commensurate availability of financial and human resources.

These country-based comprehensive studies hence play an important role as part of a HRBA to quality WASH services, so as to identify precisely the formal and informal institutional bottlenecks. A HRBA places a particular focus on the poor and vulnerable. It provides hands-on guidance for ensuring that we know who the poor are, we acknowledge them as owners of their own development, and we analyze the context to fully understand who is left behind and why. In addition, it helps build capacities of governments to fulfil their human rights obligations. The following lists some concrete ways in which the WASH Poverty Diagnostics support a HRBA to water and sanitation:

  • Diagnosing the current state and trends of access, availability, reliability, acceptability, and affordability issues (standards for each is defined as part of the Right to Water and Sanitation) focused on the bottom 40%, including disaggregation to allow for comparisons between different income and social groups;
  • Producing sector and sub-sector characteristics relevant to contextualize the institutional set up and the barriers to access it may produce, with a focus on the implications for monitoring, accountability, and other relationships between core actors, including the poor and vulnerable groups;
  • Identifying sets of relationships between users, implementing agencies and governments as part of an institutional mapping that identifies the focus on and priorities of citizens, policymakers, and service providers, ensuring active and meaningful participation;
  • Describing the processes necessary to bring HRBA into the institutional arrangements of the sector, that affect different income and social groups– and addressing the potential for multiple users with overlapping or conflicting needs;
  • Listing a wider set of institutional barriers that can account for “slow pace” of WASH access growth;
  • Providing a deep understanding that the bottom 40% are more likely to use informal service providers than the broader population and describe which sort of potential solutions are available in each country to make policies more inclusive to the poorest, and acknowledging that solutions may differ for different income or social groups.
The above points to the democratization of institutions being an essential part of sustainable development, as it facilitates the protection of human rights, promotes informed participation, and enhances public sector accountability. It enables responses to areas where services are neglected or where the infrastructure is in precarious conditions.

The HRBA is a conceptual framework that is based on internationally recognized human rights and is directed to promoting and protecting these rights in practice. It further integrates the norms, standards, and principles of human rights into the plans, policies, and processes of development of the water supply and sanitation sector. Such framework contributes to understand poverty as an injustice imposed on people and includes marginalization, discrimination, and exploitation as its central causes of corrective action.

To sum up, a human rights based approach is an essential tool in any effort to provide access to water and sanitation for the poorest and most disadvantaged.  Through the WASH Poverty Diagnostics, the World Bank has a unique opportunity to take this approach on board, leveraging its comparative advantage in terms of data collection and analysis. Adopting an HRBA requires identifying and analyzing persistent inequalities in the sector that are at the heart of sector’s development problems and requires redressing discriminatory practices and unjust distributions of power that impede universalization of services.


Eva Kloeve

Senior Program Officer in the Nordic Trust Fund Secretariat in the World Bank

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000