VFM analysis: the perspective of a WASH programme manager – Interview with Nicolas Osbert, Chief of Water, Sanitation, Hygiene at UNICEF Zambia
As Chief of Water, Sanitation, Hygiene at UNICEF Zambia, Nicolas Osbert manages the Zambia Sanitation and Hygiene Programme funded by DFID, one of the six programmes that were analysed as part of the VFM-WASH project. He talked to us using the results produced by the VFM study, the limits of the study and how he sees the legacy of the VFM-WASH project going forward.
1. How useful have the results of the VFM-WASH study been for you?
The Zambia Sanitation and Hygiene Programme is a development programme, which is part of the Zambia National Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Programme (NRWSSP) led by the Ministry of Local Government and Housing (MLGH). It delivers sanitation services while building government capacity.
The evidence provided by the VFM analysis is a useful contribution to influence policy makers (MLGH, and beyond, especially in the Ministry of finance). For the implementation of Zambia’s Vision 2030 (the national long term plan setting out the development goals and targets), UNICEF can use the findings of the VFM study to help the government choose between alternative approaches to deal with the ‘unfinished business of the MDGs’ and increase access to WASH services considering affordability, scalability and sustainability.
For instance, the study demonstrates the efficiency and cost-efficiency of financing social mobilisation, marketing and other software activities, which encourage households to build toilets themselves. This provides up to five times more access to sanitation than the standard hardware-driven approach. The VFM analysis showed that under the sanitation component, 78% of the expenditure went to software activities in 2014 and resulted in considerable gains – as of November 2015, 2.87 million new users of improved sanitation have been reported in 68 target districts (512,500 improved latrine built). This is the type of evidence we need in a sector that is still heavily ‘hardware-driven’.
Useful evidence was also provided for the use of a real-time monitoring tool (i.e. mobile-to-web, M2W). UNICEF introduced M2W in September 2013 to enable performance-tracking at district, province and national levels. The use of this tool contributed to the reduction of data errors, to improve incentive system for community champions and enhancing data analysis and sharing. The cost of implementing the sanitation programme is now 30% lower in districts with M2W as compared to districts without it. These savings have encouraged the government to bear the running costs of the system. The VFM analysis was key as it showed that short-term costs can lead to long-term savings.
The study also helped analysing the value brought by involving NGOs at district level to facilitate programme implementation and ensure competency transfer. Although involving NGOs generated an additional cost, it also significantly contributed to accelerating achievements and improving the quality of intervention.
Finally, the VFM study will be useful going forward as it provides the government with unit cost benchmarks, for preparing the national budget and costing necessary transfers to district and provincial teams.
However, this analysis needs to be completed by an analysis to cost alternatives approaches, adapted to specific local contexts. For instance, it is important to take into account the ‘hardship ratio’, i.e. the extra cost of implementing services in more remote communities or in complex geographical areas.
2. What do you see as the main limitations of this analysis? What else would you have liked to learn from the study?
The main limitation of the VFM study was its timeframe: for the ZSHP, the analysis started after the programme began and finished before its end. Hence, it was not possible to influence data collection or to gather data on outcomes (e.g. sustained use of sanitation and hygiene facilities) and impacts (e.g. reduction in diarrhoea prevalence).
Sustainability of behavioural change is a key factor for the sustainability of these investments. We need to gather more evidence on the cost-effectiveness of different approaches through time so as to be able to help the government make informed programming decisions. Thus, the VFM analysis should be extended to analyse the final results data that will be available in March 2018.
Another dimension that would be useful to incorporate in the VFM analysis is the ability of the ZSHP to leverage public and donor funding for WASH – we have observed that the Programme has led to better prioritisation of sanitation in the government agenda and its partners. In addition, the efficiency and cost-efficiency of strengthening institutions could be assessed. Although it was not possible to assess this due to time and data restrictions, this is an important dimension of the effectiveness of the programme. Zambia recently transitioned to a middle-income country status. As a result, it will be receiving less ODA going forward, so it will need to allocate more public funding to its social services. Thus, UNICEF has a role to play in encouraging the government to spend more on WASH and in supporting it to roll-out the implementation by strengthening government institutions.
3. What is UNICEF Zambia planning to do in the future in terms of VFM analysis?
The findings from the VFM assessment report are only the tip of the iceberg: the ZSHP is a flagship programme that offers a great deal of learning opportunities considering its scale, duration, the good anchoring in national systems in Zambia, and the diversity and quality of available data. In this context, more efforts are needed to complete the analysis and embed a VFM culture within the sector.
DFID is now funding an extension / consolidation phase of the programme up to March 2018, with a focus on system strengthening, sustainability and learning. Within this framework, the real-time monitoring of WASH results is being scaled-up across all 68 districts covered by the programme. Moreover, in the next few months, the impact assessment report will provide new data on results and their associated costs. Additional studies are planned as well, including yearly sustainability checks, a study on the impact of the programme’s post-ODF intervention on sustainability, and another one on the impact of school WASH / Menstrual Hygiene Management on girl school attendance and performance.
These additional results would provide a strong basis for conducting a more complete VFM study, so as to generate financial evidence and help improve the design of these types of programmes going forward.
Thank you Nicolas for your contribution to our blog!