Are you being served? The gap between effective and nominal access to infrastructure services


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 Sumila Gulyani / World Bank
Amina and her family in Dakar, Senegal have a metered private water tap in their yard,
but they don’t use it. (Photo: Sumila Gulyani / World Bank)

Amina and her family had recently moved to their new house on the outskirts of Dakar, Senegal. It was built by the government to relocate families from low-lying and flood-prone neighborhoods in the city. The house was small for her extended family of ten, but it was water that she worried about. I was puzzled. Usually people complain that water connection costs are too high, but she received that connection for free—the meter and tap were right there in her front yard. Why did she worry?

“We locked the tap.  The water bills are too high. We can’t use this water…,” she said.  

It was 2008 and Amina was not alone. Research in poorer neighborhoods of Dakar found scores of households who had benefitted from the subsidized water connections policy in Dakar but did not rely on this supply. It was too expensive. Rather, they often relied on community water taps and “wells”—even though they knew that this water was not usually safe for drinking. When used for bathing, it sometimes caused skin eruptions.

For us, these findings put a dampener on the government’s success in rolling out subsidized water connections and reaching an otherwise enviable water connection rate of 84% in poor neighborhoods.   

Amina’s story brings home a simple fact: it is not sufficient to have a service in your house, your yard, or your street.  The service needs to work and you should be able to use it. If you can’t afford it or if features—such as design, location, or quality—prevent its use, you are not benefiting from that service. Yet, from national censuses to household surveys, most data tend to record only nominal access, that is, whether or not a household is connected to a service. 

Measuring effective access

To correct this gap, we propose the concept of “effective access” and distinguish it from “nominal access.”  We start with relatively standard indicators of nominal access—those that show whether or not a service exists. Then we modify the indicator to incorporate whether the service works and is used.

We tested this concept as part of a specially commissioned survey of 14,200 households, conducted in 2012-2013, in 15 cities in Kenya.

We asked: “Are you (really) being served?”

We used the following indicators from the survey to define whether or not a household had effective access to key infrastructure:
  • Electricity connection and used as primary source for lighting
  • Piped water connection in the home or yard and used as primary source
  • Private toilet or one shared with less than 20 people
  • Organized garbage collection and trash is collected at least weekly
  • Street lights exist and they work most of the time
  • Public sewer, or septic tank or soak pit that is emptied when full
  • Access road is surfaced and in good condition (at least) during the dry season.
The results for these seven types of services are illustrated in an "Infrastructure Polygon" (Figure 1), which shows relative performance across sectors and the “gap” between nominal and effective access. The ultimate goal would be universal access to all of these basic services—that is, a 100 percent score, resulting in a fully shaded polygon.
 World Bank
Figure 1: In urban Kenya, nominal infrastructure access is low and effective access is even lower—either because the service does not work, is unaffordable, or has features that deter its use. (Source: World Bank)
Our results?
  • First, these Kenyan cities fall far short of delivering universal access to basic infrastructure. But some sectors do better than others. The polygon shows, for instance, that effective access rates are highest for electricity (75%) and lowest for street lights (32%). In Kenyan cities, then, the houses have light but the streets are dark.
  • Second, the polygon reveals that for most services there is a large gap—4-19 percentage points—between nominal and effective access, and effort is required to close the gap.
The case of the street lights is illuminating. Although 46% of households reported that there were public street lights in their neighborhood, only 32% said the lights worked most of the time. Instead of having just a third of their city illuminated, Kenyans could have almost half their streets lit—and potentially safer—with a small amount of additional effort on maintenance (e.g. fixing broken lights and ensuring electricity supply). This is low-hanging fruit given that electricity lines already exist and, by installing light poles or masts, these cities have already spent a bulk of the money needed.
  Similarly, for water, we found a 17 percentage-point gap between effective and nominal access. 74% of households had a piped water tap—private or shared—in their home or yard. But only 57% said that it worked and was their primary water source. So, 17% of households “appeared” to have access but were not being adequately served. These households continue to use potentially unsafe water sources. Here, a next step would be to find out exactly why these households are not relying on piped water and see what tailored interventions might be needed.

This research shows that there can be a big difference between being connected and being served.  It is crucial to both measure the gap and find ways to close it.

We would welcome your thoughts on this framework. Is it useful? Would you suggest different indicators for measuring effective access?


