Water & Sanitation: Public Policy Making

Dr Mayank Dabral - MPh Columbia University, US
Date Published : 17-Aug-2012


This is the first in a series of posts that I am writing with the intention that it will make understanding policymaking easier for the community members. I hope it will bring together community members to bridge the gaps left by current policies. I will use water and sanitation as an example in this series but these principles can be applied to any area of political decision making. I have used “Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making” by Deborah Stone as the core text for these posts and it can be referred to by members who wish to go in to more detail. At the end of the post I have set up an exercise for the reader. I will be happy to discuss any questions with regard to this post or exercise. Also, you are welcome to send any suggestions to make improvements.

Community versus Market Politics comes from the greek word “Polis”, meaning city state. It is the difference between a market and a community that we need to consider to understand how public policies are made and how they get distorted by economic interests. In a market people try to maximize their own self-interest by exchanging goods with each other when they are mutually beneficial. On the contrary, community is about people trying to achieve something as a group, even when there are conflicts between self interest and the common interest of the community.

Public Interest - It may be individual interests held in common, individual goals for the community, program or policies favored by a majority, or things that are good for the community.

Common Problems - These are defined as situations where self interest and public interest work against each other. There are two types of common problems: actions with private benefits which have a social cost (industrial waste into a lake); and social benefits requiring private sacrifices (sanitary system requires taxes). Any situation can be described in both ways (clean lakes are a social benefit requiring private costs of nonpolluting waste disposal and a poor sanitary system is the social cost of high private consumption).  In a market, common problems are an exception rather than the rule. In a community, by contrast, common problems are everything.

Influence, Cooperation, Loyalty - The vast gap between self interest and public interest is bridged in the community by forces such as influence, cooperation and loyalty. In a community cooperation is as important as competition for a market. Cooperation in a community may be described as coalition, alliance, union, party, support. Cooperation entails alliances, which are at least somewhat enduring. In alliances in a community, there is a presumption of loyalty. There is a risk to breaking old alliances and people do not do it lightly.

Groups - Because of the powerful forces of influence, cooperation and loyalty, groups and organizations come into being. Groups are important because decisions of the polis are collective. Passion One of the “Laws of Passion” is that passion feeds upon itself. Like passion, channels of influence and connections grow by being used. Another law of passion governing the polis is “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. A protest by a group means more than a few people coming together.

Exercise -    Can you identify an area of policy gap or policy change or flouting of law in your community regarding water and sanitation? (It might be poor water quality/ uncovered sewer lines/ insufficient water supply) -                Do you know the cause behind it and whom it is affecting (Is it a defect in planning by the water and sanitation department/ unscrupulous use by the community/ poor maintenance/ industrial or domestic waste being dumped. Is it affecting a few families/ society/ region/ city as a whole) -         Can you come up with a solution (creation of proper waste disposal/ rain water harvesting) and create a group which will support your idea (Local stake holders/ community members/ friends/ colleagues)

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