Still barking up the wrong tree? Community management: more problem than solution

by Dr Ellie Chowns

Received wisdom still suggests that community management is an important component of sustainable water supply in rural areas and small towns. Despite a shift in emphasis “from system to service”, and the idea of “community management plus”, in reality the basic community management model remains standard practice in many countries.  And yet there is plenty of evidence that it is seriously flawed in two key ways.  My own research, a mixed methods study covering 338 water points in Malawi (Chowns 2014, Chowns 2015) demonstrates this clearly.

First, community management is inefficient.  Preventive maintenance is almost never done, repairs are often slow and sub-standard, and committees are unable to collect and save funds.  Average savings are only 2% of the expected level, and only 13% of committees have enough money to buy a single replacement rod.

Equally disappointingly, community management is disempowering. It reinforces existing village power relations, and breeds conflict rather than strengthening social capital.  Often, this conflict is around misuse of funds.  Many committees are defunct; and when they do exist, as one woman said, ‘the committee is higher than the community’ – meaning downward accountability simply doesn’t happen.

There are exceptions, of course, but they are few and far between.  So we need to take off our rose-tinted spectacles and ask why community management is so enduring, despite its failures.

Why does it remain so popular?  Because it’s a fig-leaf for state and donor failure.  Community management enables government officials and donors alike to abdicate responsibility for ensuring long-term sustainable water services.  Instead, they can blame ‘lazy communities’ for ‘lack of ownership’, and suggest that ‘more training is needed’.

I think we need to question the community management model at a more fundamental level. Slight amendments won’t do the job; a more radical re-thinking is required.  Currently, community management transfers responsibility from people with access to finance, skills, and networks (officials & donors) to people with much more limited access to all those things (rural villagers).  This isn’t just ineffective – it’s unfair.

So what might work better?  Here are three suggestions.

  • Build better water points. As a social scientist I am happy to acknowledge that engineering really matters!  There are still far too many poorly-constructed water points being installed.
  • It’s superfluous and expensive to train multiple committees of 10-12 people each, when all that is really needed may be one skilled Area Mechanic with a bike, a phone, and (crucially) an effective means of financing his or her work (see next point…)
  • Pay for results. There’s promising evidence in many sectors that, actually, top-down accountability is part of the solution.  Civil society can’t stand in for a dysfunctional state; investment has to help build state capacity.  Funding needs to flow through ministries and districts, not bypass them – but they need to be held to account for performance, too.

Currently, community management remains the dominant model because it works better for agencies and governments than for communities themselves.  In no other public service sector is so much responsibility placed on users.  We don’t expect communities to bear all the recurrent costs of health or education services, so why should we do so for water?

It’s time to acknowledge that community management is both inefficient and disempowering, stop trying to reform it, and look towards replacing it instead.

Dr Ellie Chowns is a Research Associate at the University of Sheffield, working with Professor Frances Cleaver on a project with the Geneva Water Hub: “The everyday politics of participatory water governance: cooperation and conflict in community management”.

photo: Broken Afridev in Malawi (Erich Baumann, Skat/RWSN 2008)

Author: RWSN Secretariat

RWSN is a global network of rural water supply professionals. Visit to find out more

15 thoughts on “Still barking up the wrong tree? Community management: more problem than solution”

  1. This is very touchy case study and finding. I read it in one go because the way the article is written doesn’t allow you to stop reading the two pages. This finding also works for our country as well. Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. Thank you – very well written and thought provoking.
    Whereas I agree that community management has its limitations, I also wonder what the alternative Ellie is suggesting really would look like: that “skilled Area Mechanic” (I wish there were more of them) – who supervises him/her? Probably a local committee… “Pay for results” – if we want to pay for continuous performance results, we need someone to check, because counting boreholes is not enough – and that someone needs to be local and permanent… And as for “build better boreholes” – we probably need to think beyond boreholes if we want people to care about their service – or even pay for part of it.
    Ellie, maybe you can elaborate a bit more on what your alternative model looks like?
    Best regards, Matthias

  3. Thanks for this thought provoking article.
    I think there are a couple of other things to consider in why community management is still often the position taken. One is that the whole reason why NGOs are doing this work inthe first place is that the government can’t or won’t, and therefore isn’t likely to take on a bigger role. The other is that NGOs can’t or won’t stay for the long term, and so they too aren’t likely to set up a larger organisational structure.
    The reasons why community management often fails are myriad, as they appear to fail in different ways, but it is worth noting that we can learn from positive deviance in any area. Also some of my work points to issues with participatory planning being less participatory and more coercive than it should be… many NGOs still go in with a one-size fits all method.
    Best regards

  4. Radical thinking is needed as these are the same conclusions we were drawing 20 years ago. As an Afghan refugees said to me when I asked who a hand pump belonged too? ” It belongs to everyone, it belongs to no one” The sanitation sector radically changed with the realization and gradual introduction of the concept that a latrine is a household asset and should not be given away for free. The solution within water supply is similar and NGOs need to be removed from the supply chain. We need to set up village financing mechanisms where the community can decide if they want to improve their level of service. If they do they are given the opportunity to purchase one through government based loan on a preferential interest rate. They can select from different management models, but if they default their debt is remembered and they are not offered the loan facility until it has been paid off. If the community wants 20 water points, they can gradually build up to 20 through successive loans and faster repayment schedules. If they don’t, well nobody is forcing them to take out additional loans. There will be no doubt many challenges, but at least we will not talking about the same repetitive issues in 2037.