Sumila Gulyani

Program Leader, Infrastucture and Sustainable Development, India, World Bank

Join the Conversation

Ed Bourque
September 08, 2016

This is an excellent blog post.
Use and reliability are critical things to know.
This makes me think of my time researching water access in the informal settlements of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
There are tons of completely non-functional household connections /yard tap stands that have been neglected for decades, brand new water utility-connected kiosks that weren't even turned on for months -and years (because of management squabbles), and electricity rationing/outages that makes pulling up water from deep boreholes impossible.
Finding ways of getting any of these issues resolved? Even after these sorts of things are identified, getting them fixed is nearly impossible.
I'd love to see your team's recent publications on these service delivery issues.
Ed Bourque
WASH Consultant

Sumila Gulyani
September 11, 2016

Finding solutions to fix things and close the gap between nominal and effective access is not easy, as you rightly note.  But is critical to do so, and we can’t give up on that.  If governments start to consistently count “use” and “results” (ie effective access) rather than connections or investments, it would push utilities and service providers in the right direction.  It is a colossal waste to spend on expensive infrastructure and then not ensure that it delivers.  Our publications will be ready soon and will be hyper-linked to this blog.  Many thanks for your interest and excellent comments!

September 09, 2016

On street lighting and the service gap there: You focus on maintenance of broken lights and maintenance of the electric supply. What about switching those street lights to solar power and in this way resolving the power gap problem entirely, efficiently, efectively and by using an enviromentally friendly approach?

Sumila Gulyani
September 11, 2016

Solar panels and lights are certainly one way to fix street lights that are not working.  But these will also need to be installed and maintained.  The precise solution will depend on the context, and on a good diagnosis of why exactly that system is not delivering effective access.  Many thanks for your thoughtful comment!

Daniel Bungey
September 10, 2016

Enlightening Information.
The information is quite enlightening indeed.It clearly shows that the nexus between Electricity,Water & Sanitation is very narrow and therefore presents an opportunity for both the public and private policy makers in Kenya to explore ways of bridging the existing gaps towards the improving the quality of life for the people.

Sumila Gulyani
September 11, 2016

Both the public and private sector can contribute to closing the gap and improving service delivery.  We fully agree with you on that.  Many thanks for your comment!

jacqueline Klopp
September 10, 2016

Great work- it makes much sense to be sure people can actually access a service and to understand how they do this or not and what then the specific barriers to access are. I was surprised that transportation was not included on the list of critical services-why is this? Seems really important. Access roads are critical but so is affordable transportation for accessing opportunities, jobs and other services on these roads. The question of maintaining infrastructure is critical-a lot of services (like roads) end up being very expensive in the long run since poorly run down infrastructure will need to be replaced at a high cost if not maintained. This brings us back to institutional strengthening and accountability for functional urban service delivery.
Excellent work-look forward to more!

Sumila Gulyani
September 11, 2016

Effective access to public transport is, indeed, very important and is part of the study.  These results will be included in forthcoming papers.  We fully agree that operations and maintenance is crucial and that this in turn requires institutional strengthening and stronger accountability mechanisms.  Gathering data on effective access is, we propose, a better way to measure performance and enhance accountability.  Many thanks for finding this work interesting and for your excellent comments!

Jordan Schwartz
September 15, 2016

Powerful and pointed research, Sumila. This will become an important contribution to the literature and public debate about investment gap versus a service gap. Did the surveys collect data on prices and other demographic information, such as income? The regression possibilities are enormous. Let me know how the Singapore Hub can help roll this out in East Asia and the Pacific.

Sumila Gulyani
September 15, 2016

Data on household expenditures -- on these services and overall -- are indeed available.  We also have data on household income; these are always a bit suspect, but we are examining it.  As a next step, we will show "quality-adjusted" access (which is even lower than effective access).  We fully agree that there we can run some very useful regressions on this.  We would be very interested in discussing, with you, both additional analyses (regressions) and application of this in East Asia.  Many thanks for being interested in this work and for your excellent suggestions!   

Brenton Peterson
September 22, 2016

Really interesting blog post. I do research on the political and social consequences of public service delivery in Kenya. I'd love to see your report when it is finished. Is there a way I can get in touch with you (or the other authors) when a draft is ready?
Brenton Peterson

Sumila Gulyani
September 23, 2016

The working paper will be ready shortly and we will provide a link to it on the blog.  We can also email it to you.  It would be very interesting to see how you might examine the social and political consequences of the service delivery data that we are reporting.  Thanks for reading and for your interest!    

Lusungu Kayani
September 27, 2016

Great post!
Were the surveys geocoded, will we be able to see the distribution of "access" on a map in the final report? Also, how much did the surveys take informal service delivery into account? I'm thinking about waste collection. Many thanks

Kiran Rajashekariah
February 11, 2018

A very useful tool to not only assess the quality and quantity of public services, provided but can also serve as a good tool to fix accountability of service provider. If the methodology could further carry out granular analysis, it would help understand the spatial, social-economic class that are served/under-served public services and the reasons for the variation in effective and nominal access and recommend reforms for translating nominal access to effective access