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Involving citizens in policy-making for urban sanitation

Citizens have a role to play in decision-making for urban sanitation planning. But, meaningfully engaging with citizens is not an easy process.

Some politicians use the pretence of citizen participation to show that they are considering the population’s point of view or to satisfy a donor’s expectation of participation when in practice the demands expressed by citizens have little impact on the policy developed.

A typical and common example of this is when a public status meeting is held to present a sanitation master plan that is already fully developed from scratch by a foreign consulting firm. Such a public presentation is needed, but cannot, in my view, be considered as real or sufficient citizen involvement.

The highest level of citizen involvement would imply that citizens work jointly with elected representatives and the administration to develop, implement and monitor policy. Can this be done to ensure better service? How? Here are some examples and concerns of how citizens can take part in sanitation service development, across the whole project cycle.

Citizen involvement to guide national wastewater and sanitation policy

A 2011 description of lessons learned from Mauritania, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Togo, Benin and Niger, on citizen involvement in national sanitation policymaking processes highlights the benefits of creating a representative steering committee. The committee should include representatives of the sanitation demand[1] side: the informal sector, private sector, and citizens. Local NGOs may act as intermediaries, informing and mobilizing the informal stakeholders active in the sector to provide input.

Face-to-face interaction is important in consultation processes such as these, which also must stay inclusive. That requires that organizers present the practical implications of policy plans to stakeholders at all levels, avoid technical language and be conscious of the local language.

Once a clear, realistic and consensual national policy or strategy has been adopted, monitoring its implementation is essential, and should also include a citizen watch.

One example of how this can be carried out is the ongoing water and sanitation citizen budget monitoring initiative in Senegal led by GRET and Forum Civil (a civil society network dedicated to accountability, which is also the Senegalese branch of Transparency International).

The project aims to build Senegalese civil society organizations’ capacities to understand and analyse the institutional and economic stakes of water and sanitation. Moreover, it aims to elaborate and test a methodology of civil society involvement in the formulation and monitoring of the Senegalese national budget for water and sanitation.

Citizen involvement to design local strategy

The programmes ‘Concerted Municipal Strategies (CMS)’ and ‘National Policies and Strategies for Sanitation’ by the NGO programme Solidarité Eau [2], included an in-depth collaborative approach for sanitation planning in twelve medium-sized cities in Africa.

This was based on the premise that a city sanitation strategy is only of any value if it has been understood, approved and adopted by all stakeholders. Whilst the approval of a sanitation strategy by all stakeholders is not an easy task, the project showed that the approach was interesting for several reasons.

First, the process of developing a city-wide strategy by mobilizing all stakeholders forced local authorities, the State’s administration, and national public sanitation operators, to recognize and take into account the demand from the ‘hidden parts’ of the city. These ‘hidden parts’ include slum areas as well as new or informal settlements on the outskirts of the city.

It also provided local stakeholders with an opportunity to express their expectations and concerns and provided them with information and training on a wide variety of issues and challenges that are encountered within the sanitation sector.

The programme showed clearly that the consultation process is therefore just as important as the strategy documents resulting from it.

Citizen involvement to manage service delivery

Community management of water projects and wastewater infrastructure is often presented as a guarantee of better ownership and transparency. According to my experience, however, this is often a misconception.

First, it is important to define what ‘community management’ means in practice. Do inhabitants’ associations from a slum area or village have ownership over the infrastructure and the responsibility of service delivery to the area? Do they assume the operation and maintenance of the facilities or set up contracts with small or medium-sized local private operators?

In many cases, community-managed decentralized sanitation systems (like a decentralized water treatment system connected to a small-bore sewer network for example) lead to poor quality service. This is the result of the lack of capacities of non-professional operators in terms of financial and technical management, which is especially common when the NGO or development agency initiating the projects pulls out entirely.

