In your work in the urban WASH sector you are likely to be exposed to many challenges during your attempts at community engagement. These are some possible examples.
- Attitudes and expectations: There may be a feeling in the community that they cannot provide constructive input, won’t be taken seriously or cannot influence the decision-making process. It may be difficult for them to contribute skills, resources and time because of geographic or cultural barriers. They may also have unrealistic expectation of WASH initiatives. Moreover, the WASH practitioner may find it difficult to apply his/her technical knowledge or may lack self-confidence in influencing decision making, impacting livelihoods and meeting public expectations.
- Characteristics of urban communities: Close communities are common in rural areas. In urban areas, the members of the community may not know each other, so communities may be more fragmented – this can present particular challenges for urban WASH initiatives. Urban communities are very mixed, with diverse backgrounds and needs that can make it difficult to accommodate different people’s interests. Communicating technical information in an understandable manner is also made more difficult if local residents speak different languages or have conflicting priorities. A related challenge is identifying suitable representatives for meetings and planning sessions who can genuinely represent the diverse nature of the community. It may be that people who believe or claim to know and understand the community may not be aware of the full diversity of opinions.
- Including women: The traditional role of women in most developing countries societies means that they take responsibility for most of the cooking and childcare, even if they live in urban areas and are in paid employment. It is particularly important to engage women in WASH projects because they are likely to have a major influence on hygiene and sanitation practices in the family. However, because of their responsibilities in the home, they may find it difficult to attend community meetings and participate in discussions. Consider their commitments when you arrange the time and place of meetings. For women with babies and infants, suitable childcare arrangements should be considered.
- Commitment to the future: Higher levels of community engagement continue beyond the initial planning stage to project management and maintenance. This requires a continuing commitment from all stakeholders. Preparing plans for the future and identifying possible challenges that may arise can help with preparations to avoid them and should improve sustainability of the project.
Only a well-informed community can be an effective part of the decision-making process, but when well-informed and given an opportunity to be involved, they can be crucial in helping a project to be successful. Incorporating their concerns from the outset can help to reduce potential conflicts. Community members will be more likely to support a project they had input into; enabling them to contribute to the planning, implementation and monitoring will be much more likely to lead to a successful and sustainable urban WASH project.