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close this bookContribution of People's Participation: Evidence from 121 Rural Water Supply Projects (World Bank, 1995)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentEnvironmentally sustainable development series
View the documentForeword
View the documentAcknowledgments
View the documentExecutive summary
View the documentChapter 1 - Introduction
View the documentChapter 2 - The concept of participation
View the documentChapter 3 - Research methodology and project descriptions
View the documentChapter 4 - Role of beneficiary participation in project effectiveness
View the documentChapter 5 - Factors affecting beneficiary participation
View the documentChapter 6 - Translating lessons into design features
View the documentChapter 7 - Conclusions and recommendations
Open this folder and view contentsAppendixes
View the documentNotes
View the documentBibliography

Chapter 2 - The concept of participation

Participation means different things to different people. This chapter clarifies the what, why, who, and how questions of participation and collective action and outlines the conceptual model used to guide the study.

What Is Participation?

Definitions of participation abound (Cohen and Uphoff 1977; Korten 1980; Paul 1987; and Ghai and Hewit de Alacantara 1990). All of them include in some measure the notions of contributing, influencing, sharing, or redistributing power and of control, resources, benefits, knowledge, and skills to be gained through beneficiary involvement in decisionmaking. There is also much debate among practitioners and in the literature about whether participation is a means or an end, or both (World Bank 1992; Picciotto 1992). For the purposes of this study, participation is defined as a voluntary process by which people, including the disadvantaged (in income, gender, ethnicity, or education), influence or control the decisions that affect them. The essence of participation is exercising voice and choice.

This conception does not assume that there is an ideal level of participation to be achieved. The most effective form of participation varies, but over the long run sustainability will depend on minimizing transaction costs in horizontal and vertical interactions. Participation is viewed as a means to defined ends, not as an end in itself; the goal therefore is to optimize participation to achieve the desired project goals, not simply to maximize participation. The desired goals in rural water supply projects include achieving improved water supply systems and developing the human, organizational, and management capacity to solve problems as they arise in order to sustain the improvements.

The principle underlying participation-to give people a voice-is constant, yet the choices that people make vary infinitely. Thus, a community may decide to subcontract maintenance to an independent mechanic rather than to undergo training and take turns doing the work. A water users' group may choose to dissolve the organization or to define new goals after the first ones have been met. For example, when construction is complete, a water committee may transform itself to undertake sanitation construction, to build a football field, or to branch into children's education, depending on the commonality of interests. A large community group may divide into smaller, functional subgroups, with the larger group meeting only occasionally. Alternatively, people may informally nominate leaders to represent their interests.

Levels of Participation

Participation is a multidimensional, dynamic process, which takes varying forms and changes during the project cycle and over time, based on interest and need. Samuel Paul (1987) usefully distinguishes among levels of participation, all four of which may coexist in a project. The first two categories present ways to exercise influence; the other two offer ways to exercise control. The levels comprise information sharing, consultation, decisionmaking, and initiating action.

Information Sharing

Project designers and managers may share information with clients to facilitate collective or individual action. The information flow is one-way, from agencies to communities. Although it reflects a low level of intensity, information sharing can positively affect project outcomes by enlarging clients' understanding of specific issues (for example, by explaining hygienic practices or how groundwater is polluted). Information sharing may also be one-way in the other direction, in the form of baseline or feasibility studies wherein information (but not necessarily opinion) is gathered from beneficiaries. Many such studies tap local knowledge but do not consult the local clients.


When project designers and managers not only inform clients but also seek their opinions on key issues, a two-way flow of information develops. This two-way flow presents some opportunities for clients to give feedback to project designers or managers, who can then use the information about preferences, desires, and tastes to develop designs and policies that achieve a better fit between agency programs and community demand. Examples of consultation include methods that tap indigenous knowledge and organizational forms, such as socioeconomic surveys, beneficiary assessments, and willingness-to-pay studies.

Decision making

Information sharing and consultation generally do not lead to increased local capacity or empowerment of local people and institutions, although they can lead to more effective programs. Client involvement in decisionmaking, however, either exclusively or jointly with the external agency, is a much more intense level of participation which often promotes capacity building. Decisionmaking may be about policy objectives, project design, implementation, or maintenance, and different actors may be involved at different stages of the project. thus, the decision to participate in a project may be made by the community, and the choice of technology may be made jointly, after the costs and benefits of the various technological options have been explained by the agency and understood by the community.

Initiating Action

Initiating action, within parameters defined by agencies, represents a high level of participation that surpasses involvement in the decisionmaking process. Self-initiated actions are a clear sign of empowerment. Once clients are empowered, they are more likely to be proactive, to take initiative, and to display confidence for undertaking other actions to solve problems beyond those defined by the project. This level of participation is qualitatively different from that achieved when clients merely carry out assigned tasks.