A 2013 in-depth study I took part in, on small-bore sewer systems worldwide, showed how community management of systems can lead to the public authority relinquishing responsibility for a project. In many cases, this leads to big inequalities in terms of service quality and tariffs.

Inhabitants of wealthy city centres benefit from highly comfortable sanitation services, such as sewers, often delivered to them for free or at very low tariff rate levels, while community members have to put in more time and effort to get lower standard service.

One example of this is the Brazilian condominal approach. These are simplified sewers, often passing through private properties and have a simplified technical design and strong community planning and management focus. This approach aims to support universal access to sanitation for all layers of the urban population. It is meant to reduce costs by doing more with the same budget.

When implemented in Brazil, however, condominal sewers began to be thought of by some politicians and technicians as ‘sewers for the poor’. The poor themselves started to consider this solution as a proof of their status as discriminated people.

The media, political advocacy campaigns by users, along with court rulings, have since led to operators being forced to take over management of the condominal sewer schemes in many Brazilian cities.

Many initiatives developed in Africa, for example, continue to assign responsibility for ownership and operation of service to the users based on their goodwill and solidarity, whilst failing to provide adequate supervision or support. Even decentralized sanitation systems should benefit from the same attention and care from the local authority. They are primary duty bearers.

This is not contradictory with different and pragmatic organizational arrangements, which could include the participation of citizen groups depending on the specific local context. But adequate capacity, supervision, and support are essential.

Financial adjustment mechanisms between the rich and poor should also ensure more equality in terms of tariffs between the different areas of the city.

Citizen involvement to monitor service

Monitoring the progress of the implementation of the local sanitation plan, and its technical and financial performance, is key to the sustainability of local sanitation services. Equally important is monitoring the inclusivity and quality of the sanitation service(s) delivered in the different areas of a city. When citizens are involved in monitoring water or sanitation service they can indicate when the services are not delivered according to standards and push for more accountability in the water sector.

GRET has been supporting the municipality of Hin Heup, Laos in the implementation and monitoring of its local sanitation plan. A steering committee was created to involve all local stakeholders in the formulation of the strategy. Meetings are held every six months, with debates organized around recurrent reports at the service level. This mechanism aims to guarantee the accountability of local private services operators.

By demanding a better quality of service, conflicts are more frequently resolved and the recovery of users’ fees for the service is enhanced. Citizen monitoring has thus become one of the pillars of local participative regulation.

This model is now being replicated in small towns in Mauritania and Senegal for the monitoring of water, solid waste, sanitation and stormwater management services delivery.

Conclusions: citizen involvement is not a simple matter but it can not be taken lightly

By some public authorities, technicians and even sometimes donors, citizen involvement is often seen as a constraint or non-useful approach. It is indeed not always effective and certainly is not simple.

Politicians, and even more so sanitation engineers, can be reluctant to engage in a dialogue with ‘non-representative’ or ‘non-specialist’ stakeholders. It is also not easy for a contracting authority to handle a participative process: to be meaningful a multi-stakeholder dialogue on urban sanitation requires a lot of pedagogy and awareness, as well as a certain level of expertise in terms of facilitation and capacity building. Such a process can take time.

In the case of the work done by programme Solidarité Eau, it took at least six months to develop a concerted municipal strategy and extra costs had to be taken into account for capacity-building, communication, and meetings.

Unfortunately, whilst the importance of capacity-building and communication cannot be denied, some donors or authorities will at times consider these activities as non-useful software costs and prefer to invest in hardware i.e. infrastructure.

However, citizen involvement throughout all steps of the process of definition and implementation of a sanitation policy helps build more sustainable, demand-adapted, efficient, and transparent sanitation services.

The importance of citizen involvement in urban sanitation policy and the importance of demanding transparency and accountability should therefore not be underestimated.

The various cases presented here show how citizens can act as watchdogs, holding national and local governments to account for how their money is being invested in sanitation projects. This is a crucial contribution to better service.

