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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
close this folderAppendixes
View the documentAppendix 1A - Participation with other direct inputs into water project effectiveness
View the documentAppendix 1B - Participation with eighteen direct and indirect inputs (model 3) into project outcomes
View the documentAppendix 2. Projects rated high in overall effectiveness
View the documentAppendix 3 - Summary of differences between blueprint and learning process approaches
View the documentAppendix 4. Centre for social research: Indicators for sociological monitoring system—Karonga Lakeshore integrated rural groundwater supply project
View the documentNotes
View the documentBibliography

Chapter 7 - Conclusions and recommendations

The lessons from this study have important implications for policy, project design, and implementation strategies for rural water supply programs. The overarching one is that rural water projects must be fundamentally redesigned in order to reach the one billion rural poor who lack a sustainable water supply. Redesign must encompass a shift from supply-driven planning to demand-responsive, participatory approaches to ensure beneficiary participation, control, and ownership. Changes must be made at the sectoral policy and community levels; ignoring either level will create problems for both.

The conclusions and recommendations of the study are organized around three questions: What do we know about participation? If we know so much, why hasn't participation occurred on a large scale? What can we do differently?

What Do We Know about Participation?

Beneficiary participation-including participation by women-in the rural water subsector is essential for project effectiveness as well as for local capacity and empowerment of people for sustainability. Multivariate analysis established that even after controlling for the effects of eighteen other determinants, beneficiary participation is the single most important factor contributing to project effectiveness. Availability of spare parts and repair technicians and the appropriateness of technology are important, but the study found that without beneficiary participation (and hence beneficiary responsibility), water systems are unlikely to be sustainable even when spare parts and repair technicians are available. Beneficiary participation is also a significant contributor to other performance outcomes, including the percentage of water systems in good conditions, overall economic benefits, percentage of the population covered, equality of access, and environmental effects.

Among the proximate determinants of outcomes, beneficiary participation was found to be a significant determinant of both overall quality of implementation (instead of quality of overall project design) and quality of operation and maintenance (instead of quality of construction). The quality of design was significantly negatively affected by complexity of the design, as measured in part by the number of different activities and organizations to be coordinated.

All relationships between proximate determinants and beneficiary participation were weaker when measured separately for participation at a particular stage of the project. Thus to maximize its benefits, participation must be treated as a continuous process. Beneficiary participation is important throughout the life of a project; it is a cyclical, iterative process that cannot be broken into elements. In other words, participation cannot be effective when it is limited to the later stages of a project, as it is in the "handing over" syndrome.

Study findings prove that participation is not a nebulous concept; it can be defined, measured, and observed. Participation is dynamic, and its nature changes over a project cycle; mechanisms and forms of participation vary widely depending on project objectives.

The extent of beneficiary participation achieved is determined by characteristics of both the beneficiaries and the agencies. The two key beneficiary characteristics are demand, or commitment made before project implementation, and the degree to which beneficiaries are organized for their role. The three key agency characteristics are the extent to which local knowledge is incorporated in a project, the establishment of participation as an agency goal that is monitored and evaluated, and the relative autonomy of the agency to manage its affairs. Participation is most likely to occur when both beneficiaries and agencies perceive the net benefits to be high, as they do when beneficiary demand is high and agency commitment to the goal of participation is firm.

Markers on the road to realizing participation are user financial investment in the project, the degree to which local groups achieve control and ownership, responsiveness of the agency to clients, and the extent to which users listen to field agents or extension workers. In turn, local ownership and control are more likely to be achieved when beneficiaries are organized, when the organization is based on local traditional collectives, when clients are skilled and have leadership qualities, and when agencies themselves have autonomy to allow local control of subprojects.

Achieving participation can be costly, consuming perhaps as much as 15-20 percent of the project budget, and it is not necessarily simple. The rich, the elite, and the formal leaders can be effectively coopted, however, to support poor people's participation in decisionmaking and to bring additional resources to their community. And although neither communities nor subgroups within communities, such as women, are homogeneous, commonality of interest can bring people together to solve problems when the need is great.

Over time there is movement from intense, informal, direct forms of participation to more formal, indirect forms through various representational strategies. As goals are met, mechanisms set up to manage intense levels of participation often are dissolved or adapted to new activities.

Why Hasn't Participation Occurred on a Large Scale?

Notions of people's participation have been around for a long time in one form or another. What has gone largely unrecognized is that participation is a process with important implications for policies, organizations, budgets, resources, and staff skills. In other words, participation affects institutions, and the main reason for lack of participation on a large scale has been reluctance to frame the issue in institutional rather than technological terms.

