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Study Session 6 Community Engagement


In Study Session 4 you learned about stakeholders and stakeholder engagement in general. This study session focuses more specifically on community engagement and why it is important. It describes the guiding principles, levels and key methods for engaging communities in WASH projects in urban settings and the many challenges involved.

Learning Outcomes for Study Session 6

When you have studied this session, you should be able to:

6.1  Define and use correctly each of the key words printed in bold. (SAQ 6.1)

6.2  Describe the advantages of engaging communities in addressing urban WASH problems. (SAQ 6.5)

6.3  Identify and describe the guiding principles, levels and methods of community engagement that should be considered in an urban WASH setting. (SAQs 6.2, 6.4 and 6.6)

6.4  Identify the challenges involved in community engagement initiatives. (SAQ 6.3)

6.1 Communities and their characteristics

We have already used the word ‘community’ many times in this Module. A community is a group of people who are connected to each other by geographic location or special interest. They may share a common concern or set of problems.

You read in Study Session 4 that stakeholder engagement means involving stakeholders in decisions. When the stakeholders concerned are community members, the term ‘community engagement’ is used. Community engagement can be defined as a process of working with people in a community to address issues affecting their well-being, in order to achieve common goals (MFSH, 2008).

Community engagement is based on effective communication between people. It also requires respect and trust between the participants, and a common understanding and purpose. Engaging communities in planning and decision making can strengthen their capacity to take action that produces positive changes. It helps to give communities a sense of ownership of projects and interventions, making them more sustainable into the future.

As an urban WASH practitioner you will work with target communities in your locality to improve their health and living conditions. You should be able to identify and address local ideas, concerns and opportunities in your target community and improve their WASH services through appropriate community engagement methods. Communities are at the centre of every WASH project. Since they are the primary targets and the major stakeholders, their engagement in WASH service delivery is vital for ensuring project sustainability and accountability, from the design stage through implementation and also in monitoring afterwards.

Any development work that strengthens the ability of community organisations and groups to build their structures, systems and skills is called community capacity building. Capacity often refers to skills, knowledge and ability (MFSH, 2008). It can also include leadership, infrastructure, time, commitment and resources. Community capacity building is the process of helping people in the community to participate in partnerships and community enterprises and allowing them, through consultation and planning, to be better equipped to define and achieve their objectives.

Community engagement is a complex, ongoing process and involves developing partnerships between practitioners, government officers, service providers and the community. Understanding the diversity and characteristics of the community that you are working with is fundamental to the long-term sustainability of any WASH project.

You learned in Study Session 1 that urban communities are both socially and religiously diverse (Figure 6.1), and that they are likely to include vulnerable groups of people. Different groups may have conflicting interests. Men and women differ in their views on some issues, but not all men share the same view, and neither do all women. Similarly you may find some differences of opinion between older and younger members of the community, but not all young people will share the same views and neither will all older people. Some may have particular needs as a result of a mental or a physical disability, and their interests should also be considered.

Figure 6.1 People in urban communities in Ethiopia have diverse social and religious backgrounds.

Community engagement has been hugely successful in improving rural water supply and sanitation in Ethiopia. There is less experience of community engagement and participation in urban areas, so for similar methods to be successful in the urban context it is crucial to have a good understanding of the diversity and perspectives of the community involved.

6.2 The purpose of community engagement in WASH

The purpose of community engagement in WASH is to improve the health and economic condition of the community by improving the success and sustainability of WASH projects. This can happen through joint identification of problems, addressing ideas and concerns and identifying opportunities (Figure 6.2). Engaging the community may also enable emerging issues to be identified and be dealt with in a proactive way before they have become problems.

Figure 6.2 Engaging the community to identify opportunities and emerging issues.

If a community is able to join service providers and officials and deal with issues as and when they arise, this:

  • may lead to better use of limited resources and more efficient service delivery
  • helps officials to appreciate possible untapped community resources that can be mobilised and build on community strengths
  • informs policy making at the local level
  • improves the targeting and effectiveness of WASH services
  • helps to measure how agencies and partnerships are performing
  • helps to build community ownership.

Community support for developing services that solve real problems and meet real needs can benefit both the community and the implementing organisation.

  • If you were working for an organisation developing new WASH services in your locality, what would be the advantages to you and your organisation of engaging the community?