In honour of the UN-Water year on ‘Wastewater’, WIN is posting a series of guest blogs on wastewater and sanitation. This is the first post in the series. Stay tuned for future contributions! Should you wish to take part, please get in touch at info(AT)


Desille D. and Valfrey B., pS-Eau, 2011, Developing a national policy and strategies for sanitation: Guidelines for action

Le Jallé C., Baerhel C., Ngnikam E., Desille D., Ily J-M, pS-Eau 2012, How to elaborate and implement concerted municipal strategies

da Costa Miranda Neto A., Ily JM, pS-Eau, 2012, Choosing and Implementing Small-Bore Sewers, Brazil Case Study

Watson, 1995, Water and Sanitation Program, “Good sewers cheap? Agency-customer interaction in low-cost urban sanitation in Brazil”

Tsitsikalis A., Frenoux C., Gret, 2012, Domestic Private Faecal Sludge Emptying Services in Cambodia: Between Market Efficiency and Regulation Needs For Sustainable Management

Trémolet S., Binder D., AFD, 2010, The regulation of water and sanitation services in developing countries

About the author, Jean-Marie Ily of GRET

Jean-Marie Ily is a technical advisor and sanitation/solid waste management program coordinator for GRET in Senegal and Mauritania. He graduated from the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Rennes with a master’s degree in utility management. His areas of expertise are:

  • market studies, diagnosis, feasibility and planning studies for drinkable water, sanitation and solid waste management; hygiene promotion and sanitation marketing strategies;

  • business models for water, sanitation and solid waste utilities;

  • implementation of development projects (on both technical, financial, institutional and communication aspects);

  • capacity building of national and local authorities, private and public operators of water, solid waste and sanitation utilities;

  • capitalization studies, research programs management and knowledge management.

From 2006 to 2013, he carried out various missions either studies or project implementation for NGOs and French cooperation in Africa, Latin America and Asia. He joined GRET in 2013, giving backup support and advice to GRET staff in Senegal and Mauritania and private and public partners.

About GRET – Groupe de Recherches et d’Echanges Technologiques

Founded in 1976, GRET is an international development NGO which acts on the ground up to the policy arena, intending to provide durable and innovative answers to the challenges of poverty and inequalities. Its professionals provide lasting, innovative solutions for fair development in the field and work to positively influence policy. GRET’s 771 professionals work on 150 projects per year in 28 countries. GRET works at international national and local levels.

In Senegal and Mauritania specifically, GRET:

  • designs and implements field projects

    • building local authority and private operator capacities, for example on management and monitoring of small piped water utilities in rural towns and villages of Senegal and Mauritania;

    • implementing sanitation marketing at scale;

    • working in pilot systems for faecal sludge management or working on a sewer system in the city of Saint-Louis;

    • building the capacities of civil society networks (y’en a marre, forum civil) to claim more inclusive, transparent, and efficient public policies for water and sanitation, etc.

  • Provides expertise, based on the results of applied research, experience and excellent knowledge of the field. Recently we have managed consulting contracts for PEPAM, UNICEF Mauritania, World Bank, Mauritanian Ministry of Water and Sanitation, etc.

  • Runs networks and defends ideas: networking with expert actors and researchers, speaking in international forums, advocating in favour of sustainable development, etc.

  • Produces and disseminates references: we analyse and document our own development experiences, learn lessons from them to improve our modes of intervention and disseminate knowledge, know-how, and methods that have been tested and improved in the field.


  • [1] The concept of “demand” in sanitation reflects the level of satisfaction people have with their lives and informs them of their priorities, practices, expectations, capacity and willingness to pay according to the levels of service offered. It makes it possible to understand the existing situation and the situation to be reached from the point of view of the users of the service and not from a purely technical point of view. (Source: Gret, Memento de l’Assainissement, to be published soon)

  • [2] The Solidarite Eau programme ran from 2008 to 2012. It was implemented by Partenariat pour le Développement Municipal and its partners, including GRET.


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