Institutional options for rural water supply depend on whether water is treated as a public, private, or common property good, and on the resultant degrees of excludability (the degree to which other users can be excluded) and jointness or subtractability (the degree to which use by one affects the overall production cost of use by someone else). Similarly, the most appropriate level of participation depends on who owns the water and on who manages the extraction and distribution of water. The degree to which water can be managed collectively depends on the ability to exclude some, but not others. The degree of jointness adds complexity to and determines the participants in the negotiations. (For example, in the development of a system for piped water, users at the top and at the bottom of the distribution ladder need to be involved in negotiating rules and regulations for the distribution of the water.) Moreover, the moment external agencies intervene to improve the quantity and quality of water, or to make water more accessible, issues related to rural infrastructure and technology choice come into play and add another layer of complexity to issues of decisionmaking and participation.

Despite continued government investment, the state of infrastructure has deteriorated, especially in developing countries (Israel 1992). This decline has led to a renewed attempt to focus on the reliability and maintenance of infrastructure. To help identify the role that participation plays in infrastructure effectiveness, it is useful to look at the decisionmaking phases and tasks involved in the construction of rural infrastructure.

Rural infrastructure is developed in four broad phases:

· Design or planning
· Construction
· Operation
· Maintenance.

In practice, work overlaps and shuttles back and forth among those tasks. For the purpose of undertaking a rural water supply project, the categories of issues confronting the rural infrastructure concern:

· Decisions to join, ownership issues, and conditionality
· Choices of technology and service levels
· Costs and financing
· Decisions about design and construction
· Tariff management
· Water allocation
· Operation and maintenance
· System expansion and replacement.

These categories clearly suggest that clients and agency personnel can be involved to varying degrees in influencing or determining the many different choices to be made in any given project. The tendency in the past was for agencies to dominate over community or client choice, sometimes with disastrous results.

Why Participate?

Participation engenders financial, social, and psychological costs as well as benefits. Clients or beneficiaries are likely to participate when their benefits outweigh their costs, just as agencies are likely to foster beneficiary participation when the benefits of doing so outstrip the costs to the agency. However, knowledge about the costs and benefits of participation remains limited; little guidance about budget allocations appropriate to induce participation is available to those planning large-scale projects. Nevertheless, from an agency perspective people's participation (as an input or an independent variable) can contribute to the achievement of four main objectives: effectiveness; efficiency; empowerment; and equity.

Project Effectiveness

Project effectiveness is the degree to which stated project objectives are achieved. Client involvement, direct or indirect, may result in a better match between what users want and what an agency or project offers. Rural water supply projects are considered effective if they increase access to and reliability of water sources, so that people have water in the quantity and quality and with the reliability and convenience they demand. Effective water projects produce health-related, economic (time savings), and environmental benefits, among others (Narayan 1989; Jaganathan 1992).

Users can facilitate effective water projects in several ways at different stages. They may contribute to redefinition of objectives, better project design, redesign, site selection, resource mobilization, construction, implementation, and maintenance of facilities beyond the life of the project. Beneficiary ownership and control of the project also are often seen as essential elements in establishing effective projects.

Project Efficiency

Project efficiency measures the relationship between a given output and its cost and inputs. Because anticipatory decisionmaking allows more timely beneficiary inputs, as well as synchronization of agency and client inputs, it may well lead to greater efficiency. Discussion, consultation, and information sharing often produce greater consensus about goals and means and more clarity about roles, authority, and ownership than would otherwise be possible. Consensus and clarity in turn reduce conflict and delays, resulting in smoother implementation and lower overall costs. For example, proper identification of land and water ownership rights and timely acquisition of land permit quick construction and completion of piped-water systems. Community management or private sector involvement in fee collection may entail high transaction costs, yet either of those options may be much more efficient than fee collection by a public agency.


Empowerment is essentially a political concept that means more equitable sharing (or, redistribution) of power and resources with those who previously lacked power. Any activity that leads to increased access and control over resources and to acquisition of new skills and confidence, so that people are enabled to initiate action on their own behalf and acquire leadership, is an empowering activity. The central argument for participatory processes is that involvement in decisionmaking lets people exercise choice and voice more broadly in their lives, as well as in the more immediate context of development programs that benefit them. Empowerment is thus, about the capacity building of individuals and the organizations that support them.


A major purpose of development assistance is a more equitable distribution of the benefits of development. It is well established that development gains tend to be "captured" by those already better off. Despite the gains made during the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade, over a billion people are still without access to safe water. The primary goal of rural water supply projects is to reach those people. When included in the pursuit of this broad goal, beneficiary participation-which promotes transparency and accountability-may lead to less capture by the elites and to more equitable access to improved water supply, thus, helping serve the purpose of development assistance in general.

Who Participates?

Participation occurs at global, national, subnational, community, and household levels. The primary focus of this study is on the participation of beneficiaries, those who are meant to benefit from the change brought about by rural water supply development projects. hence, the characteristics of these users (individuals and groups) are important because they influence the type of participation that occurs.

