UNICEF: why are health and water divided over subsidies?
Updated - Wednesday 06 April 2011
UNICEF has been asking itself why different approaches to user fees and subsidies are promoted and operated in different areas of work central to its focus on children and parents. Why for example, if user fees are so important in water, has the health sector been promoting free distribution of mosquito nets and vaccines and services such as antenatal checks? Why is free primary school education seen as important, if free sanitation is not.
Paul Edwards, senior WASH adviser for UNICEF, set out to examine where user fees can become a barrier to essential services for the poor. His conclusion, in a paper  presented at the IRC 2010 Symposium, is that helping poor people generate income to meet their costs is a better approach than subsidising water and sanitation. UNICEF distinguishes between private goods – best dealt with through the normal mechanisms of the market – and public goods, where the market may fail and the government may regulate, subsidise or set prices. Paul Edwards identifies ‘merit goods’ as those like education, which are important to society and to Governments, but may be less appreciated by the consumer at the time, and may therefore be subsidised or free.
In an interview at the Symposium, Paul Edwards added: “In UNICEF we are starting to ask the question why we are having these different experiences and what changes we could make in any of the sectors in terms of particularly reducing those barriers to access for the poor. What we don’t want is to know that poorest people are going to get the lowest level of service - that is definitely the inequitable situation that we want to avoid.”
 Edwards, P. (2010). Reducing financial barriers to accessing WASH services. Presented at the IRC 2010 Symposium. Download paper and PowerPoint
- Better toilets in Vietnam did not need a subsidy, Source Bulletin, Aug 2010
- Namibia: government moves closer to subsidising water for the poor, Source Weekly, 27 Jul 2010
Find documents on WASH subsidies in the IRC WASH Library
Contact: Paul Edwards, UNICEF, e-mail: email@example.com
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