Investing in people: the key to transforming lives with sustainable water, sanitation and hygiene

5 min read

If we don't involve people in improving their own futures, how can we expect to create lasting change? Savio Carvalho, Global Campaigns Director at WaterAid UK, met community groups in India and Bangladesh making their voices heard.

The car dropped us in open ground in the midst of Pakkabagh basti, an informal settlement near Dubbaga ring road. We walked through a narrow path, a sewer now covered with concrete slabs. On both sides were semi-permanent huts in a straight row. Most huts had a toilet, and there were a few tapstands shared between households. A group of men and women from a local collective called the ‘Urban Poor Struggle Front’ were sitting in the middle of the community, waiting for us.

Pakkabagh basti is a notified slum, one of the many thousand shanties in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India. Most families living here, mainly from the dalit community and other minorities, migrated from rural areas of the neighbouring districts, looking for a way to make a living. They set up their informal settlement on open swampy land on the outskirts of the city. Most work as street vendors and as daily wage labourers in the construction sector, and some women find work in nearby flats doing household chores.

Motivation to work together

The settlement is nearly 20 years old, but has no tenurial rights. A few years ago, facing the threat of eviction, the community realised they had no alternative but to come together to fight for their rights. With support from Vigyan Foundation, a local NGO, they organised themselves in a campaigning collective called ‘Shehri Gharib Sangharsh Morcha’ (‘Urban Poor Struggle Front’ – reads much better in Hindi) and started demanding that their names and location be included in the national census of 2010–11.

They knew that being counted would make them be eligible for legitimate identity documents and thereby social welfare schemes. As the national census occurs once in a decade, the fear of missing this opportunity triggered a sense of urgency and the need for collective action. Not everything in people’s lives sits neatly in our theories of change.

Since it began, the community has been using the nearby open ground and swamps for open defecation. Sanitation and hygiene did not feature in their hierarchy of needs until Vigyan Foundation, with support from WaterAid, starting sensitising the community on the importance of health and hygiene, working through Urban Poor Struggle Front.

When we met the community, a few families were yet to receive the state subsidy to build toilets, and open defecation was still prevalent in these pockets. During our visit the group discussed the need for everyone in the community to have access to toilets, and the health risk that open defecation poses to all – including those who do have toilets and practise good hygiene. The discussion led to community members putting social pressure on those families still without toilets, and the leaders supporting them to strive harder to avail of current subsidies offered by the Government to construct toilets. The meeting was also an opportunity to reinforce hygiene messages, which are crucial for behavioural change.

I saw a similar pattern in our urban project in Lalashorai Tekpara community in Dhaka, Bangladesh. There, the Community Based Organisation (CBO), with the support of Dushtha Shasthya Kendra (DSK), a local partner, identified priorities for the community to work on using participatory methods such as transact walks, community mapping and wealth mapping. They also identified a location where they could construct a toilet and bathing facility, with support from WaterAid. Women’s leadership is central in the CBO committee.

What are my top takeaways from these visits?

First, that while WASH is a priority for people like us who work on the issue, it is not always the topmost priority for those who may need it the most. Often individuals and communities are struggling with many and more pressing issues of survival; of course, those issues take precedence.

Second, that there is no substitute for mobilising a community, engaging them in a process to identify and prioritise their own needs and using that as a starting point for the process of change. The ownership and sustainability this can create is invaluable. In my experience of working in the field, most individuals and communities will eventually look to tackle issues of health, education, clean water and sanitation in their list of priorities – once they have a safe place to live without the risk of forced eviction.

Bypass community involvement and risk failure

There can be a temptation in the WASH sector to shortcut this investment in community development and mobilisation in favour of focusing on technological solutions. But organising and mobilising a community is critical to making sure everyone has sustainable access to WASH.

Investing in community groups helps in building social pressure on individuals and families to improve hygiene habits, contributing to behavioural change at individual and household levels. Such groups develop their own norms and codes with social deterrents to influence behavioural change. Sustained behavioural change is crucial to ensuring people can maximise the benefits of safe water and sanitation, and make these last for generations.

This type of community development is possible when governments, donors, UN agencies and philanthropic organisations recognise the importance of funding and strengthening civil society, NGOs, community-based organisations and institutions of accountability. Systems can only be strengthened (on the supply side) when: people put pressure on duty-bearers (the state) to ensure their voices are heard; they have the necessary information; and they can hold their local authorities to account.

Communities are the constant – governments change, officials are transferred, donors change priorities and NGOs shift between projects and needs. If services are to last, people and communities must be at the heart of the solution.

A final thought

On our way back, as our car meandered through the manicured, clean and organised roads of Lucknow cantonment, a thought crossed my mind…If the Government wants a clean city, home to people living dignified lives, it is clearly possible. Where there is a (political) will, there is a way.