The most important characteristic that brings people together to take action is commonality of interest. This is the glue that binds people who may otherwise not have much in common in terms of geography, wealth, power, leadership, degree of organization, social cohesion, ethnicity, income, gender, or education. Commonality of interest may supersede other distinctions, including the entity of "community" (or village or other administrative label of convenience). thus, when water service is not differentiated, and alternative sources are practically nonexistent (as in arid zones), the rich or elite are as much affected as the poor by lack of water. Although men may be interested in an improved water supply for cattle and women may want the water for domestic uses, their common need for water can bring them to work together to negotiate change with service providers.

Some important client characteristics that influence participation are gender (women, as the primary managers of domestic water, are more affected by, and therefore more interested in, improved water supplies); income (the poor have less ability to pay for water, but their need is greater because they often live the farthest from water sources); education (the assumption is that the more educated the group of people, the more easily they understand the issues and the more willing they are to take action); knowledge and skills (when people have some understanding of water issues, technology, and financial management skills, they can more easily manage improved systems); and social cohesion and organization (trust, loyalty, and reciprocity are important in undertaking collective action, achieving consensus about objectives and rules, and in effectively managing conflict).

Also consistently cited as important in effecting participation are leadership qualities and the presence of leaders. The presence of local leaders is important to initiating change, and leadership qualities among users are important in bringing about and sustaining change on a large scale.

How Do People Participate?

Evidence shows that outside agencies and organizers can induce collective action when an issue deals with a common interest of community groups. This process of organizing the poor so that their voices are heard is a role that many NGOs have played effectively in addressing a variety of needs, from employment and water to marketing and housing (examples include the Aga Khan Support Program in Pakistan, BRAC and Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, Amul in India, WALI and Dian Desa in Indonesia, and KWAHO in Kenya). Increasing evidence also shows that many of the roles currently being fulfilled by public sector agencies can be more effectively and efficiently carried out by the private sector. Various aspects of service delivery can be contracted out, for instance, limiting the public sector role to regulating, fostering competition, and monitoring performance (Triche 1990). While it is clear that many NGOs can induce collective action, financial resources (including external assistance) are channeled primarily through government agencies. The central questions, therefore, are these: Can government agencies induce collective action on a large scale? If so, under what conditions, and with what mechanisms? The challenge to government agencies is to restructure their policies, institutions, and organizational forms so that public agencies are accountable for their performance and have the incentive to respond flexibly and quickly to people's demand, either directly or through involvement of the private sector, including NGOs.

Inducing Collective Action

Several factors, which can be divided into three broad categories, affect the success of collective action (Bromley 1986; Oakerson 1986; and Wade 1980). Those categories concern characteristics of the natural resource, of the clients, and of the agency inducing change. The interaction of people and agencies determines outcomes, and the attributes of the natural resource determine the boundaries, which in turn influence the nature of the interaction.

Oakerson (1986) provides an analytically useful framework for understanding the conditions under which collective action works. Physical (that is, natural) and technical attributes, especially those related to degree of jointness, excludability, and differentiation, set the parameters within which groups and agencies must operate. Within these parameters, the most important factors are the rules and decisionmaking arrangements that affect behavioral interactions and service outcomes. Decisionmaking arrangements determine who decides what in relation to whom. Three types of rules govern the success of collective action: the conditions that establish the ability of a group to act collectively to make decisions common to the group, including obstacles or opportunities for individual decisionmaking; operational rules of groups regarding use, including entry and exit rules; and external decisionmaking arrangements that affect the ability of groups to act collectively. These categories comprise bureaucratic rules and those made or enforced by traditional authority, market arrangements, and legislative rules.

The environment created by these rules and decisions influences perceived costs and benefits of users, and thus, either limits or enhances their behavior and choices. Successful collective action or choice of cooperative strategies is dependent on reciprocity, a mutual expectation of positive performance among individuals. Free-rider problems-which occur when one individual does not contribute, assuming that others will- affect collective action. In this environment, the degree to which members monitor one another's behavior, hold one another accountable to certain standards of behavior, and successfully apply sanctions becomes important. If reciprocity is abandoned, patterns of interaction may include deceit, threats, intimidation, and collapse of collective action arrangements.

Over time, as learning takes place, poor outcomes influence the pattern of interaction, which may eventually lead to changes in rules or decisionmaking arrangements. For example, a group of water users in Rwanda who managed their own system changed rules when they discovered that women were spending as much time collecting fees as they had earlier spent collecting water (Yacoob and Walker 1991). Local government in the Kwale district in Kenya instituted a legal transfer of handpump ownership to communities when they found that, despite training, communities expected the government to repair pumps (Narayan-Parker 1988). In Kumasi, Ghana, despite a wait of several years, only 300 households had been connected to a conventional sewerage system meant for 3,000 households; the city utilities finally adopted a different approach-strategic sanitation planning-and offered different service levels (Wright 1993).