Programme manager Peter Bervoets explains how he helps develop sustainable water solutions in Kenya.

How Business is Contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals

The company I work for, a Dutch water utility, together with four other water utilities have created a joint venture, Vitens Evides International (VEI). This to execute our CSR agenda in the form of Water Operator Partnerships (WOPs) to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals 6, Water and Sanitation to all by 2030 (United Nations, 2016). In a WOP a high-performing water utility (expert) partners up with a low-performing water utility (recipient), mostly in developing countries, in order to improve the low performing water utility. This is mostly financed by a donor (EU, Embassies, World Bank, Asian Development bank etc.).

A WOP can be executed in several ways. We do this as follows:

  • A project manager is hired and based at the recipient’s office. The project manager is the budget holder and responsible for the project overall. Another important task of the project manager is to coach the staff of the recipient utility on a regular basis.
  • We use the staff of the Dutch water utilities for technical assistance in the form of Short Term Experts (STE). STEs will be assisting the recipient for a period of 3 weeks for 3 times per year.
  • Funds are received from a donor in order to make the technical assistance and investments.

The terms of the WOP are mostly stated in a contract, which states the desired outcome, budget, time and responsibilities. Since it has a clear beginning, end and a desired outcome, a WOP can be classified as a form of planned change.

At the first phase we are unfreezing, then the change (forming process) happens and it is important that the activities done during the change are sustainable, thus refreezing.

The purpose of a WOP is to improve the recipient. According to a study of the World Bank and the International Benchmarking Network for water utilities, performance of a water utility is measured through three indicators; operational performance, financial performance and customer performance (Water and Sanitation Program, 2018) (Van den Berg & Danilenko, 2017). UN-Habitat has a database of nearly 300 WOPs worldwide, which have been executed over the past years or are still ongoing (UN-Habitat, 2018). A total of 14 of these WOPs have been analysed and the results are as follows:

  • 14% of the WOPs improved the recipient water utility on all three indicators.
  • 36% of the WOPs improved the recipient water utility on at least two of the three indicators.
  • 79% of the WOPs improved the recipient water utility on at least one of the three indicators.
  • 21% of the WOPs did not improve the recipient water utility

The results are mixed and it made me wonder, why the success rate is quite low. From my company’s and my own experience, I make the following a rough analysis.

Before Unfreezing

For a change programme it is important that before you start unfreezing you have done the following:

  • What is the current situation of the recipient (baseline study)
  • What is the goal, the preferred future situation
  • Are all the partners (leadership) in.
  • How do we get from the current situation to the preferred situation (project plan)

It happens often that the baseline study is done from a desk by someone who has never visited the recipient. This implies that the current situation written might not be the “real” current situation and there will be little ownership by the recipient. The donors of the WOP would like to have as much value for their money and therefore it happens that the project plan has unrealistic targets, this might lead to disappointment and frustration and people might stop caring for the WOP. In this phase it is important to take time to do a proper baseline assessment, to involve the partners and make a joint project plan.

Unfreezing

During this part it is important to make sure that the leadership of the recipient sees the need for change to start “unfreezing” the company (systems, procedures organograms etc.). If they are already on-board this part is not difficult, however it happens often that the (local) government, which in many cases is the shareholder, of the recipient forces the WOP on the recipient. This can be part of the process. The management team of the recipient does not see the need for change. It is possible to sensitize the management team (focused on the individual and the group) until they see the need, but it can also happen that members of the management team need to be replaced. For this process the leaders of the recipient (the government) are necessary for this process. It does occur that the government does not play its role and therefore the management team is not “unfrozen”. If the management team does not see the need for change, the change programme is doomed to fail.

Change

In a WOP the project plan is leading. Donors prefer to know before the WOP starts, what the actions will be for the following years, the outputs of the project and the generated outcomes, this in the form of fixed Performance Indicators in the project plan. This is to know their expected value for money. A real form of planned change. During the unfreezing, the change has been initiated, however in my experience it is hard to predict in year 0, what the situation will be in year 2 or even in year 5 ór what the pace is of the recipient, it is impossible to put a timer on change. It has happened that a WOP has increased the performance of a recipient, however according to the donor (following the project plan) the WOP has failed, since the performance indicators were not met fully. Seeing halfway the project that the performing indicators will never be achieved can also be demotivating. It is better to make a project plan in which the directions the recipient should go is indicated, completed by an annual workplan. It might seem that a water utility is a stable environment, but in developing countries it can be volatile and Emergence theory can be more applicable.

Refreezing

The most important thing here is ownership. It still happens too often that the expert is doing all the work. One of the causes are the goals of the project. In many contracts the recipient will only receive their full amount if the project goals are met. So if the recipient is not doing the exact thing that is written in the project plan or if the recipient is to slow the expert will take over and complete the task, which results in a lack of ownership. The recipient should be the one who leads the WOP. During the change process there needs to be focus on the three different levels: individual, group and organization. And they should all be leading the change, coached/facilitated by the expert utility and in a further stage of the WOP by their own colleagues.

Another important item to sustain the change is to implement a good governance system. This system should ensure that it is possible for the company to remove individuals in the management team, board of directors or government who do not have the best intentions for the company (unfortunately this is a major issue). This requires changing the organisation, the management and board of directors as a group and as individuals.

At the moment I am in Kenya to do a baseline study and to develop a project plan (together with the new project manager and the recipient utility) for a new WOP. I am incorporating the items which I have described.  The most difficult part, which did succeed in the end, was to convince the donor (The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs) to have a project plan without fixed performance indicators. We are excited to see what the results will be in the next few years. Hopefully the WOP will improve the recipient water utility on operational performance, financial performance and customer performance.

References

UN-Habitat. (2018, July 21). Global Water Operators’ Partnership Alliance. Retrieved from GWOPA:http://www.gwopa.org

United Nations. (2016). Progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

Van den Berg, C., & Danilenko, A. (2017). Performance of Water Utilities in Africa.Washington: World Bank.

Water and Sanitation Program. (2018, February 1). IBNET. (World Bank) Retrieved from The International Benchmarking Network: https://www.ib-net.org

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