  • Community input can help you to focus on the community's concerns and help you to identify emerging issues earlier. You may then be able to deal with those issues in a proactive way, leading to better use of limited resources and more efficient delivery of services. You may have thought of other advantages.

A well-planned community engagement will enable the diverse concerns of the community to be identified on issues that matter most to them. Moreover, it will ensure that their expectations are met.

From the point of view of the community itself, engagement increases access to information about government operations. This means that people are better informed and therefore more able to put forward ideas and take part in processes that affect them. This helps to reduce the level of misconception or misinformation and conflict with the community. It demonstrates openness and accountability, consequently building trust and credibility. Outcomes that reflect the aspirations of the affected community then become more achievable.

Having a greater input into government planning and decision-making processes gives the community a voice and helps vulnerable individuals to become more aware of their constitutional rights. Moreover, if communities are involved at all stages of a WASH initiative, from planning through implementation to monitoring, it is much more likely to be sustainable and successful in the long term.

The sustainability of a community initiative in the urban setting demands high-quality leadership, a strong sense of ownership, social cohesion, gender equality, effective management and adoption of effective and environmentally sustainable technologies. You will learn more about sustainability in Study Session 11.

6.3 Guiding principles of community engagement

The following principles are intended to underpin the community engagement process and should be taken into consideration as you plan engagement activities (adapted from MFSH, 2008):

  • Transparency: Provide relevant information to the community in an understandable way.
  • Recognise diversity: A community usually comprises a broad and diverse group of people encompassing different ethnicities, gender, age, socio-economic backgrounds, values and physical and mental ability. They may speak different languages and have a wide range of literacy and numeracy skills. All their backgrounds, interests, needs, values and aspirations should be considered.
  • Inclusive participation: Provide all sections of the community with opportunities to contribute to and influence outcomes that will directly affect their lives.
  • Equality: Encourage open discussion so that no sections of the community are left out and all ideas are treated with respect. Decisions should not be controlled by one particular section of a community.
  • Cooperation: Schedule meetings at times and in places that are convenient for as many people as possible.
  • Responsiveness: Respond to concerns and complaints from members of the community and provide feedback on the project process.
  • Deliberation: Decisions should be made with careful deliberation to reach consensus among those involved, following a process of thoughtful consideration of different options, through reason and dialogue rather than power struggles.
  • Influence: The outcome of the community engagement process should influence policy making and the eventual decisions.

These guiding principles are an important foundation for effective community engagement so that initiatives can be implemented, understood and reported appropriately.

6.4 Levels of community engagement

Community engagement activities can be categorised as different levels, as shown in Figure 6.3. The levels indicate increasing involvement and active participation by the community in the process.

Figure 6.3 Community engagement model (MFSH, 2008).

The first level is information sharing. This is a two-way process in contrast to just providing information, which is a one-way flow of information from government (or other authority) to the community. Under information sharing, government considers information from the community as well as providing the community with information.

The second level of community engagement is consultation. This is a another two-way process in which government or service provider seeks and considers the views of citizens, clients or communities on policies, programmes or services that affect them directly or in which they may have a significant interest (Figure 6.4).

Figure 6.4 Involving the community in a handwashing campaign.
  • Which methods of providing information to communities have you read about in previous study sessions?

  • In Study Session 5, community meetings, local radio, public hearings and public announcements were mentioned. You may have also thought of posters and leaflets.

The different levels of engagement illustrated in Figure 6.3 may not all apply in all community engagement initiatives. However, as the levels of engagement extend from consultation (Level 2) through the higher levels, the amount of community participation increases and so does the level of community empowerment. Empowerment is the process whereby individuals or communities gain confidence, self-esteem and power to articulate their concerns and ensure that action is taken to address them. Each successive level enables communities to be more active and empowered participants, having a greater voice and greater influence in decision making on policies, programmes, practices or in addressing urban WASH issues. At the highest level, Level 5, the community takes over management and control of the project.

The objectives of each level of engagement are summarised in Table 6.1. Essentially each level focuses on a different type of engagement and can achieve different objectives.

Table 6.1 Levels of community engagement and their objectives. (Adapted from MFSH, 2008)

Level and type of engagementExplanation
1Sharing information

Objective: To share accurate, timely, relevant and easily understood information about decisions regarding policies, WASH programmes, services or issues that have arisen.

