One of the Targets of the Sustainable Development Goal to ensure universal water and sanitation access is to “support and strengthen the participation of local communities in improving water and sanitation management”. Despite using community-centric language, the Indicator of this Target reads: the “proportion of local administrative units with established and operational policies and procedures for participation of local communities in water and sanitation management”. In effect, this prioritizes a formalized process for community involvement, governed by members of the ‘enabling environment’, which likely has the effect of marginalizing alternative and equally valid localized processes. This preoccupation with fostering an ‘ideal’ enabling environment which will result in ‘ideal’ participation of users abounds in the water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) sector. Traditional checklists or frameworks imagine the enabling environment largely as fixed and static and separated from WaSH users.
In this presentation, we reconsider previous static views of the enabling environment and participation toward a more dynamic reality, by reflecting on a three and a half-year transdisciplinary participatory action research (PAR) which sought to foster WaSH solutions in impoverished informal settlements of Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. We reflect on both the primary data collected throughout the reflexive and iterative project approach and our own reflective data (daily summaries and post-fieldwork reflections).
Participation is fluid, and often unpredictable in its processes, participants, and trajectory. We demonstrate that efforts to achieve universal WaSH access would benefit from programmers and practitioners engaging with the enabling environment as a dynamic ecology of actors, relationships and processes that includes the users of WASH as active participants. Through analysis of some of the processes of participation observed in our project, we describe how the expert-beneficiary dichotomy was addressed as individuals gained ‘practical authority’ from their peers, and how considering the political nature of development was crucial to fostering WASH improvements which were self-determined by residents and supported by stakeholders.
Conceptualizing the enabling environment this way will better prepare WaSH professionals to anticipate and embrace a less-rigid view of what constitutes a ‘functioning’ enabling environment, and thus, foster participation in a range of ways as is locally appropriate. We suggest that this kind of inclusive approach is essential to fully leverage the co-productive possibilities of participation. Reflexivity in participatory approaches is essential to begin the hard work of blurring the boundaries of ‘expert’ and ‘beneficiary’ that allows for successful collaboration and action towards universal access to water and sanitation.