The Emerging Framework

In many ways this exercise has been like doing a complicated jigsaw puzzle without using the picture on the cover of the box. After months of thinking through the issues around small towns, we may have arrived at some kind of image. We have latched on to a few simple aspects that help us to analyse small town situations. As expected though, the approach still requires further testing and the implications for water supply and sanitation service provision options require further thought.

Our initial goal was to answer the seemingly simple question of what is different about small town water and sanitation service delivery vis-à-vis rural or larger urban settings. As the work progressed though, it became clear that we were building up a way of analysing small towns that strayed quite far from the water and sanitation sectors. In other words, in each of the six countries visited, a majority of the most influential factors with regard to service delivery in small towns seemed to be not directly related to water and sanitation. Our goal was not to bring these factors under the control of water and sanitation professionals but to recognise that without understanding these factors, water and sanitation professionals would get it wrong.

Indeed, whilst recognising the validity of these lines of inquiry and their enabling and disabling impacts on both demand and supply, the team received many quizzical looks when, for example, asking engineers about the impacts of social capital or finance specialists about political decision-making. Whilst some interviewees clearly suggested that our approach took them out of their comfort zone, most saw it as a welcome opportunity to place small town water and sanitation service delivery into a much wider context.

Perhaps obvious in hindsight, some clear ‘Aha!’ moments emerged throughout the process:

  • We quickly recognised that some generic elements would apply to all small towns in a particular country given the macro context. These are defined under areas such as election rules, national regulations and standards, financing criteria, laws and procedures around decentralisation, even to some degree national culture as it shapes attitudes to risk, and solidarity and regional working.
  • Defined criteria should allow us to group certain kinds of small towns together which would take the burden off individualised approaches for each small town. However, each small town has its own particularities and thereby, difficult as this will be, some aspects may require tailored solutions for each specific context.
  • The need to ensure that programmes are not seen by local communities and designed by consultants as a ‘golden opportunity’. Over-designed projects and programmes leave towns financially strapped once the consultants have left. Finances cannot be allowed to dictate the programme but rather that the programme of work is designed around affordability and makes a realistic assessment of future finances available for operations and maintenance, expansion and rehabilitation. Similarly, many of the systems we saw were too complex to be operated by communities but too small to be managed by conventional urban water utilities that could cover their operational costs.
  • With regard to accountability, for a variety of reasons, small towns are either largely ignored or are at the mercy of a wide range of bureaucrats, technocrats and consultants. Support structures must have a longer accountability frame than only until immediately after construction is completed.

The primary learning early on was that the ‘cookie cutter’ approach undertaken in a number of countries ultimately does not meet the current and developing needs of small town populations.

Interests of different stakeholder groups

Throughout the process we have attempted to understand what different stakeholder groups might need from an analytical framework on small town service delivery. The entry points into the topic are bound to be different, as highlighted for some stakeholder groups briefly below.

WaterAid, our initial target, may use the framework to forge new partnerships and to test approaches in arenas that are different from major urban or rural ones. The framework might help international NGOs to make the linkages between their activities and wider shifts in the political economy of small towns.

Donors and international finance institutions are quite focused on meeting the MDGs. Given the focus on targets and beneficiaries reached, there needs to be a cost justification for their investments. The transaction costs are too high to work on tailored solutions in each small town. The emphasis has to be on bigger programmes that either reach more people in urban areas or that cluster towns together. For small towns then, working at scale mandates, for example, the design of a lending programme for tens of towns. Admittedly, the conclusions we have drawn so far about the need to tailor solutions to individual towns or typologies of towns may appear cumbersome and challenging for this stakeholder group. A middle ground is required that supports a menu of options for different groupings of towns.

As for national and local stakeholders, national governments’ roles are often varied and dispersed with regards to small towns. The overarching interest is to be able to prioritise how resources are allocated. The framework below attempts to unpack both the informal and formal influences that shape rule-setting and resource allocation. A useful way of thinking through these informal and formal relationships as they relate to governance issues is from the Institute for Development Studies (IDS) – An upside down view of governance (IDS, 2010). The IDS study points out that ‘instead of viewing informal arrangements as a major part of the governance problem, they could also be part of the solution’.

For local governments, analysing their prospects, trends and gaps more accurately may also help them in the negotiations amongst the business community, local administration and local politicians or even in their negotiations with regional and national government.

The unpredictable dynamic – understanding the internal and external influences on small towns

Some small towns seem to hardly change from one year to the next. Most that we saw, however, are experiencing significant change – either rapid population growth but also, in a few cases, rapid decline. A key factor in our thinking centred around a town’s ability and capacity to manage its changing circumstances and the demands that these circumstances make on service delivery. In many places, growth and change are unpredictable. For example, in much of Nepal, the Maoist movement drove people from the countryside into the small towns at an alarming speed. In the south of Bangladesh, cyclones drove people and economic activity into the small towns of the Sundarbans. Some of this movement is a natural transition to an urbanising economy; much of it though, is less predictable. Such shocks impact small towns disproportionately more than larger urban centres.

In many small towns the challenge is to understand the impacts of these changes and to find the capacity to cope with the new circumstances. Our assumption is that wider analysis around the shifting nature of demand and the factors influencing supply must be used to narrow down the service delivery models that will then narrow down the technologies and the finance options. The order of events and analysis usually appears to be the opposite.

To understand these influences, the research team teased out interlinking elements of demographics, function of the town, and autonomy and decision-making (see Figure 1 below). After much debate, the overarching factor that seemed to define what differentiated small towns from rural or urban agglomerations came back to the dynamic and often intangible notion of what the connections are that a small town has with other rural or urban settlements. For urban centres, these ‘connections’ seem less of a factor as they are more self-reliant with services, have economies of scale that allow for cross-subsidising from service to service or user to user and they have significantly more absorptive capacity to deal with physical shocks, in-migration or other events or trends. For rural settlements, such connections are largely either about physical connectedness (roads to take agricultural produce to market and users to basic services such as education and health) or connections through remittances and other allegiances from rural outmigration. Whilst this connectedness is incredibly important to rural households, our assumption is that these factors do not really influence the demand for or supply of water and sanitation services.

Figure 1: Elements of analysis

Several colleagues also made the parallel between our analysis of small towns with peri-urban areas. Whilst issues of connectedness also certainly apply to peri-urban settlements, these areas cannot so easily be separated from their adjacent urban areas. They are intimately and automatically connected to the infrastructure, economy and employment opportunities of the cities they surround. Similarly, they are intimately connected to both the politics and ambitions or expectations of those populations living in the adjacent cities. With the exception of satellite towns, which can be quite similar to peri-urban settlements, the impacts of these connections on small towns are less predictable. Thus, while we suspect that many of the issues we have flagged in the approach below will be relevant and useful for other types of settlement, the connectivity or connectedness aspect appears to be the most critical determining factor for small towns’ development.

We have unpacked this connectivity along three levels – external, town and household (see Figure 2 below). The three elements are best viewed, as shown in the graphic, from concentric circles starting from the outer circle of external, town and then household level in the inner circle. Across these tiers we overlay three elements of analysis (Figure 1 above) that provide us with the overall analytical framework as represented in Figure 3 below.

Figure 2: Three tiers of connectedness

Figure 3: Combined analytical framework

This can also be represented by the following three-by-three matrix:

Table 2: Analytical framework represented as a matrix

Demographics Economic Drivers Autonomy & Decision-making
External x x x
Town x x x
Household x x x