Community engagement integral to WASH success

Posted 19 December 2016

WASHSeeking community input too late is hindering the success of too many water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) projects both here and abroad, say leading researchers. 
Delivered by the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, a recent discussion paper outlines four recommendations for achieving successful community engagement in WASH projects.
Sustainable Water Program Manager Dr Nina Hall said opportunities offered for community participation often come too late in a given project and risk becoming decisions of less significance.
“Community participation has been recognised by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal for water as a key aspect to a project’s long-term success,” Hall said.
“If you don't have the people who are receiving the project along for the ride, it can be abandoned.
“We found the types of opportunities communities were often being given for participation were very late-stage and very low-level decisions.”
Hall said engaging communities early in project planning helped to not only direct the project according to community insight, but also gave the community ownership of the project, which increased the likelihood of long-term success.
“For most of the WASH projects we analysed from the Pacific, the community were brought in late – around the construction and use stage.” Hall said.
“Coming in so late often created the perspective that they didn't own the project, they didn't necessarily want the project, or it wasn't quite what they would have liked in terms of construction. It didn't deal with community understanding about the benefits of what was being offered.”
The discussion paper recommendations are:
  1.  Develop a common definition, framework and principles for community participation in WASH projects.
  2. Ensure that the community participation approach for WASH is designed to include five key elements: establishing an agreed participation objective; ensuring inclusiveness; providing information and capacity building; enabling spaces for dialogue; and ensuring transparency, and that it involves a ‘bottom-up’ approach.
  3. Provide meaningful community participation opportunities as early as possible in the development of WASH projects.
  4. Establish robust indicators to monitor community participation in WASH, and document participation from a community perspective to improve future efforts.

Hall said that a clear definition of ‘community participation’ is crucial to evaluating the involvement of community members.
“Community participation, engagement and ownership will make or break a project, but what we found in our investigation of WASH projects in the Pacific region was that community participation was not really explicit in many of the projects,” Hall said.
“It was mentioned in some of the write-ups, but it was never used as an explicit measure of the impact of the project.”
Further to helping foster ownership and higher levels of engagement in communities, Hall said the discussion paper recommendations also aim to bring about true sustainable development.
“This is an important aspect of sustainability: will the project be sustained long term? Will the next generation understand how clean drinking water and wastewater treatment is linked to their health?” she said.
“We want the learning to continue. If we get it right, the community passes the learning on. This is sustainable development. It’s not just about being gentle on the environment and a healthy community – it’s about a long-term, positive impact as well.”