Around the world, governments, community-based organisations, and non-governmental organisations are using community engagement, the practice of facilitating communication and/or involving a local community for a variety of programmes and projects. Community engagement or public participation can range from soliciting input on a particular topic or project to empowering community members to be part of a decision-making process.
Engagement interventions can be used across different scales of governance from country-wide decisions to empowering local community leaders. Community engagement should be integral when making decisions.
What is meaningful community engagement?
Studies show that top-down decision-making with little to no community engagement is the least effective form of governance in supporting sustainable development, particularly in communities traditionally governed by local tribes or those who live in clusters of communities. With little to no consultation or buy-in from the community, policies and programmes are not responsive to the local needs of community members and are less likely to be embraced and implemented by the local community.
Unfortunately, few countries have a long-standing tradition of meaningfully engaging with the community on key issues. Meaningful community engagement includes respecting, listening, and taking on board the input from a wide variety of community members who may have different lived experiences.
With input from a wide range of people, it is much more likely that a policy or programme will be responsive to the needs and priorities of the whole community, including those most vulnerable and marginalised.
Additionally, community engagement must go beyond asking for input or local assistance in the implementation of a programme. Meaningful community involvement must allow communities to have decision-making power.
Why is meaningful community engagement important?
Involving communities in resource management is particularly important. Researchers have discovered that meaningful community participation has resulted in better service delivery and improved accountability of the public sector. Engagement interventions are most effective when the engagement is through “phased, facilitated, collaborative processes” in contrast to a one-off check-in with the community, which can be interpreted as dismissive or confrontational.
Direct, continuous, and meaningful community engagement between service users and service providers can improve the access to, and the quality of, services.
When planning meaningful community engagement, it is essential to identify those who are often underrepresented in decision-making processes. For example, communities living in small clusters of settlements or the countryside are often left out of any engagement efforts and key decision-making processes, relegating their role in governance to passive recipients or implementers of policies and practices. Communities must be engaged at all levels of a project or service delivery – from idea formulation to decision-making and implementation. Communities are already crucial to service delivery and implementation of programmes and policies since they supply the necessary labour, materials, and local knowledge.
However, despite relatively high levels of inflow, progress in WASH access has been slow. The severe disconnect between funding and impact points to a poor investment approach.
Effective WASH Management
In 2006, the Government of Kenya released a National Water Development Report, which claimed mismanagement of Kenya’s water resources was due to unsustainable water and land use policies, unsuitable laws and institutions, weak water allocation practices, growing pollution, and increasing degradation of rivers, lakes, wetlands, aquifers and their catchments.
Safe water provision has been a focus of government plans for decades, with an original target set in the 1970s for safe water provision to all households by the year 2000. Despite certain measures, including the National Water Conservation and Pipeline Corporation (NWCPC), which manages piped water systems in urban and rural areas, it quickly became clear that the target would not be met. As Kenya’s population continues to grow rapidly, the supply problem has been exacerbated with no effective management system in place to span rural and urban settings.
Over time, however, a move towards a more devolved system has brought promise. In 2010, the Constitution of Kenya replaced the 1963 Independence Constitution, introducing the devolution of water services to the county level. In 2013, 47 county governments with affiliated county water ministries were established. The area that remains the greatest challenge is public participation, a core component in the success of this governance structure, and the bedrock of the 2010 constitution.
Engaging with local communities while developing and implementing policies and programmes can tap into that local knowledge base and create adaptive and responsive solutions and methods for delivering essential services.
What should community engagement consider?
- Engagement practitioners should ensure they reflect core principles of inclusiveness, equity, justice, reliability, respect, transparency, cultural competence, and active listening.
- Defining a “community” can be contentious. In community structures where there are existing inequities, community engagement without considering local power dynamics can further marginalise those most vulnerable in the community.
- Communities and participation efforts should always consider the broader context of the county or country.
- Have empathy: attempt to listen and understand the life circumstances other people are experiencing.
- Address any language barriers.
- Be thoughtful when considering the location, manner, and modalities of community engagement.
- Verbally and publicly acknowledge and address prior poor decisions and citizen distrust.
- Multiple communities can share natural resources, and those resources might be important to other communities. Therefore, it is essential that all communities impacted by or using a resource work together to co-manage those resources.
Emphasizing the importance of efficient, accountable, and transparent public resources will empower communities to participate in decision-making processes and work with local service providers to improve public resource management and access to essential services.
African Development Choices is on a mission to empower communities to create real, lasting change. Learn more about Our Project to deliver clean water and safe sanitation to Nyansakia II Primary School in Kenya, or visit our Get Involved page to find out how you can become part of the change.