Stakeholder engagement is the process by which the organisers of a project involve the stakeholders so they can influence its decisions and implementation. Some stakeholders may support the decisions, while others may oppose them. Some may be influential in the organisation or community in which they operate and hold official positions. Others may be affected in the short or long term by the outcomes of the project. The underlying principle of stakeholder engagement is that stakeholders have the opportunity to influence the decision-making process. This differentiates stakeholder engagement from communications processes, which just share and explain decisions that have already been made (SMARTe.org, 2010).
What is the difference between communication with stakeholders and engagement with them?
In stakeholder communication, stakeholders are invited to hear about and accept a decision that has already been made. In stakeholder engagement, the stakeholders have the opportunity to influence the decision making.
The aim of stakeholder engagement is to:
- hear what stakeholders have to say to establish what issues matter most to them
- develop understanding and agree how best to deal with issues of concern to the stakeholders
- ensure project sustainability by involving stakeholders in planning, implementation and monitoring
- improve decision making and accountability.
Through working together, key stakeholders can identify common concerns, develop common goals and reap the benefits of the impact of a WASH project. Some stakeholders may also become involved in technical aspects, contributing to implementation, designing solutions and providing technical advice. Involving stakeholders in this way ensures more effective outcomes.
As a WASH practitioner you may be involved in arranging and facilitating discussions with stakeholders. This means encouraging people to participate. For this you will need to develop your communication skills so you can:
- ensure involvement of all stakeholders, including vulnerable and marginalised individuals and households
- understand their demand for service options and their willingness to contribute
- create a sense of ownership among users and beneficiaries
- help to achieve common understanding between the implementing organisation, user community and relevant stakeholders.
It’s important to involve stakeholders throughout the planning and implementation process. This brings benefits through:
- opening the planning process to the public, making it more transparent and equitable
- allowing stakeholders to participate in budget setting
- ensuring the needs of the whole community are considered, so making projects more effective
- helping to overcome resistance and mistrust by building support.
It may also increase efficiency if stakeholders contribute their labour and resources. Community involvement is shown in the construction of a school latrine facility in Figure 4.2 and a water point in Figure 4.3.
Now read Case Study 4.1 and then answer the questions below.
Case Study 4.1 Ms Genet and the holy water
Ms Genet is an urban WASH practitioner who has started some collaborative work with an NGO to improve the town’s water supply. The NGO coordinator promised to cover all the project expenses and advised Ms Genet to design a development structure on a nearby spring.
Ms Genet shared this information with her immediate supervisor and, realising the benefits the improved water supply would bring, they decided to use the promised money to implement the scheme. She designed the spring development structure and in consultation with the donor agency hired a contractor to start construction.
However, Ms Genet then faced unexpected resistance from the community, especially from the church because the spring was regarded as holy. She tried to explain that the scheme would increase the available water supply by more than forty per cent. However they still expressed their concerns because they felt the scheme was abusing holy spring water.
What important steps did Ms Genet ignore while planning the scheme?
She failed to identify the key stakeholders associated with the use of the water from the spring. She did not consider cultural and religious issues relating to using holy water from the spring.
What is problematic with the way Ms Genet surprised the community members with the scheme?
Community and stakeholder consultations are crucial for the success of any new scheme. If community members are taken by surprise with a scheme they have not been consulted about, and have no understanding of the reasons for it, they will not develop any sense of ownership of it.
Stakeholder engagement improves communication and leads to better understanding. The benefits will depend on the context, but include increased community confidence, which comes from cooperating over project development. It can also encourage a culture of innovation and learning, which enables participants to make better-informed decisions. It builds trust, through open discussion of issues that are difficult to resolve, bridges cultural gaps and helps to reduce conflict. It can also enhance partnerships, for example, between the community and industry, increasing efficiency and so reducing future costs.
Read Case Study 4.2 and answer the questions that follow.
Case Study 4.2 Mr Mohammed’s dilemma – should he tell the user community?
Mr Mohammed is a WASH practitioner who manages a new water treatment and water supply scheme in his town. The groundwater source has high fluoride content but was the only water source available to be developed. Direct use of the groundwater for drinking will cause serious health problems for the community because of its high fluoride content. The proposed scheme uses chicken bone char to reduce the amount of fluoride in water supplied from two boreholes. Mohammed understands that the use of bone char is the only option available for treating the water but is concerned that the community may not accept the treated water for religious and cultural reasons.
Mohammed is considering whether he should either:
- inform the community and stakeholders during the planning stage about the use of bone char
- keep the technical details of the use of bone char a secret because of its religious and cultural sensitivity.
Which option do you think Mohammed should adopt and why?
Mohammed should be loyal to the society he serves and build long-term trust by openly discussing the problem and the technology options. It is essential to inform the community and help them to understand the situation and decide together upon the best course of action.
What additional efforts could Mohammed make to help the community understand the benefits of using bone char?
He could identify key stakeholders and influential members of the community (opinion leaders and religious leaders) and ask them to help him. This could create a better situation for informed decision making and, by using scientific facts about the use of chicken bone char, he may be able to help community members to amend their religious and cultural views.