    1. Dear Steve,
      You are right that it is important to make progress on this issue that has dogged rural water supply for decades. It will be interesting to see whether the emerging innovations in private or semi-private supplies are a better alternative when scaled up beyond piloting, as quite often the failure of community management appears to be in the quality of how it is done at scale, not the concept itself.

  5. Overall I agree with this but there is one example of a cooperative of community water committees in Honduras that is doing well, keeping systems functional, repairing/upgrading when necessary, keeping books, and providing refresher training. It was organized by CRS a couple of decades ago, and I’m curious why more organizations haven’t tried this. Read an independent sustainability evaluation here:

    1. Dear Susan, thank you for providing a specific case study.

      The challenge in this debate is to either make sweeping generalisations, or to over-sell isolated islands of success or failure, so independent evaluations have an important part to play and making sure that they are available and read.

  6. Thanks for your thought-provoking article identifying these pertinent issues. It seems only the terminology has changed and despite changing fashions in development there are underlying fundamental issues that remain to be seriously addressed. With reference to Steve Sugden’s comment above, here in fact is a review done over 20 years ago that looked back at experience over earlier decades…..

    Click to access task0162.pdf

    1. Dear Andrew, thank you for this link. WEDC is probably the best placed organisation to contribute to this important debate because of the wealth of experience and evidence that has been collated and synthesised over the years at WEDC conferences and in your great publications.

  7. Given my private sector background, I can clearly hear Dr. Ellie echoing words of “let’s go private”. But thinking further of water as a social and commercial good, I think your recommendations will only apply to a certain percentage of the population especially in African where I come from. I’ll start my responding to your question as to why community management is so enduring, despite its failures. The answer is so simple, Community management works, but only if well implemented. So the problem is not community management, but rather the way we implement it.

    Matthias and Kate have given very adequate explanations. My addition is that let us work around improving the way we involve communities. Community involvement does not mean construction of a water source and select community members to run it. NO…… NO…… NO….. It is far much more than that. Just like all components of management don’t work in isolation, community management equally has more to be done especially at the initial stages of the project. To start with, members should be given a chance to identify their needs. If the need is water, they should be involved in soliciting funds and other resources. They should own the project right at its inception and other parties should be seen as supporters. On the contrary, many times the funders and the contracting authority identify a project for the community, cost it and make plans on how to implement. In the due course, they visit the offices/homes of popular community members to identify members for community involvement. By this time, the community has lots of biased perceptions about the project. We see government officials, donors and the big figures seated in front seats making speeches at the launch of projects. The community members are placed in “others” position and not at the forefront of the project. We therefore go wrong even before we start the project. The saying “garbage in, garbage out” has never been a lie and it applies equally to this. Therefore, it is not community management that fails the deal, but rather the processes involved in making the community to feel that level of ownership. I very much disagree with you when you say that “community management is disempowering”. On contrary, there is no power fulfilling act like letting the community manage its resources. To me the disturbing concept is on clarity of roles. As explained above, the members are misled on their roles right from the start. The reinforcement of existing village power relations can only exist when the community members are not empowered enough and this is a problem that project implementers breed.

    Secondly, community members are not necessarily technical people to do the preventive maintenance, but they would rather hire a specialist to do so. Yet the training normally offered to community managers is way irrelevant and misleading. The expectations are equally way out of proportion which poses the second challenge. These committees are never trained on how to supervise but rather trained on how to collect money, make minor repairs, and so forth. Yes, such knowledge would be good for the community but after series of training on how to supervise. Many times the committees are very ignorant of any monitoring tool and not aware of what to monitor and how.


  8. A recently published policy paper of the World Bank, based on work in Kerala, found that “The findings of this paper suggest that the community-based approach can be a superior alternative to traditional supply driven models in expanding and improving water service delivery in rural areas.”
    As pointed out in several comments, community management is a term that applies to a wide variety of local set-ups, and we need to look further into the details (tariffs, financing, professional back-up systems, etc.) to move this debate ahead.
    Full WB paper can be found here:

  9. Hello Ellis!

    Thanks for this important and relevant topic. Very timely indeed.

    I do agree very much with Mathias Saladin’s position on community management.

    It is worth noting that community management has successfully anchored the post-decade achievements (since 1991) in drinking water coverage and access increases.

    Beside its (community’s) role in subsidising investment costs through the provision of land/sites, local materials and communal labour during construction, it has also played a key role in significantly reducing operational costs as the systems have been operated for years and decades with trained locals who might not have high educational qualifications or degrees, and therefore accept low wages for the work.

    The enthusiasm and consciousness of communities and community-level management structures in participating and managing their drinking water supply services has been impressive in most cases.

    Whilst lamenting the sustainability challenges of community-managed water supply services, it will be fair to admit the consistent failure of formal intermediary institutions to provide the needed technical support to community management. This institutional failure is rarely acknowledged by the institutions, which incidentally are the same people who lament and complain about the the weaknesses in the community-managed water service. Lane (2004:41) noted that “communities cannot manage their water and sanitation services in a vacuum; rather they need long term technical and professional support from intermediary organisations”, which invariably have not been forthcoming. This gap, in my view, can be effectively filled by the private sector at no cost to governments.

    Dr. Ellies mentioned the idea of Area Mechanics, which suggests a potential role for the private sector in the sustainable management of rural and small towns water services. This, however, will need stronger and more responsive institutions to facilitate and regulate the participation of the private sector to professionalise the management of rural and small towns water services. The private sector will invariably work with the community level structures which will serve as an important link between the semi-autonomous private operators and the wider communities/small towns.

    Anything short of this will mean sending the rural and small towns water sub-sector back to the pre-Decade era of supply-driven and government-led rural/small towns water sector, which will no doubt be very expensive and overwhelming.

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