Liberia: Why the High Level Talks in Monrovia Matter

Liberia is taking centre stage this week, to host talks on the framework and focus of the world’s development agenda after the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) expire in two years time.

The appointment by the UN Secretary-General of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia as co-chair of this High-level Panel on the Post 2015 Development Agenda,- alongside the British Prime Minister David Cameron and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia – recognises Liberia’s growing international role in recent years.

Charities like WaterAid, where I work as Director of International Programmes, are also playing an important part in these talks.

These meetings are an important part of the process to develop a new set of goals and targets that will help to shape the priorities of aid donors, as well as governments in Africa and elsewhere in their battle to end poverty and increase prosperity.

Since the launch of the MDGs, there has been some significant progress. Extreme poverty – that is the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day – has been halved and 5 million more children are surviving beyond their fifth birthday in 2011.

On the issues we focus on, 2 billion people have gained access to clean drinking water in just two decades, while 1.8 billion now have a safe toilet.

This is welcome news. It shows how global targets can focus minds, generate international support and lead to real action on the ground.  However there is a lot more to be done. Success has been unequal, with some countries and regions a long way off from achieving their targets.

Of these, one of the most neglected areas is sanitation, where 594 million sub-Saharan Africans – 70% of the continent’s population – do not have access to a safe toilet, while nearly 4 in 10 are still without clean water.  Progress on sanitation is so slow that at current trends it will be another 150 years until that MDG target is reached, and three centuries before everyone in sub-Saharan Africa has a toilet.

This needs to change and President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has shown significant leadership in her role as Goodwill Ambassador for water, sanitation and hygiene in Africa. I am honoured to be sharing a platform with her, when she hosts a session on these issues as part of the High Level Panel talks.

“Economic transformation” is the theme for the meetings in Monrovia. Water and sanitation is key to achieving this.

Investing in these services has positive economic effects. According to the World Health Organisation, every $1 invested in water and sanitation, $4 is returned in economic productivity. Any investor would recognise that this is an excellent return on investment.

Equally, poor water and sanitation stifles economic growth.  Sub-Saharan Africa loses around 5% of its GDP a year, in lost productivity due to ill health and time spent finding water and sanitation.  This is the equivalent to all the aid Africa currently receives from the West.

Water and sanitation changes lives. It is the first step out of poverty, impacting on livelihoods, health and education.

At the last UN meeting in London in November, the High Level Panel said that we can end world poverty in our lifetime. But to achieve this there must be a clear target on water and sanitation – that every African should have access to these basic services by 2030.  A goal worthy of all our efforts.