Building the capacity of local government to improve local water and sanitation service provision in Cambodia

By Virak Chan, IWCAN

In an interview, I described the role of decentralization reforms in achieving capacity building objectives to deliver improved rural water and sanitation services through local government.

This article reflects on the pilot ‘functional transfer model’ of decentralization that was trialled by the World Bank in Cambodia. The Cambodian government is committed to decentralisation with the goal of being able to achieve more responsive, accountable, and efficient government services and to support the achievement of goals across multiple sectors including water and sanitation. Decentralisation will be a long process. However, the decision to commit to the decentralisation of institutional responsibilities, from national to the local level, needs to be recognised as a big step forward.

This article also examines how this process may be made more effective.

At the national level, responsibility for rural sanitation and hygiene promotion lies with the Ministry of Rural Development through the Department of Rural Health Care. The Department has limited human and financial resources and as a consequence faces implementation capacity challenges. As a result, sanitation and hygiene improvement activities are largely confined to externally-funded projects supported by international development agencies.

The Cambodian government has committed to the decentralisation agenda including rural water supply and sanitation, as one of the first functions, being transferred to District and Commune authorities (local government in Cambodia). This demonstrates a commitment to addressing this issue by leveraging local government more effectively.

Sanitation and hygiene behaviour change communication training and community activities in Cambodia (Source: The World Bank Water and Sanitation Program)

Capacity development is key for the implementation of decentralized rural sanitation

An improvement in the professional capacity of district and commune personnel is fundamental to the successful devolvement of rural sanitation functions to local people.

Five key competencies (Worsham, Powell & Chan, 2017) have been identified as necessary to improve the capacity of local government including:

  • technical skills,
  • management of available resources,
  • co-ordination of people,
  • budgeting and planning, and
  • monitoring.

The World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program provided technical assistance during a pilot program of its decentralization program in 10 districts in Cambodia to test a functional transfer model through a capacity building program focused on improving the skills of district and commune cadre in these key competencies.

However, capacity building programs need more than just training to be effective. Interaction between local governments from different regions of Cambodia was also included in the approach so that horizontal learning could occur and district and commune cadre could share best practices and experiences.

In addition, training in behaviour change communication and community-led total sanitation was conducted for local officials with the participation of Commune Committee for Women and Children members who have the responsibility for promoting sanitation in communities through meetings and follow-up visits to households. This recognizes the importance of other competencies that are equally important in capacity development for decentralization. Local government ownership of the decentralization process can be improved by undertaking two activities: one is to facilitate social learning, and the other is to legitimize the newly transferred role to the community. Peer-to-peer learning is an effective way to support community-level uptake of these responsibilities and ensure the greatest likelihood of success.

Commune Councilor for Women and Children facilitates Sanitation and Hygiene Behavior Change Communication activities at a village (Source: The World Bank Water and Sanitation Program)

Peer-to-peer learning is a fast and effective way of participants absorbing knowledge

Peer-to-peer learning across different districts and provinces, through regular meetings and exchange visits, enables district and commune officials who implement water and sanitation roles to share their experiences and insights on topics – such as which hygiene promotion approaches have worked effectively. During the World Bank program, study tours were also arranged for district personnel that extended beyond the pilot stage. These visits allowed for further learning from areas recognized as making good progress with sanitation and hygiene promotion outcomes. This increased exposure to new ideas, motivation to meet outcomes, and information networks to improve capacity.

Bi-monthly meetings of the district and commune water and sanitation groups were also held. Alongside these meetings, a support agency provides coaching and mentoring to help local officials and CCWC members to collectively review their progress. This was found to help consolidate local ownership of the pilot sanitation and hygiene improvement activities, and maintain momentum for meeting targets.

Peer-to-peer learning can provide may advantage including encouraging healthy competition between districts, communes and villages. It has the potential to significantly improve the rate at which skills, functions and resources are transferred.

Local government peer-to-peer learning (source The World Bank Water and Sanitation Program)

Improving effective performance at the local level requires proper incentives and positive reinforcement

Although capacity-building is a positive motivation for local government, there are still concerns that these results will not be maintained if this capacity building is not valued institutionally at higher levels of government. Better financial incentives for local government staff is a key component of attracting more qualified and committed candidates. Filling these roles with qualified personnel is essential to create a culture of organizational and individual learning and action to support water and sanitation outcomes.

District and commune cadre that participated in the pilot project were observed to achieve effective changes during the pilot as part of the decentralization reforms. However, it was also observed that these efforts are difficult to maintain without continued devolved powers and incentives.

Beyond increased funding, incentives can take other forms. Rewards for good performance or simple public recognition and showcasing local achievements can be effective in demonstrating to local actors that their efforts are valued.

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