Viewing rural water supply primarily as a technology issue reduces participation to simply one more add-on task which gets done as long as it is convenient, free, controllable, and available when commandeered. Such a narrow conception of participation as a microlevel activity with no linkages to policy and institutional reform hampers large-scale beneficiary participation. Moreover, several pervasive, damaging myths about the water sector bear directly on the ability to institutionalize participation.

Myth: The poor are unwilling to pay and they cannot afford to pay; therefore, water should be provided for them.

Fact: The poor are already paying, often more than the rich; the poor will pay if they get reliable services.

World Bank-sponsored studies demonstrate that poor families sometimes pay ten to one hundred times more than the rich for water, since they have to buy it from vendors. The poor also travel the farthest to get water, often from polluted sources that adversely affect health. Experience in projects around the world establishes that when communities are in charge, they apply culturally appropriate ways of instilling responsibility and ownership without excluding the poor. These strategies range from setting fees on a sliding scale to having the poor and destitute contribute their labor to a project.

Myth: Poor people cannot solve problems or manage technology; they do not know what is good for them.

Fact: People in poverty are creative. Every society employs elaborate organizational systems and rules for managing natural resources.

Experience demonstrates that where government largesse and population pressure have not destroyed traditional water-management systems, these function effectively and maintain a balance between human needs and environmental protection. People in poverty can adapt traditional institutional forms to meet new challenges; they have done just that in many parts of the world when they have had assistance in doing so. Innumerable examples of local organizations finding solutions in the face of ecological, financial, and technology constraints attest to human ingenuity.

Myth: To achieve equity, the service level provided must be minimal so that limited resources can be spread as far as possible.

Fact: If people are not given what they want, they will not organize to undertake collective action or pay requested fees.

Participation cannot correct for fundamental inability to match what people want with what is offered. While it may be important to spread limited resources to a large segment of the population, strategies have to be developed so that subsidies do not detract from the community self selection process. The service level should be based on the willingness of a community or household to match or add to partial subsidies to achieve the desired service level.

Studies from India and Thailand prove that people are willing to pay for a high-service level (namely, hard-piped water connections), although they are unwilling to pay lesser amounts for communal facilities.

Myth: If beneficiary participation is made a goal, women will be reached.

Fact: In most cultures, unless women are specifically targeted and strategies are developed for their empowerment, they will not be reached.

In most rural societies poor women are more disadvantaged than poor men. Women work longer hours and have less free time; they have less income; they are more isolated; they receive less information; they have poorer nutrition and health; they have less education; and they are often more illiterate than men. They are rarely community leaders, and they do not participate in community decisionmaking bodies. Although women are the primary carriers of water, they have limited power, access, and control over resources. In this context, how can women possibly be reached without special support and investment in their development?

The study found that of the twenty most participatory projects, about half successfully reached women. The study also found that the factors determining women's participation were different from those affecting overall beneficiary participation. Unless programs make women's empowerment a specific goal, women's participation will not move beyond tokenism.

Myth: Public sector agencies and engineering departments must be the service providers, since the main task is construction and the main indicator of success is construction completed.

Fact: In rural areas where there are few economies of scale, engineering departments are successful when they monitor and provide technical support to others (NGOs, the private sector, and other nonengineering government departments). The key task is creation of local management and institutional capacity for sustainability after construction.

The technology issues in rural water-supply projects are well known. Further technological innovations may be important, but the key challenge is to create local ownership, organization, and responsibility for the management of assets. Typically, public engineering departments have neither the capacity nor the culture or temperament to empower the poor. They should do what they can most efficiently do, which is to provide technical assistance and monitoring as needed.

Of the twenty most effective projects in the study, over 90 percent were executed by NGOs, parastatals, and government ministries other than the public works or engineering departments. The renowned Malawi self-help project began in the country's community development department in the late 1960s; by the time it was taken over by the public works ministry, it had absorbed a strong community development orientation.

Myth: Master plans based on extensive data gathering before implementation are needed so that a uniform approach can be implemented.

Fact: Blueprint, master plan documents stifle the growth and evolution of participatory programs; data collection need not be extensive before implementation, but it does need to continue throughout implementation. Too-early standardization of implementation procedures leads to failure.

