A Review of Public Participation in the Rural Water and Sanitation Setting

March 2004


Public participation refers to the ongoing process of interaction between service providers or project implementers and the community with the aim of improving decision making during the planning, design, implementation and evaluation phases of the project. The involvement of all community members including women, youth and the poor is of critical importance in rural water supply and sanitation projects. Project implementers or service providers should consider the views, opinions and perspectives of the community in development projects. Thus, for the project to be sustainable in rural areas, it is imperative that the community is actively involved from the implementation phase of the project to the evaluation phase.

This document explores the nature of public participation. Various definitions of public participation are analysed and discussed with the objective of contextualising what public participation entails in rural water supply and sanitation. The guideline document aims at assisting project implementers and service providers to facilitate effective public participation in rural water supply and sanitation projects. However, the participatory review provided in the document should not be regarded as prescriptive guidelines to project implementers intending to include the public in rural water supply projects. Therefore, aspects highlighted in the document could be modified by project implementers to suit particular circumstances.

The objectives of public participation are to strengthen interpersonal relations, improve decision-making, ensure representation of a diversity of social groups, help clarify and stabilise communication between stakeholders and encourage local ownership and commitment and accountability.

Community participation in rural water supply and sanitation projects provides members of the community the opportunity to influence the decision-making process. Participation broadens social development ideals as by participating fully in the decision-making process, ordinary people experience fulfilment, which contributes to a heightened sense of community and a strengthening of community needs. As such, to promote public participation it is vital for service providers and project implementers to know the traditions and social customs of the community.

Six principles of public participation have been identified as underpinning public participation process. The principles are: Identifying and supporting effective local organisations, communication, empowerment, opportunities and effective involvement of traditional leaders. These principles would assist project implementers involved in rural water supply and sanitation projects to facilitate effective public participation. Further, any development project is characterised by the following phases: planning, implementation, construction, operation and maintenance phase and the evaluation phase. In all these phases the inclusion of community members in the project is of outmost importance.

There are various tools and methods which can be used to facilitate public participation. Each method has its own characteristics, strengths and weaknesses. No method can therefore be regarded as appropriate to effective community participation. In other words, it is important to use a range of methods in public participation programmes since each method is unique. Public participation methods are: Public meetings, public hearings, open houses, workshops, citizen advisory committee, social surveys, focus groups, news letters and reports.

The literature study revealed that for community participation, it is important for project implementers to take people's aspirations, needs and perceptions into consideration when planning for community water supply and sanitation projects. Thus, public participation should help develop local capacities, which will be important if the project is to be sustainable.