Opinion 6

The Problem of Targets

With an estimated 1.1 billion people with unsafe drinking water and 40% of the human race without safe sanitation, the temptation over the years has been to set targets for the provision of services to the world's unserved peoples.

Is target setting helpful or do they mask the real issues?

There are a number of targets* which have been set internationally (and by a number of countries) recently for the provision of water supply and sanitation services to the un-served of the world. Figures have also been estimated for what it would cost to supply every person with water. Whilst I am totally in favor of doing whatever is necessary to reduce the appalling backlog which continues to exists in developing countries, there is a problem with targets.

My biggest concern is that target setting indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of why people do not have services. Poor or no basic services are both a cause and an effect of poverty. I know of no rich people who do not have water. Lack of adequate basic public health services such as water supply and safe sanitation is as a result of one thing - poverty. Poverty itself may be as a result of many things. It is pushing credulity to expect that long-term sustainable water supplies can be established in communities which are in all other aspects impoverished. Therefore to say that the target is that all people will have adequate, sustainable water supplies and safe sanitation by the year 2020 (which is something that I would dearly like to see) is equivalent to saying that poverty will be eradicated by the year 2020 (another thing that I would dearly like to see).

The point can probably be better illustrated through the issue of quoting figures of how much it would cost to provide everybody with a water supply. Different figures have been used and the actual amounts are not important. What is important is the lack of understanding of the real problems which such approaches indicate. Sure it may cost x Billion $ to provide everyone with a tap but providing them with a sustainable healthy service is another matter all together, as has been discovered over and over again during the past 40 years. The x Billion $ would be absorbed by the sponge of poverty and be all but entirely dissipated - only when all the many other factors which are needed to produce equitable economic growth have also been added would the x Billion $ have any chance of making a lasting impact.


Am I saying that there is no hope, that it is pointless pursuing the objective of providing people with decent services? - not at all. But we should be under no illusions, which is what the chasing after targets tends to create (apart from inevitable disillusionment when the targets are inevitably not attained). It masks the real issues which are not directly related to water supply and sanitation but to the factors which keep people poor. Poor services are a symptom of much more fundamental factors which characterise poverty - factors such as lack of human rights, the struggle for democracy, the fight against corruption, conflict and displacement, and certain elements of prevailing global economic systems.

Whilst we continue to work in sectoral isolation we will forever be baffled by why we never make the targets.

* The targets referred to are national and international targets, not project targets which clearly are necessary.