Information can be passive (poster or brochure) or active (face-to-face meetings).

This level is the primary form of community engagement, on its own it offers no further involvement – but it underpins all other levels and is necessary for successive levels of engagement.

Information assists the community in understanding the issues and increases their capacity to effectively contribute in successive levels of engagement.


Objective: To actively seek community opinions, before a decision is made.

Communities’ views helps inform the final decision.

3Planning together

Objective: To collaborate with the community in identifying and analysing issues, developing alternatives and identifying preferred solutions, communities provide input into the planning and evaluation.

May involve short-term collaboration or more permanent partnerships, and a reporting mechanism so that contributions are monitored.

4Acting together

Objective: Similar to planning together, except that the community will be involved in implementing as well as identifying preferred solutions, i.e. the WASH practitioner and communities share in the planning and evaluation and also share responsibility for making decisions and implementing them.

May involve sharing additional resources.

5Community directed

Objective: To support or enable the community to identify issues and solutions, make decisions and implement them and hence forward to manage a service. Community may be referred to as a partner.

Provides a framework with financial resources to enable communities to plan, commission, manage, deliver and evaluate their own services.

Builds community capacity for planning and delivering services and addressing community issues.

6.5 Methods of community engagement

There are many different methods of community engagement. Table 6.2 gives some examples. Some are only suitable for one level of engagement and others can be used more widely.

Table 6.2 Community engagement methods. (Adapted from MFSH, 2008)

Level and type of engagementMethods of engagement
1Sharing information

Face-to-face meetings

Newsletters, posters in public places, letters and flyers

Press releases for local radio and television

Advertisements, notifications or articles in local newspaper



Stakeholder meetings, interviews

Public meetings and forums

Surveys, questionnaires

Focus group discussions

Distribution of documents

3 and 4Planning together and acting together

Stakeholder meetings

Workshops, discussions, action planning meetings

In-depth interviews and discussions

Participatory stakeholder mapping

Participatory planning and implementation

Advisory committees, area councils or steering committees

Taskforces, planning groups, strategic alliances and formal agreements

5Community directed

Community development

Participatory planning, implementation, expenditure tracking and performance monitoring, with public authority support

A high level of community engagement, such as collaborating to develop partnerships and provide recommendations at the project design stage, will help to sustain a project, empowering the community to make decisions and to implement and manage change.

It may be impossible to fully engage the community at every stage and you should consider the most appropriate level of engagement and participation for each particular situation. Most WASH programmes claim to have high community engagement, but may actually provide very little opportunity for the community to participate in the project implementation, so a key message is to avoid promising a level of participation that cannot actually be achieved. But the more you engage the community in decision making, the higher the level of ownership of the decisions made and consequently, the greater the likelihood of success.

6.5.1 Engaging schools and WASH clubs

As we discussed in Study Session 4, school children are considered effective WASH promotion agents who can catalyse behavioural changes in their community. Many children experience the use of improved WASH facilities on a daily basis in school. They learn why sanitation and good hygiene are important and this can influence their attitude and practice.

Involving schools and strengthening school WASH clubs helps to introduce behavioural change, firstly in the children; secondly, through influence on their families at home; and thirdly, through influence in the wider community (Figure 6.5).

Figure 6.5 Parents and other members of the community watching a school WASH club drama event in Bushulo.
  • Imagine you are working with the school principal and WASH club to promote improved WASH technologies and healthy hygiene practices among school children. What sort of events could you organise and what might be the outcome?

  • Possible events might include regular WASH promotion days that bring families, students and teachers together. During such special days or on parents’ days or during semester breaks and holidays, children could present poetry, dramas, exhibitions or demonstrations. You may have additional ideas. Such events can inform and inspire not only parents, but also the wider local community.

6.6 Challenges of community engagement

In your work in the urban WASH sector you are likely to be exposed to many challenges during your attempts at community engagement. These are some possible examples.