Extensive planning before implementation shortcircuits community decisionmaking. The temptation is to manipulate community choices so that they fit what has already been decided, yet success depends on communities taking initiative and choosing what they want. Extensive, village-by-village data gathering is unnecessary; rather, data collection before implementation should aim simply to set the parameters and develop the processes and strategies for managing a learning process. Detailed data collection is relevant only during the implementation process, as communities, together with community facilitators, develop village inventories for analyzing their particular situations. In the absence of blueprints, two-way information flow becomes an important tool for managing change within a short planning cycle. At the same time, the focus of project data collection before implementation shifts to institutional analyses, which are accompanied by a search for experience across sectors to guide the flow of funds so that financial mechanisms can support community self-determination.

Managers who use the blueprint approach to planning have difficulty tolerating the high levels of uncertainty and ambiguity inherent in participatory projects. The blueprint design approach provides a sense of security by creating the illusion that all is known and under control. Experts who manage large sums of money believe they can reduce risk by knowing all the answers. They are therefore reluctant to adopt a structured-learning approach, which presupposes that all cannot be known and that a range of institutional options must be tried, monitored, and refined over time to match community demand and local management capacity. But risk can be reduced by offering options and by planning for shorter periods of perhaps a year, with later plans developed after evaluating the experience of the previous year.

Myth: User decisionmaking is important but should be limited to well-defined parameters; control should remain with project managers.

Fact: The whole participatory process is about giving people a voice and a choice. Participation cannot be turned on and off by outsiders; participatory processes mean giving control to communities.

There is a tendency to underestimate what people in rural communities can achieve, although most communities manage communal and private resources effectively. Yet giving people choices does not mean that they must do everything themselves and become experts in all technical issues. Explaining new technology in terms of short- and long-term costs, and laying out the ultimate financial and organizational implications of the new technology, helps communities make informed choices.

Participation is a long-term process that cannot be effective if it is restricted to certain stages of a project (for example, handing over water systems to communities after construction is completed). When communities choose and supervise contractors who are required to satisfy them before receiving payment, not only do costs decrease but the shift in the power balance and accountability reinforces community empowerment and ownership and responsibility for the project's physical assets.

Myth: Participatory approaches take a very long time and can only be done on a small scale.

Fact: When projects respond to demand, action is rapid and the community organizational process occurs quickly

When agencies assume that the need for a project is great in the absence of a community expression of need, eliciting participation becomes a hit-or-miss affair. Things go well if a match between demand and response is in fact achieved, but eliciting participation becomes problematic if the community has different priorities. In this situation, educational activities have to precede community organizational activities. Experience shows that community organizational activities generally take between two and six months, depending on the degree of self reliance sought. In sum, the study demonstrates that participatory approaches can be used on a large scale.

Myth: Beneficiary participation is difficult to replicate on a large scale because it requires the presence of charismatic leaders, NGOs, and other special, gifted people.

Fact: Beneficiary participation is replicable. Charismatic leaders are useful for starting the process, but broad-based leadership keeps the process going. NGOs are often more successful in adopting empowerment strategies, and they can be effective intermediaries. Like other technical specialties, skills in designing and implementing participatory programs are learned.

The presence of charismatic leaders at the community level may be needed to start and energize collective action, but the study establishes that broad-based leadership qualities are more important than charismatic leaders for sustaining the organizational process.

NGOs played important roles in many of the most effective projects in this study (see appendix 2). About half of these projects were executed by NGOs, and NGOs were involved as partners with government agencies in other projects as well. Other executing agencies for the most effective projects included parastatal organizations and government departments of health and community development.

Myth: Participation is a nebulous concept that is difficult to define and measure. The goal of human development through participation in decisionmaking is important but impractical.

Fact: The concept of participation can be put into operation and measured simply. Measuring, monitoring, and evaluating participation makes agencies more accountable to supporting human development through participation.

It is often assumed that participation and other project "software" are too messy to be measurable. This is a fallacy. Most planners will not fully consider participation unless it can be measured and its benefits proved, at least to some extent. Making participation a goal at the agency level, combined with monitoring and evaluating participation and linking it to successful performance, was an important determinant of beneficiary participation in the projects covered in this study. But unless using participatory strategies and studying their impact are considered as indicators of success or evaluation criteria, there is ultimately little incentive for project staff to support this relatively unpredictable, uncontrollable task. Fortunately, the study also shows that simple measures and benchmarks can be developed, and that community people can come up with the most situation-specific and meaningful indicators of their participation.

What Can We Do Differently?

