Still Barking up the Wrong Tree? Community Management: More Problem than Solution

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

This week we are featuring a thought-provoking piece originally published by our friends at Rural Water Supply Network (RWSN). We encourage you to join their RWSN Sustainable Services community, where the article has sparked an active debate on community management of WASH programs. To view the original post, click here

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 2014Chowns 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”.