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)

4 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.

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