Communities have an extensive wealth of local knowledge and wisdom. WASH practitioners should make use of this wider community experience and insight when implementing specific WASH initiatives, together with their own knowledge and understanding of procedures. Working together can help to identify what works for the community and what does not, and why.

Analysis of urban WASH problems and addressing critical gaps can only be achieved by building on the community’s knowledge and beliefs through a continuous dialogue and not by dictating to them what they should do. Participatory engagement is crucial.

Through community involvement, ordinary urban residents and professionals study WASH problems, pool their knowledge and experience and develop ways of solving their WASH problems. Community mobilisation helps leverage the resources available for specific WASH interventions, promotes self-help and self-reliance and improves trust and partnership between WASH practitioners and the community. As an urban WASH practitioner your role is to help the community organise themselves and contribute to the success of urban WASH interventions.

Community mobilisation can bring the following benefits (adapted from Mercy Corps, n.d., Florida DoH, n.d.). For example, it:

  • allows people to make their own decisions about things that affect them
  • expands inclusion of often marginalised groups, such as women, youth, people with disabilities, the elderly, and religious or ethnic minorities
  • makes use of local resources, both human and material
  • ensures local ownership of the issues and enables communities to create local solutions to local problems, which improves sustainability.

There can also be other longer-term benefits. For example, communities can reduce their dependence on outside aid because they develop the ability to identify and solve their own problems. They can also be better prepared for responding to disasters and emergencies because they have experience in quickly identifying their needs and priorities, and have established relationships with decision makers.

Now read the Case Study below and answer the questions that follow.

Case Study 11.1 Gelila and the disastrous communal latrine-building project

Gelila has been working for nearly five years as a WASH practitioner in a small town. The town has a poorly managed latrine, which is badly maintained and hardly used because of its unpleasant smell. Gelila has built an excellent communication with a donor agency working in the region and managed to secure resources to build five new public latrines in the town. Gelila identified five sites and facilitated the processes of hiring a contractor through her office and the construction work started. She announced this good news to the residents of the town during the bi-annual community meeting. Proudly, she announced the availability of enough money for the intended task. However, some weeks later, during the construction of the latrines, disaster struck. Some of the construction materials, including steel bars and corrugated iron sheets, were stolen. Then, as construction continued, more materials were damaged.

Who in the local community could possibly have opposed the decisions about the identified latrine sites?

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Some of the households that are closer to the latrine sites could have opposed the decision, especially if they are concerned that poor management of the latrine might lead to an offensive smell.

What could be the source of their mistrust?

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The major mistrust among the town residents and particularly the closer households could be the result of two things. Firstly, the community were not involved in the planning and operation phases (Gelila did not follow a participatory planning approach). Secondly, Gelila did not take into account the negative experience of the community over the management of the existing public latrines, when deciding on sites for the new latrine.

What do you think Gelila should do in order to win community interest and support?

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Gelila should better understand the local context, particularly the previous experience, beliefs and values of the community and should engage the community in every step of the project cycle. She needs to build public trust and engage community members in selecting appropriate sites and designing sustainable management approaches.

Note that well managed communal latrines are quite rare. Where they have been successful, their relative success can be attributed largely to the management system adopted through engaging youth groups or women’s groups based on an income generation approach. An understanding of the local context and ability of the user community to pay for the services have contributed to the sustainability of its operation.

Last modified: Friday, 12 August 2016, 8:46 PM