Environmental Economics & Policies; Economic Theory & Research; Town Water Supply and Sanitation; Poverty Assessment; Water Supply and Sanitation Governance and Institutions; Health Economics & Finance; Sanitation and Sewerage; Public Health Promotion
Summary: As an alternative to traditional subsidy schemes in utility sectors, direct subsidy programs have several advantages: they are transparent, they are explicit, and they minimize distortions of the behavior of both the utility, and the customers. At the same time, defining practical eligibility criteria for direct subsidy schemes is difficult, and identifying eligible households may entail substantial administrative costs. The authors, using a case study from Panama, discuss some of the issues associated with the design of direct subsidy systems for water services. The conclude that: 1) There is a need to assess - rather than assume - the need for a subsidy. A key test of affordability, and thus of the need for a subsidy, is to compare the cost of the service, with some measure of household willingness to pay. 2) The initial assessment must consider the affordability of connection costs as well as the affordability of the service itself. Connection costs may be prohibitive for poor households with no credit, suggesting a need to focus subsidies on providing access, rather than ongoing water consumption. 3) A key issue in designing a direct subsidy scheme is its targeting properties. Poverty is a complex phenomenon, and difficult to measure. Eligibility must therefore be based on easily measurable proxy variables, and good proxies are hard to find. In choosing eligibility criteria for a subsidy, it is essential to verify what proportion of the target group fails to meet the criteria (errors of exclusion) and what proportion of non-target groups is inadvertently eligible for the benefits (errors of inclusion). 4) administrative costs are roughly the same no matter what the level of individual subsidies, so a scheme that pays beneficiaries very little, will tend not to be cost-effective. It is important to determine what proportion of total program costs will be absorbed by administrative expenses. 5) Subsidies should not cover the full cost of the service, and should be contingent on beneficiaries paying their share of the bill. Subsidies for consumption above a minimum subsistence level, should be avoided. Subsidies should be provided long enough before eligibility is reassessed to avoid "poverty trap" problems. 6) The utility or concessionaire can be helpful in identifying eligible candidates, because of its superior information on the payment histories of customers. It will also have an incentive to do so, since it has an interest in improving poor payment records. Thought should therefore be given at the design stage to the role of the service provider in the implementation of the subsidy scheme. 7) The administrative agency's responsibilities, the sources of funding, and the general principles guiding the subsidy system should have a clear legal basis, backed by regulations governing administrative procedures. 8) To reduce administrative costs, and avoid duplication of effort, it would be desirable for a single set of institutional arrangements to be used to determine eligibility for all welfare, and subsidy programs in a given jurisdiction, whether sub-national, or national.
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