Obviously, the main challenge at the country level is to change policies, institutional structures, project design features, and implementation strategies to support beneficiary participation in demand-responsive service delivery. It is important to involve all stakeholders in this process, and to ensure that the process is participatory, so that ownership of institutional reform and project design clearly lie with the country. Six areas are particularly important at the national or subnational levels for managing the necessary changes. These concern the clarity of objectives, the funding mechanism, the selection criteria, the planning process, the intermediaries, and the community organization.

Clarity of Objectives

Objectives must go beyond general statements of "provision of improved water and health." The most important specific objectives to address are sustainability and effective use of the water system and capacity building of local people, especially the marginal-the poor and women-through participation in decisionmaking. If a project aims for institutional reform to achieve these objectives, this should be stated at the outset so reform can drive the project; if the objective is to set up decentralized, community-based systems, that needs to be stated; if the objective is to achieve community participation and women's empowerment, the goal should be stated as such. Only then can links among objectives, planning strategies, and monitoring and evaluation criteria be clarified and mutually reinforcing from the start.

Funding Mechanism

The funding mechanism for projects has to be set up to quickly respond to demand, if projects are to truly support local-level decisionmaking. The study finds, in fact, that the funding mechanism is the most important factor affecting the demand-responsiveness of projects. Funds that can be disbursed easily, in small amounts, and with minimum bureaucracy and with accountability, enable local-level decisionmaking on a large scale without creating entirely new organizational structures. This is one of the main reasons that NGOs have been able to work with communities more successfully than have large government agencies.

Decentralized funding with transparent criteria for accessing funds is critical for effective local government involvement; it is also necessary for getting the private sector and NGOs involved in service delivery as intermediaries or as providers of specialized services needed by the community. Decentralized funds are essential to close the gap between where the construction takes place and where the decision is made to commit and release program funds.

Except where fees are collected to provide services, community funds for operation and maintenance should be left with the community to manage. This increases local ownership, responsibility, and accountability, and minimizes transaction costs.

Selection Criteria

The selection criteria should support the primacy of user decisionmaking. Since the policy environment is not the same in all developing countries, the focus needs to be on the principle of community self-selection, which includes user investment in capital costs. It is important to institute a process whereby communities establish their commitment by undertaking particular tasks and raising all (or a certain percentage) of capital costs before construction begins. Communities must have a stake in the continued functioning of the water system.

Three tools for assessing demand are particularly useful: participatory needs assessment, beneficiary assessment, and willingness-to-pay studies. The latter are especially important in gauging the interest in different service levels and in guiding the early planning for the overall project.

Planning Process

The planning process should focus on learning. In project design, this implies clarity and agreement on objectives, clear definition of indicators of success, and a framework for monitoring and evaluation to guide management decisionmaking at all levels to allow for flexibility. When this learning process is applied to projects, budgeting becomes an effort to estimate expenditures in different categories, with the express recognition that pinpointing costs for narrowly disaggregated categories of expenditures against a time line is counterproductive. Long lists of village inventories are not needed for the planning process; instead, data should focus on institutional capacities, creation of appropriate funding mechanisms, strategies to interact with communities, and pilot activities to try out the strategies suggested while the project is still under preparation.


When programs have to respond to the needs of hundreds of scattered communities, large, centralized agencies in the public sector are neither effective nor efficient in service delivery. Greater attention must be paid to institutional analyses of other agencies that can serve as intermediaries. If institutional reform and institutional capacity building are envisaged, these must be made specific objectives; the goal must go beyond providing hardware and infrastructure and setting up special units for preparing and monitoring projects.

The choice of engineering departments as the lead agencies should not be a foregone conclusion. Instead, other agencies (including NGOs) with an established community orientation and presence should be drawn into new partnerships.

A multiplicity of executing agencies fosters competition and encourages centralized agencies in the public sector to give up control of the details of implementation.

Community Organization

The effective use, operation, and maintenance of a water system at the community level depends on users, individually and collectively. The degree of organization necessary to keep the technology working and effectively used depends on the functions that the community organization is to perform. Thus, investment in strengthening the capacity of community water groups must be greater for water-user groups that are expected to manage the water systems on their own than for groups that merely report breakdowns to higher levels.

Given the record of limited government resources, scattered communities, and poor maintenance, most rural water programs must invest substantial resources in building the capacity of community-level institutions to work autonomously or in partnership with other support agencies. This investment in community organization recognizes that technology is embedded in a particular social fabric and requires the interest, talent, and skills of individuals working in coordination to manage resources to keep the system functioning into a changing future.