  • Attitudes and expectations: There may be a feeling in the community that they cannot provide constructive input, won’t be taken seriously or cannot influence the decision-making process. It may be difficult for them to contribute skills, resources and time because of geographic or cultural barriers. They may also have unrealistic expectation of WASH initiatives. Moreover, the WASH practitioner may find it difficult to apply his/her technical knowledge or may lack self-confidence in influencing decision making, impacting livelihoods and meeting public expectations.
  • Characteristics of urban communities: Close communities are common in rural areas. In urban areas, the members of the community may not know each other, so communities may be more fragmented – this can present particular challenges for urban WASH initiatives. Urban communities are very mixed, with diverse backgrounds and needs that can make it difficult to accommodate different people’s interests. Communicating technical information in an understandable manner is also made more difficult if local residents speak different languages or have conflicting priorities. A related challenge is identifying suitable representatives for meetings and planning sessions who can genuinely represent the diverse nature of the community. It may be that people who believe or claim to know and understand the community may not be aware of the full diversity of opinions.
  • Including women: The traditional role of women in Ethiopian society means that they take responsibility for most of the cooking and childcare, even if they live in urban areas and are in paid employment. It is particularly important to engage women in WASH projects because they are likely to have a major influence on hygiene and sanitation practices in the family. However, because of their responsibilities in the home, they may find it difficult to attend community meetings and participate in discussions. Consider their commitments when you arrange the time and place of meetings. For women with babies and infants, suitable childcare arrangements should be considered.
  • Commitment to the future: Higher levels of community engagement continue beyond the initial planning stage to project management and maintenance. This requires a continuing commitment from all stakeholders. Preparing plans for the future and identifying possible challenges that may arise can help with preparations to avoid them and should improve sustainability of the project.

Only a well-informed community can be an effective part of the decision-making process, but when well-informed and given an opportunity to be involved, they can be crucial in helping a project to be successful. Incorporating their concerns from the outset can help to reduce potential conflicts. Community members will be more likely to support a project they had input into; enabling them to contribute to the planning, implementation and monitoring will be much more likely to lead to a successful and sustainable urban WASH project.

Summary of Study Session 6

In Study Session 6, you have learned that:

  1. Community engagement is a process of working with a community to address issues affecting their well-being, involving them in problem-solving or decision-making activities. Urban communities are diverse, which creates challenges for community engagement in the urban WASH sector.
  2. The purpose of community engagement in WASH is to improve the success and sustainability of WASH projects, and thereby promote the health and well-being of the community.
  3. There are several guiding principles for community engagement that emphasise the need for an open process that includes all members of the community.
  4. There are different levels of community engagement from simply sharing information through to community-directed projects.
  5. The appropriate method of community engagement varies for different situations. All methods depend on providing clear and relevant information at the start.
  6. Schools and WASH clubs are important agents for change in WASH.
  7. Community engagement presents many challenges, both to the community and to the practitioner trying to promote it.

Self-Assessment Questions (SAQs) for Study Session 6

Now that you have completed this study session, you can assess how well you have achieved its Learning Outcomes by answering these questions.

SAQ 6.1 (tests Learning Outcome 6.1)

Briefly explain how community engagement leads to empowerment of communities and how this relates to community capacity building.


Community engagement means involving people in planning, developing and implementing projects. Communities feel empowered when they are allowed to participate in and share responsibility for decisions and actions that affect them. This gives them confidence in their own abilities, which helps them to successfully undertake responsible roles in future projects. In other words, their capacity to make valued and worthwhile inputs to projects is increased.

The other SAQs for this study session are based on Case Study 6.1, which is in two parts. Read the first part and then answer the SAQs that follow. As you read the case study, think about which of the levels, methods and guiding principles were followed by Jallele in the construction of the communal latrine.

Case Study 6.1, Part 1 Jallele and the communal latrine

Jallele is a WASH practitioner based at Kembebit Woreda Health Office, Oromia region. Sheno is the woreda centre, with four kebeles. Kebele 01 is one of the four. The woreda’s biggest market place is found in Kebele 01 and the people who live in both rural and urban parts of the woreda gather there on Wednesdays and Saturdays to buy and sell goods.

One of the problems Jallele observed at Sheno is the common practice of open defecation by members of the community living in Kebele 01. Jallele called a meeting to discuss the issue with the community. She provided them with information about the health hazards from open defecation and explained that using latrines would benefit their community. The community members told her they had no land to spare for building individual household latrines.

