Water policy, politics, and practice: The case of Kitui County, Kenya
The devolution of governance to county level in Kenya provides a window for innovation in water policy and practice, critical to improving water security in rural areas where almost half of households lack basic water services. In rural Kitui County, Kenya, a number of projects supported by different funders have served as policy experiments over the past 10 years. We apply an action-oriented knowledge framework to explore the kinds of knowledge that have been produced in the course of these interventions and reflect on what kinds of knowledge are contributing to institutional change and how they are contributing to sustainability in the rural water sector. Actionable recommendations for the further development of county-level water policy include: First, ensure local ownership of the policy-making process whilst enabling appropriate technical and legal support; second, take long timeframes of institutional change into account in donor programming; third, establish water, sanitation and hygiene forums bringing diverse actors within the sector together to build cohesion, facilitate knowledge exchange, enable collaborative learning, and deliver collective action.
Since the late 1980s, over 80 percent of developing countries have adopted some form of decentralization due to widespread international support for decentralized governance (Crawford and Hartmann, 2008) with the goal being to address pressing social, economic and environmental challenges. Specifically, the goal comprises poverty reduction, conflict resolution, and the improvement of basic service provision, inter alia. The water sector in Kenya is undergoing significant institutional change following the country's governance reform (Cheeseman et al., 2016; Koehler, 2018; Koehler et al., 2021), which provides policy windows to test and implement wide-ranging sector change required for progress toward universal basic water services by 2030. The challenge is particularly acute in rural areas, where just under half the population live without access to basic or safely managed water services (WHO/UNICEF, 2021).
Decentralization reforms are commonly introduced to improve accountability and responsiveness of government by altering the distribution and structure of resources, responsibilities, and accountability (Smoke, 2003; Conyers, 2007; Faguet, 2014; Gaynor, 2014; Mwihaki, 2018). While decentralization is often presented as a common tool in water policy to improve service delivery, it often fails to deliver on its promises (Robinson, 2007). Further, Prasad (2006) argues that the profit-seeking motive of the private sector seems difficult to reconcile with providing services to the poor due to its tendency to “cherry-pick” better-off customers in less risky environments. Whilst public, private, and civil society actors are active in experimenting and driving the future direction of water policy, experience with such reforms and outcomes for the water services sector are mixed.
We reflect on policy practices over the past 10 years in one of Kenya's larger counties, Kitui County, where the majority of the 1.13 million people reside in rural areas. Three kinds of knowledge are examined that can be used to support actions for sustainability of the rural water sector: knowledge that informs intentional design, knowledge that enhances shared agency, and knowledge that enables contextual realization (Caniglia et al., 2021). We use this framework to reflect on how research in Kitui has helped actors engage with different kinds of knowledge and how that has created change.