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The Contribution of People’s Participation: Evidence from 121 Rural Water Supply Projects

By: Deepa Narayan

This report is the first of a series of Occasional Papers to be issued by the Office of the Vice President for Environmentally Sustainable Development at the World Bank.  Since the essence of sustainable development is helping people make their own decisions, and take responsibility for their own welfare, this report highlights the importance of local participation and social organization in the success of rural water supply programs.  This work clearly establishes the need to invest in social infrastructure if physical infrastructure is to be used effectively.

The study is based on systematic quantitative and qualitative analysis of 121 rural water supply projects funded by many different agencies in countries throughout the developing world. The analysis consistently shows that beneficiary participation was more significant than any other factor in achieving functioning water systems and in building local capacity. The degree of participation depended on local demand and organization, and particularly important were agency autonomy and the degree to which agencies accepted and monitored the goal of achieving local participation. The most common agency problem was reluctance to give up control or to invest in developing the capacity of local organizations.

The results of this study have profound implications for the way the World Bank supports its partners in planning and implementing development programs. Among the lessons gleaned from the study are these: obtaining local participation in decision-making about development is sound business practice, and special measures are needed to ensure that the marginalized are reached in the participatory process. Participation can happen only in the right policy environment, in which user demand is primary. Even when participation is assured in planning, agencies must listen and learn as projects are implemented.

These principles are clear, and their implications reach well beyond rural water supply projects. The challenge is to act on these principles and to place people at the center of development.