During the discussion, the community suggested construction of a communal latrine as a solution. Jallele discussed the situation with an NGO engaged in WASH programmes and was able to convince them to allocate money for the construction of a communal latrine. She told the kebele administration about the funding she obtained from the NGO and held discussions with them. The kebele administration identified an open access area next to the market place in the centre of the community. The communal latrine was built by contractors working for the NGO at the site the kebele administration had identified.

When the community started to use the latrine, Jallele was delighted. However, after some time, it started to smell bad as a result of poor management. The community stopped using it and went back to using open defecation. After some time, it was totally abandoned. The people coming to market to buy and sell goods complained about the smell and the construction of the latrine next to the market.

SAQ 6.2 (tests Learning Outcome 6.3)

Which of the levels of community engagement shown in Figure 6.3 and Table 6.1 did Jallele follow appropriately?


Jallele engaged the community at an early stage in project identification. She shared information with them (Level 1) by providing information about the problems of open defecation and possible solutions, and by listening to their difficulties with lack of available land. She consulted with the community (Level 2) about a possible solution and they suggested a communal latrine. However, the information about funding from the NGO, planning the location for the latrine (Level 3) and constructing the latrine (Level 4) were only shared with the kebele administration and the NGO.

SAQ 6.3 (tests Learning Outcome 6.4)

What do you think is the possible cause of the failure of the project that Jallele implemented? What steps are missing in Jallele's community engagement strategy?


Jallele didn’t consult widely enough with the whole extended community about the proposed site of the latrine. Although the solution was proposed by the community, they didn’t use it for long. Jallele didn't recognise the need to engage all community members in every key step of the project implementation. She involved the community in some of the major steps of the project implementation, such as problem identification and prioritisation, and she even engaged them in proposing a possible solution. However, she missed the key step of engaging them in identifying an appropriate place for the construction of the communal latrine. She might have realised that the allocation of the land for communal development activities is done by the kebele administration. She could have consulted the community on the appropriateness of the land identified by the kebele administration before proceeding to the actual construction activity. Also, she did not consider what would happen in the future or identify that a plan was needed to manage and maintain the latrine after it had been constructed.

SAQ 6.4 (tests Learning Outcome 6.3)

Which of the guiding principles outlined in this study session did Jallele adhere to well and which were not considered adequately?


Jallele’s community engagement showed:

  • transparency – she kept the community informed about the plans
  • cooperation – she held a meeting and consulted widely with the community
  • deliberation – it gave the opportunity for different options to be discussed
  • influence – it influenced the decision which was made
  • responsiveness – action was taken in response to the community’s discussion.

However, it was not inclusive and didn’t demonstrate an awareness of the diversity of the community, or of equality (some parts of the community were not consulted).

Case Study 6.1, Part 2 Jallele and the communal latrine

Jallele then engaged the community in addressing the problems encountered. After discussion with the wider community, including those who had not been involved initially, she introduced a follow-up scheme. She encouraged the community to make a contribution to renovate the abandoned latrine facility and involved them in the decision-making process. She facilitated the setting up of an appropriate management system, whereby users made a small contribution for using the facility and this money was used to pay two people who kept the latrine clean and to provide soap. She also introduced a bylaw for dealing with any misconduct or misuse. Following this, the facility was kept clean, so didn’t smell and the community began to use it again. There are a number of examples where such initiatives have been successful in Ethiopia.

SAQ 6.5 (tests Learning Outcome 6.2)

Give two advantages that resulted from Jallele engaging the community at this stage.


Some of the advantages resulting from the engagement of the community at this stage were that:

  • members of the community had ownership of the management scheme that had been arranged
  • members were consulted, so were able to contribute to defining and achieving the objective of eliminating the bad smell and attracting buyers back to the market
  • it strengthened partnerships involving all those whom Jallele had consulted with
  • the organisation skills gained in managing the follow-up scheme contributed to the capacity of the community
  • it provided a small income for those who agreed to manage the community latrine facility
  • the problem of the bad smell was overcome
  • buyers and sellers could use the market without complaining about the smell
  • the inhabitants of the kebele stopped using open defecation.

You may have thought of others.

SAQ 6.6 (tests Learning Outcome 6.3)

Which of the guiding principles were better adhered to through Jallele’s follow-up scheme?


Jallele’s follow-up scheme addressed the shortcomings of the initial scheme. It was inclusive, and addressed the issues of diversity and equality, because she engaged the wider community, including those who had not been consulted over the initial scheme.