Sector-wide Approach (SWAP)


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Interpretations and Explanations

What is a Sector Wide Approach (SWAP)?

SWAps are a form of programme aid directed to particular sectors. Within a SWAp, government and donor funding for a sector is directed towards the achievement of an holistic sectoral strategy which has been matched to available resources and implementation capacity. The sector wide approach is contrasted with a project-based approach in which individual donors each support a particular set of activities within the sector (for example, building schools or roads). The existence of a robust national framework for the sector is one of the main prerequisites for the introduction of a SWAP.

According to DFID a SWAP must involve:

  • A comprehensive sector policy and strategy
  • An annual sector expenditure programme and medium-term sectoral expenditure framework
  • Government-led donor co-ordination
  • Major donors providing support within the agreed framework.

In addition, it should meet at least one of the following criteria:

  • A significant number of donors being committed to moving towards greater reliance on government financial and accountability systems.
  • A common donor approach to implementation and management.

Another characteristic is that technical assistance is commissioned directly by governments rather than donor agencies.

Ideally, sector wide approaches are developed by the government in consultation with all stakeholders and investors, including donor agencies. Under the leadership of the government, these parties work together to define:

  • An overall sector policy framework
  • Priorities and objectives (i.e., strategy), and performance measures
  • Expenditure programmes
  • Institutional reform and capacity building needed for implementation
  • Jointly agreed management, reporting and accounting arrangements

A single SWAP can incorporate a variety of different funding mechanisms, whether sector budget support, off-budget pooled funds, or projects. Funding modalities under SWAP may range from budget support to basket funding delivered as sector or programme earmarked support. It also includes the possibility of funding activities through NGOs and private sectors, but under modalities where the recipient government is maintaining access to information on disbursement and some control over how donor funds are being utilised.

What are the BENEFITS of a SWAP?

  1. The SWAP allows development partners to contribute to a national programme of development instead of piecemeal project specific development.
  2. It increases donor coordination and reduces the likelihood of overlapping and duplication of initiatives.
  3. It further enhances the possibility of the government to ensure uniform practices and reduces the administrative burden of dealing with a number of donors applying different policies and administrative practices – in particular in relation to financial management.
  4. It enables the government to move away from implementing multiple parallel schemes- financed by different agencies- which often result in islands of success or some programs undermining the others.
  5. It provides a consistent development approach and a more firm and predictable expenditure framework and sources of finance for the government to implement state-wide scaling up of the RWSS sector reforms.
  6. The main benefit of SWAP is that it should lead to more efficient use of limited funds from donors, from national budgets and from user contributions to water sector development maximising the overall contribution in achieving the national MDG targets.

SWAP in the Water Sector: A Complex Challenge

Initially concentrated in the social and more donor-dependent sectors such as health and education, Sector-Wide Approaches (SWAps) have become the common focus for sector reforms and sector-wide policy planning and implementation. However, SWAPs have remained rare in the water sector, partly because the sector is not so easy to categorise as either ‘social’ or ‘productive’ and there is less consensus around models of service delivery, as compared with health and education. The water sector has special characteristics. It deals with a vital and contested resource, and includes multiple stakeholders at all levels, with different interests for which they may fight with all means. It is little wonder that the sector, given these characteristics, is politically, socially, institutionally and technically complex to develop, manage, and regulate.

Emerging lessons from the water sector show that a SWAp can be a promising answer to such a complex sector when it is approached as a flexible and long term process towards improved capacities for negotiation and bargaining of interests, policy making, planning, resource allocation, implementation, accountability and coordination.

Lessons Learned

Experiences indicate that there are three critical success factors for a water SWAp - VISION, COLLABORATION & OWNERSHIP:

  1. An integrated broad vision is needed, but with operations in sub-sector programmes: There is broad global agreement about the pertinence of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM), which promotes a holistic view on resources, uses, actors and rules of the game. IWRM – and SWAps - recognise that it is a slow process to develop effective policy processes and efficient policy implementation on the ground. The vision can therefore be broad, but within it operational programmes need a level of autonomy that is likely to require a focus on sub-sectors.
  2. Focus on collaboration and governance: Water involves everyone, and SWAp experiences show that a focus on collaboration and governance is essential for success. Collaboration between multiple and diverse actors also involves flows of funds, assignment of staff, and exchanges between vertical and horizontal levels of administration – and brokering of interests and conflicts. Initially, SWAps may focus strongly on collaboration between donors, but successful SWAps move on to strengthen collaboration, rather than focusing on particular donor projects or donor-driven policy prescriptions.
  3. Focus on ownership and capacity: Donors cannot pursue a SWAp alone. Experience shows that a SWAp lives with country ownership, and dies without it. In some settings, a SWAp may not be worthwhile, and projects delivering to vulnerable groups may be the best option. When commitment is there (most often driven by a few champions), successful SWAps aim at broad [capacity building|capacity development]] and do not confine themselves to central level authorities.

But challenges for water SWAPs also exist, in terms of RESULTS, CAPACITY, ACCOUNTABILITY AND LEARNING.

  1. Getting to results: It is a challenge to link policies to operational plans and ensure the implementation of these plans. The “transmitters” between policy and action – expenditure management, capacity and incentives to performance - develop slowly at best. SWAps may tend to concentrate at central level, forgetting local level processes and capacities.
  2. Accountability: Water resources management and service delivery is susceptible to corruption. Corruption can be found at every point along the water delivery chain, from infrastructure development through to operations. SWAps may sometimes focus too narrowly on the risks for donors rather than working both with the domestic demand side for accountability (user associations, media, checks and balances mechanisms) as well as the supply side (accounting practices, results reporting, transparency on budgets etc.).
  3. Capacities and capacity development: The sector wide approach is about broad capacity development of the sector. Getting from theory to effective capacity development support in practice has proven difficult. Capacity development in a SWAp is often limited to ad hoc processes (training, workshops, technical assistance) that do not reach all levels in the sector or subsector. Unleashing existing capacity through modification of mandates, changed incentives and improved platforms for collaboration is often not considered systematically.
  4. Enhancing sector learning in SWAps: The SWAp assume that actors learn from the processes they are involved in, and that this learning feeds back into repeated cycles of policy processes, planning, implementation and monitoring. This is not easy to achieve. SWAps tend to focus on spending and immediate results. The specialised actors who can effectively promote learning – national research centres, universities and think-tanks – are rarely invited to take part in SWAps.
  5. An additional challenge is that water issues –increasingly linked to climate change - go beyond national borders. For SWAps, this raises two critical questions: How can SWAps deal with transboundary aspects of water resources management? And how can the likely new global initiatives to address climate change be integrated in SWAps?

A SWAp in the water sector is not a panacea for dealing with the complexities of water management, neither at local, national, regional or global level. But strong national SWAp processes are likely to facilitate regional and global processes, and they do fit well to current thinking about IWRM and to the aid management principles embodied in the Paris Declaration. And though SWAp processes are cumbersome and slow, it is difficult to see an equitable alternative.


Approach (SWAP) WHO-Lexicon page (translations and examples)

See Also

Sector-wide Approach (SWAP)/The Case of Uganda

Sector-wide Approach (SWAP)

External Resources

Train 4 Dev


PRESS RELEASE: Mozambique Agreement Signed for SWAP in Water Sector

PRESS RELEASE: Tanzania adopting sector-wide approach

Can SWAP strengthen local development institutions in Benin?


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