Are Water User Associations working?

I recently had a meeting with a local NGO here in Coast Province called Community Link International. They are a small and embryonic team, primarily made up of Margaret and Musyoka, with a couple of part time field staff. They’ve been registered as an NGO for about a year, but can collectively draw upon a couple of lifetime’s experience within development.

After graduating with a Sociology degree, Margaret spent time working for Amref in Lodwar, UNICEF in Nairobi and the Aga Khan Foundation in Mombasa, as her career progressed over the last 20 years. Musyoka chose a different path, spending 15 years in government before joining Margaret a few years ago at Aga Khan on a USAID funded WASH program. Together they have a lot to say –  about what they’ve learnt over the past 20 years, and about where they think the focus should be in future WASH policy.

We talked specifically about Water User Associations (WUAs), the community led structures that are typically set up with the help of the implementing organisation during a project. The idea is that once the life-span of the project is over, and the development organisation pulls out, the WUA can assume the management responsibility for the scheme.  This is a pretty convenient policy for all involved, or so it looks. For the NGO, they get to wash their hands (no pun intended) of the project, all the while claiming that it is in safe hands, and that they have empowered the end users to be in control of their own development. For the community, it can feel as though they are coming of age.

Everybody talks glowingly of ‘participation’ and ’empowerment’, the NGO documents the handover with a shower of photos and sound bites, and swiftly moves on to the next project.

Margaret and Musyoka know the routine. They also know the reality of what often happens next. Water User Associations suddenly find themselves in control of miles of pipeline, a handpump, or rate collection duties. Operation and maintenance issues arise, yet spare parts and technical expertise are nowhere to be found. Of course this is not the case everywhere, but it does happen, and it is not just the exception.

They argue that these community groups need much more training if the theory of community management is to be genuinely transferred into practice. Management skills, accountancy, public relations, strategic planning, the list of skills they need goes on and on, and yet the training they are given is often inadequate, and does not reflect the often huge sums spent on other program areas – on hardware for example.

Over the coming weeks Margaret, Musyoka and myself are co writing a ‘problem statement’ for Community Link International. A narrative detailing their position on all of this. It will draw on their years of experience, and provide a focus for debate among the local development community. Of course these issues are of paramount importance to us at The Water Project too, and as we look forward to the coming months together  we hope to harness the thinking of Community Link to our advantage also.

With a narrative position, Community Link will be able to take their arguments to the wider community, and develop a coherent set of approaches that can be written into a pilot project. From their, they will be in the position to approach donors for funding, and to put their ideas into practice.

Capacity  building is development jargon. People talk of it all the time, yet in reality it is often left behind in the rush to drill a bore hole or lay a pipeline. I was greatly impressed at the willingness of Community Link to engage with the nitty gritty, the unglamorous aspects of this work. After all, you can lay as many pipes as you want, but if people cannot look after them over the long term you may as well not bother.

Expect more on this vital topic as I get it. If you want to contribute too, or have any questions, drop us a comment and I’ll try and reply as best I can.

Jack Owen, WASH Program Manager