Empowering Public Participation for WASH

What is public participation?

Public participation is a process in which people act to influence governance- and development process-related decisions (Fonseca, Hasan, Agarwal, Malik & Baraza, 2020). It allows them to express their views and opinions regarding issues that affect them (UNDP Water Governance Facility & UNICEF, 2015).

Public participation is both a right and a responsibility (Institute of Development Studies, n.d.). This right is emphasised in the legislation of many middle and low-income countries (Fonseca et al., 2020) – including the Maldives. It is also recognised internationally in the UN Declaration on the Right to Development (Jiménez et al., 2019). The establishment of participatory approaches is considered a key component of decision making in development, as per the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The 2030 Agenda also views participation as essential for assuring sustainable water and sanitation management (Jiménez et al., 2019).

Why is public participation in WASH important? Why do we need it?

  1. It can lead to improved water and sanitation services

Meaningful public participation and engagement can lead to better and more sustainable WASH services (Jiménez et al., 2019; UNDP WGF & UNICEF, 2015).

  1. It can give power to the people.

Public participation has the potential to transform power relations, allowing the relatively less powerful people to hold the more-powerful people, organisations and institutions accountable (IDS, n.d.).

  1. It can hold governments accountable.

The people, media and CSOs can hold governments and decision-makers accountable through social accountability (UNDP WGF & UNICEF, 2015). It is especially important in public service provision, which often operates in a monopolistic market with little or no competition (UNDP WGF & UNICEF, 2015). This is the case even in the Maldives where, while multiple utility companies do exist today, the water and sewerage services on each island is managed by a single company.

For instance, tracking budgets can help ensure that allocated business resources reach their intended beneficiaries (Fonseca et al., 2020). Additionally, public involvement in budgeting, coupled with strong audit processes, can increase government transparency and assure that the government is more responsive to the peoples’ needs (Kummar & Crichton-Smith, 2018).

  1. It can lead to more transparent governments.

With regards to budgeting, for instance, when the public is involved in budgeting and there’s a strong audit process, government transparency can increase and ultimately be more responsive to people’s needs.

  1. It makes it easier to solve issues

When regular people are encouraged to become active participants within their communities, they can express their views and experiences (and these are accepted), and when they and the leaders agree on the WASH challenges in the community, solving these challenges become easier (Dery et al., 2020).

The reality of public participation

While public participation is emphasised in the legislation, making it a reality has been a challenge for both civil society organisations (CSOs) and local government. This can often be due to an inability to implement these legislatures, or due to them being unknown to citizens (Fonseca et al., 2020). For this participation to be effective, however, individuals should have adequate and equal opportunities to express their views and concerns (Global WASH Cluster, 2009). Hence, the public needs to be empowered to participate in the WASH sector and processes.

What can be done to empower public participation in WASH?

Empowerment is not only a development goal but is also seen as a way to achieve improved WASH outcomes (Dery, Bisung, Dickin & Dyer, 2020). It is a means for individuals and groups to “…exercise the ability to choose and live the life they desire” (p. 6, Dery et al., 2020)

  1. Clearly define roles of the public: for instance, the establishment of clear contracts between service providers and users (UNDP WGF & UNICEF, 2015)
  2. Make information more accessible: Includes sharing of knowledge, creation of awareness, and dissemination of information through various strategies (Dery et al., 2020). These include: providing public access to information and data; holding meetings, workshops, village health days, and community forums; house-to-house visits; dissemination of information through various media; and passing laws guaranteeing access to information and supporting access to laws (Dery et al., 2020; Fonseca et al., 2020; UNDP WGF & UNICEF, 2015).
  3. Support engagement of marginalised groups. This involves assessment of representation on accountability platforms and identifying groups that are not adequately represented and finding ways to involve them (Kumar & Crichton-Smith, 2018). Engaging marginalised groups can assure their often unique rights and needs are recognised (Fonseca et al., 2020); these include women, youth, children, and older people (Fonseca et al., 2020; Global WASH Cluster, 2009), in addition to other groups such as persons with disabilities and migrant workers.
  4. Identifying real challenges individuals face through supporting community-led action research (Kumar & Chrichton-Smith, 2018)
  5. Provide opportunities to participate: Includes community engagement, partnerships, and involvement in the design and governance of WASH projects (Dery et al., 2020). Possible activities include: voting, protesting, carrying out a referendum, opinion polls, public hearings, citizen report cards, participatory public policy-making, citizens’ advisory boards, and information and communication platforms (UNDP WGF & UNICEF, 2015). 
  6. Provide opportunities to monitor service delivery, such as citizen report cards, consumer feedback mechanisms, mobile-based monitoring and public expenditure tracking (Kumar & Crichton-Smith, 2018; UNDP WGF & UNICEF, 2015)
  7. Enhance capacity for meaningful participation. This could be accomplished through activities to improve WASH knowledge and training community members to help them understand WASH challenges and take action to address them (Dery et al., 2020).

What can different parties do to enhance public participation?

CSOs, national and local government, and donor agencies all have a role to play in enhancing public participation (Fonseca et al., 2020).


  1. Provide training for themselves, other CSOs or even local government staff
  2. Hold civic education meetings, ensuring the participation of marginalised groups: to identify advocacy issues and develop community advocacy plans

National government

  1. Issue national and district focused guidance on public investments, financial management, and reporting in the water sector
  1. Improve transparency of budget and expenditure
  2. Ensure comprehensiveness of budget and financial reports, including information on donor contributions and financial affairs of water service providers

Local governments

  1. Improve transparency of budget and expenditure
  1. Ensure comprehensiveness of budget and financial reports, including information on donor contributions and financial affairs of water service providers
  2. Increase avenues for public participation, and seek the support of CSOs in organising such forums
  3. Make formal document proceedings and deacons made during public participation meetings available

Donor agencies

  1. Establish dedicated budget allowances for public participation at national and local levels of water and sanitation programmes


Dery, F., Bisung, E., Dickin, S., & Dyer, M. (2020). Understanding empowerment in water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH): A scoping review. Journal of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, 10.1, 5-15. doi: 10.2166/washdev.2019.07

Fonseca, C., Hasan, Z., Agarwal, T., Malik, S., & Baraza, J. A. (2020, December). Civil society influence in drinking water, sanitation and water resources budgets: Four pathways for change. Retrieved from https://watershed.nl/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2020/12/084-202014BN_CSO-influence-in-WASH-Resources_Budgets-.pdf

Global WASH Cluster. (2009). WASH accountability resources: Ask, listen, communicate. Retrieved from https://wash.unhcr.org/download/wash-accountability-resources-ask-listen-communicate/

Institute of Development Studies (IDS). (n.d.). Citizen participation and accountability. Retrieved from https://www.participatorymethods.org/method/citizen-participation-and-accountability

Jiménez, A., LeDeunff, H., Giné, R., Sjödin, J., Cronk, R., Murad, S., … Bartram, J. (2019). The enabling environment for participation in water and sanitation: A conceptual framework.  Water, 11(308). doi: 10.3390/211020308

Kumar, A., & Crichton-Smith, H. (2018, August). How do we ensure social accountability in water, sanitation and hygiene services? Our top ten takeaways. Retrieved from https://washmatters.wateraid.org/blog/how-do-we-ensure-social-accountability-in-water-sanitation-and-hygiene-services-our-top-ten

UNDP Water Governance Facility & UNICEF. (2015). WASH and accountability: Explaining the concept: Accountability for sustainability partnership: UNDP Water Governance Facility at SIWI and UNICEF. Retrieved from https://www.unicef.org/wash/files/Accountability_in_WASH_Explaining_the_Concept.pdf

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