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)

#RWSN @ #WWW : the presentations

RWSN co-convened two sessions at last week’s SIWI World Water Week in Stockholm and presentations are available to download:

WASHoholic Anonymous – Confessions of Failure and how to Reform

All presentations: http://programme.worldwaterweek.org/sites/default/files/panzerbeiter_lt_1400.pdf

Build and Run to Last: Advances in Rural Water Services

Continue reading “#RWSN @ #WWW : the presentations”

Water taps and information gaps

An interesting blog post that has kicked off some interesting responses

Nonprofit Chronicles

wf_093014_Whatever_Glass_Hald_680x300If you’ve donated money to a water charity, congratulations. You’ve stepped up to try to solve one of the world’s most pressing problems–the fact that roughly 750 million people do not have access to clean water.

Has your donation made a lasting difference? That’s hard to know.

Big water charities point to numbers that, they say, demonstrate their impact. Since its founding in 2006, charity: water says it has funded 16,138 water projects. Water.org, in its latest annual report, says that in 2013 it completed 174 community-based water projects, constructed 73,081 toilets, established 66,632 household water connections and served 606,012 people with water and sanitation. In 2013-2014, Water Aid says it reached 2 million people with water and 3 million with sanitation.

But the charities, as a rule, do not report on how many of those projects are providing clean water a year, two or five years after…

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Addressing failure in rural water supply in Africa – how we can all do better (Video)

In his key note speech, Professor Richard Carter urged the delegation at the 41st IAH Congress to do more to explain why groundwater matters and why hydrogeological science is important.

Continue reading “Addressing failure in rural water supply in Africa – how we can all do better (Video)”

Self-Supply at Scale: Lessons from rural Bangladesh

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Shops like this one satisfy local demand for new pumps and replacement parts. Pumps, like ipods, come in a range of colors! (photo: J. Annis, 2013)

by Jonathan Annis is a sanitation and innovation specialist with the USAID-funded WASHplus project (www.washplus.org). His views do not represent those of USAID or the U.S. Government.

I recently traveled to southeastern Bangladesh to support WASHplus’s local implementing partner WaterAid as it begins a multi-year project in the coastal belt. The coastal belt is a marshy delta formed by Himalayan sediments transported thousands of miles by an extensive river network that settle as they reach the Bay of Bengal. Surface water is ubiquitous, and flooding—from tidal flows, excessive rainfall, or cyclones—is an annual event. I had never been in an environment so waterlogged.   Continue reading “Self-Supply at Scale: Lessons from rural Bangladesh”