Urban Sanitation Technologies as International Power Structures (U-STASIS)

Why and how does centralized design prevail as a global gold standard for the urban sanitation sector even in the light of crisis and how does it influence project implementation under SDG6?

Project Summary

Sanitation is in crisis. Two billion people lack access to safe sanitation. The crisis is especially prevalent in unplanned, densely populated urban areas, where the current gold standard of flush toilets – large scale sewer networks and centralized treatment plants – is neither affordable nor implementable.

Numerous calls for international action have been stirred to address this sanitation crisis and reach SDG6.2 by 2030. Governments, UN agencies and even sector leading corporations have come together in joint missions to outstrip the one size fits all design of centralized sanitation infrastructures and call for city wide and inclusive approaches to sanitation. However, to date, low-cost technologies and adaptive planning approaches have failed to scale. There is little attention amongst scholars and policy analysts to the strong economic and political forces that perpetuate the urban sanitation crisis. Thus, this multidisciplinary and collaborative project asks:

  • Why and how do centralised sanitation infrastructure persist despite continued crisis?
  • What is the international political economy of defining and implementing SDG 6.2?
  • What is the role of multilateral development banks in the provision of urban sanitation infrastructure?

Starting from an international political economy perspective this project focuses on multilateral development banks, which are key intermediaries through funding, knowledge brokering, and project implementation under SDG 6.2. Methodologically the project links automated large scale document analysis with in depth case studies to grasp the multilevel dimensions of persistence in the urban sanitation crisis.

The team brings together academic researchers, international and local organizations and combines expertise in international political economy, global power, SDGs, urban sanitation, and interdisciplinary research.

The proposed U-STASIS research project aims to explain the persistence of centralized Urban Sanitation Infrastructure (USI) from an international political-economy perspective. The expected results will provide new entry points for overcoming the deadlock and advancing the implementation of SDG6 and the more rapid expansion of inclusive urban sanitation coverage.

Academic Output

Executive Summary

Rapid urbanization poses challenges for public authorities worldwide as they work to provide essential services to growing populations.

The U-STASIS project focused on understanding the relationship between basic service arrangements and urban equality in the Global South, with a specific focus on sanitation.

The project took a unique approach, examining the influence of power dynamics, political and social factors, and ecological considerations on urban social inequalities. It also developed a typology called the “sanitation bargain,” which categorized different models of service provision (household, utility, cityworks, enterprise) and highlighted how choices in provision were influenced by factors like private or public leadership and financing dynamics, thus impacting social equality.

One key finding was the significant influence of major development banks on the sanitation sector. Since the 1960s, these banks have shaped technology and institutional practices, using their investments as testing grounds for introducing new financial and institutional arrangements aimed at utility based sanitation systems, which do not always maximize public health outcomes.

The research emphasizes the importance of inclusive negotiation forums when determining sanitation bargains. These forums ensure that equity and fair public health outcomes are prioritized in decision-making processes. The study also highlights the need to move away from misleading terms like “stakeholders” and “good governance”, which can hide conflicting interests and assume that all actors are on equal footing, when they are not.

By challenging these assumptions, the research contributes to a better understanding of ongoing urbanization processes and their impact on inequality.

The findings of this project can inform urban planning efforts and provide insights into the complex interactions between urbanization and inequality.


Taking the example of sanitation, the U-STASIS project addressed the interaction of basic service arrangements with urban equality.
In the face of rapid and unplanned urbanization, one of the main challenges for public actors is to ensure that the expansion of basic services keeps pace to achieve a minimum level of services across the entire urban population. If basic services are delivered through extensive infrastructure networks, they tend to be capital and planning intensive and therefore lag significantly behind urban growth, especially where urbanization is informal. A main promises of decentralized basic service provision lies in increasing flexibility through decreasing investment volumes and shortening planning horizons. Yet, by unbundling and decentralization, basic services are increasingly provided by different technological solutions, operating models, and actors and the conditions under which citizens gain access to basic services, particularly eligibility and cost, can vary greatly. In short, the processes for delivering the same basic service are becoming more diverse or fragmented, which makes the issue of equality more central.

Other Output

Multilateral development banks investment behaviour in water and sanitation: findings and lessons from 60 years of investment projects in Africa and Asia

Multilateral development banks (MDBs) play a pivotal role in financing water and sanitation infrastructure projects and thus have a major impact on the development of basic services. Although information about the MDBs’ investments is publicly available, it is dispersed and not easily comparable. A comprehensive compilation of MDBs’ water and sanitation investments has long been lacking. To address this gap, we assess water and sanitation financing by the three MDBs most relevant to Africa and Asia between 1960 and 2020: the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and the Asian Development Bank. We compile a new dataset by drawing on 3,639 water and sanitation projects and assess territorial trends, technology choices, distribution of financial burdens, and reforms to institutional arrangements. We find that MDBs’ investments align with changing patterns of urbanization and increasingly finance sanitation infrastructures including non-sewered technologies. However, our results also suggest that institutional reforms have addressed utility efficiency through investment in equipment and skills rather than through increased commercialization and private sector participation. The leverage effect of MDB invest- ment on private financing is negligible, whereas co-financing from local governments dominates.


On whose terms: utilities, enterprises or communities? The territorial political economy of water and sanitation sector reforms in Dhaka

Citywide inclusive sanitation (CWIS) is becoming the dominant paradigm for achieving safe sanitation for all by 2030. Its technical benefits have been explored, but the bargaining over financial and organizational changes CWIS entails have not yet been adequately addressed. Our case study explains the stalled rollout of CWIS in Dhaka, Bangladesh. We analyse policy pathways over the past 30 years through a combined territorial political economy and power perspective to understand their effects on equality. We highlight how donors link the introduction of CWIS to the organization of sanitation through a market; how the utility uses CWIS as an opportunity to avoid costly responsibilities in non- sewered sanitation; and how service co-production through community-based solutions is neglected. CWIS has successfully overcome the dogmatic technological focus in the sanitation system, but for citywide sanitation to be scaled inclusively, the dogmatic focus in the organization and financing of the sanitation sector must also be overcome.

Research Team

Olivier Crevoisier
University of Neuchâtel

Christoph Lüthi

Andri Brugger
Principal Member
University of Neuchâtel

John Gaventa
Principal Member
Institute for Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex

Josiane Nikiema
Principal Member
International Water Management Institute (IMWI), CGIAR Research Center



Mahbub Ul-Alam
Principal Member
International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (Dhaka)

Tim Fettback
Principal member
BORDA – Tanzania, Dar es Salaam

Sareen Malik
Associated member
African Civil Society Network on Water and Sanitation (ANEW)

Martin Gambrill
Associated member
World Bank, Water Global Practice

Johannes Heer
Associated member
International Centre for Water Management Services (CEWAS)

Alan Nicol
Associated member
Director of Water Growth & Inclusion at IMWI