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Bolo kele tesseka bele ta: insights on working together from Mali

Sitali Muyatwa, Head of SWA Secretariat Country Engagement Team
12 Mar 2020

Bolo Kele tesseka bele ta is a saying from one of the major languages in Mali, Bambara, which means one finger alone cannot lift a stone. Several other African cultures have different versions of the same proverb with similar meaning - “one finger cannot kill lice” for example, is a common saying in some Southern African countries. These proverbs focus on the importance of working together. However, working together is easier said than done. It can be difficult to obtain consensus on issues, stakeholders sometimes lack mutual trust or the willingness to collaborate. This can lead to inertia or, at worst, create antagonistic relationships.”

At the Secretariat we know all too well the difficulties of even getting different parties together, let alone them agreeing on a common goal. So, it was a unique privilege to be in Mali where our partners have come together under the government leadership to support national priorities, develop commitments, and openly discuss some of the most problematic bottlenecks holding back progress.  

Our partners seem to have put in place some of the foundational aspects of working together. First, they have constituted a Committee of all the constituencies including the government, civil society, private sector, research and learning agencies and the technical and financial partners (PTF), which are called external support agencies in SWA parlance. The Committee includes focal points for other related processes such as AfricaSan , AMCOW and GLAAS/TrackFin. The Committee also has non-SWA partners including the head of the sector donor group, Belgium. For SWA, the primary goal is to reinforce platforms for working together where stakeholders can jointly address the bottlenecks the sector faces. Mali seems to have created exactly such a platform, and the Committee serves as the core group to steer action and ensure the critical voices have a space on the table.

Another important process put into place by the Committee is a regular, consistent and predictable process for their dialogues. Some of the difficulties of sector coordination are usually associated with ad hoc processes which make it hard for partners to keep track of the agenda and the “big picture”. In Mali, this big picture is aided by the presence of a sector plan and the commitments which have been tabled by stakeholders for the next 3-5 years. There is of course room for more partners to add their commitments and provide a predictable way of their support towards the government-led priorities.

The third aspect observed in Mali is the openness of the discussions. The formation of a representative group and the elaboration of a systematic process for partners to dialogue has enabled partners to now focus on deeper and more difficult topics. Forming a Committee which meets regularly and has some clear sense of direction is necessary but not sufficient. Mali has set very ambitious targets to be achieved in a short period of time. There can be no progress if the bottlenecks are not addressed early and openly.

We learnt early on during the visit that the platform partners in Mali have created has developed well enough to enable them to express themselves freely to each other. During the first meeting with nearly 30 participants, the discussion moved very quickly from the opening formalities to what seemed to be the elephant in the room.

Finance was quickly identified as one of the key issues to be addressed. Participants pointed out that Mali was not making the most out of one of the 3Ts – taxes, transfers, and tariffs. There is an upward trend on contributions from taxes which was highlighted as a step in the right direction. The government increased the allocations to the sector in 2018 and expectations are that this increase was maintained in 2019 even though the numbers are not yet out. Some key stakeholders including parliamentarians are pushing to have further increase so that the allocations for water, sanitation and hygiene can reach 5% of the national budget.  On the second T- transfers, funding from donors makes a considerable proportion of the resources in the sector and are likely to remain stable despite the security concerns the country has. The third T- tariffs presents a much more nuanced picture. Not only is the tariff in Mali at the bottom of all western African countries, it has also not been revised in the last 16 years. This has suppressed the contributions of one of the Ts to the total sector financing structure and most actors agreed it needs to be revised.

However, revising tariffs is a sensitive political issue. It does not only depend on affordability and willingness to pay but also willingness to charge. It was during this discussion that the strength of the Committee in Mali seemed to be tested. Partners were able to speak freely and openly about the need to find a tariff structure which reflects the costs of water and protects those who cannot afford it. Some actors were quick to add that CSOs, who were also represented in the room, had blocked proposals which had been made in the past. Other critical players needed to enhance the discussions are the trade unions who play a critical role in discussions with the government. The openness of the discussion and the mutual respect that stakeholders evinced made it possible to get into the details of a very sensitive topic. This is not often the case in many countries where the presence of government officials can easily suppress discussions.

The team in Mali is doing well but that does not mean there is nothing more they can or want to do better. Some of the challenges impacting on the sector are broader than water, sanitation and hygiene. For example, climate change and the security situation will require more action and decisions from the major political players. For this reason, partners in Mali have to continuously elevate the discussion to ensure that they can more effectively engage with, and be able to rely on the Head of State, Prime Minister and Sector Ministers. The Parliamentarians are already playing a vital role and lessons on engaging with parliamentarians can also help in strengthening the role of other decision makers including traditional and religious leaders.

Other topics which were discussed during the visit include the creation of a level playing field for all actors – private sector actors repeatedly mentioned they are not looking for favors but an enabling environment which is efficient and conducive to business. The government is keen to engage with donors and other partners to explore climate finance and innovative financing options for the sector. Parliamentarians committed to support the central government to progressively increase the budget to 5% and requested for support to better understand the implications of the SDGs, particularly for water, sanitation and hygiene targets. They also highlighted the need for continued support to CSOs who are playing a critical role to ensure accountability and a focus on leaving no one behind. Indeed, actions from all these actors are needed to increase the chances of achieving the SDGs.

The Kenyan saying “teeth that are together help each other to chew” exemplifies the power of working together. The mammoth ambition set by the agenda 2030 – to achieve universal access to water, sanitation and hygiene services, makes it clear that no single actor will have the resources, capacity and reach to achieve the targets. This is precisely why the Sanitation and Water for All partnership is premised on the understanding that joint actions taken by multiple stakeholders towards one commonly shared goal are likely to achieve better and more sustainable results. For this reason, SWA partners work through government-led approaches which involve civil society, private sector, research and learning agencies and external support agencies including donors, development banks and UN agencies.