Access to safe and reliable drinking water is not only problematic in rural areas but is becoming a growing concern in rapidly urbanizing cities in developing countries. Often, utilities do not get extended in low income areas and, even if they do, they are generally of poor quality. As a result, the poor are impacted the most. In recognition to this, The UN General Assembly recently passed a regulation (2010)  that declared access to safe drinking water and sanitation a human right. However, to enable proper implementation of this declaration, meaningful participation is required from citizens to secure service delivery that meets their needs. Here is a case experiment in Kenya that sheds some light on the advantages and challenges involved in promoting citizen participation in water service delivery.
In Kenya water and sewerage services are delivered to consumers through commercial intermediaries (Water Service Providers) under a partnership agreement with government regulatory bodies. While this may have aided the operational structure, there were no mechanisms in place for the government to access citizen concerns and feedback. To address this gap, the government and donors collaborated to create ‘Water Action Groups’ (WAGs) in the designated project districts to channel consumer concerns and feedback at all stakeholder levels and sector institutions (citizens, commercial providers and government bodies) towards improving transparency, accountability and regulation for, and enforcement of, better service provision.
Volunteers were mobilized to form and run the WAGs in the program districts. The main objectives of these groups were (a) to promote consumer awareness about the roles and responsibilities of sector institutions in service delivery and (b) to build understanding of citizens’ rights to optimize benefits under the regulatory framework. This required consultations and information exchange between and among citizens, commercial suppliers and government regulatory bodies, including feedback on public opinion related to issues of performance, access and equity in planning and service quality. WAGs were also expected to function as monitoring bodies to track responses and actions from the service providers adhering to feedback received.
The paper “Enhancing consumer participation in water service delivery through Water Action Groups ” that is put out by the implementing agencies of the project claims that this one-year pilot project initiated through donor-government partnerships has been successful in achieving most of its objectives. However, more information on the processes used in selecting WAG members, the extent of demographic representation of the members, the tools used for capacity building and empowerment of WAGs, would have been helpful in determining the efficiency and extent of WAGs in reaching out to the poor and influencing policy decisions (The paper does not mention these details). Also, given that WAGs are mainly volunteer groups, I am curious about the incentives and reward provisions that are designed to keep the members engaged in the cause.
Additionally, for a grassroots initiative as such, coalition building among the WAGs that were scattered in different program districts could have been more effective in strengthening citizens’ voice and influencing policy decisions. A good example that comes to mind is the Federation of Drinking Water and Sanitation Users of Nepal (FEDWASUN). But this requires the project to extend beyond one year in order to enable the grassroots groups to get more established in the community. At the same time cautionary measures must be taken to ensure that these groups do not become vulnerable to exploitation by vested interested groups seeking to serve their political agenda. Hopefully, the lessons learned from this pilot initiative will help determine the extent of community engagement in shaping governance and accountability of service delivery in the water sector in Kenya.
Ultimately, the success of community engagement in sector programs can be measured from the demonstration of strong institutional commitment in responding to and addressing citizen grievances and feedback towards improving service delivery, which seems to have been the case in this project, according to the paper consulted for this post.
Photo Credit: Julien Harneis (Flickr User)