Community engagement and communication are umbrella terms that cover active participation of concerned stakeholders, information sharing and consultation at all levels. Both are central to building trust with communities, leveraging support and ownership and detecting conflicts when they can still be managed. Effective community engagement and communication is therefore highly critical to successful sanitation project implementation and sustainability.
Community engagement, communication, and participatory planning include identifying public concerns and values and developing a broad consensus on planned initiatives. It is also about drawing upon the vast amount of information and knowledge that stakeholders hold to find workable, efficient and sustainable solutions (CAP-NET 2008). The stakeholder analysis is the process of identifying and analysing stakeholders, and plan for their participation (RIETBERGEN-McCRACKEN et al. 1998). There are a great number of methodologies concerning stakeholder analysis with a wide range of complexity. You can find background information on the different steps involved in performing a stakeholder analysis here: (1) stakeholder identification, (2) stakeholders’ importance and influence (3) stakeholder interests and (4) stakeholder strategy plan.
Based on our experience, community engagement and communication are most relevant to analyse and manage local political dynamics, which can be decisive for the project’s success or failure at any time. Out of all project components, however, community engagement and communication are the most complex ones, because of their social-political aspects and unique context characteristics – there is no standard process, step-by-step guide or risk management. Yet, thorough planning and implementation of community engagement and communication is key to navigate challenges and opportunities among key beneficiaries of projects.
See our practical experiences, lessons learned and recommendations below.
What really matters: Lessons learned & recommendations
Determine the importance of community engagement and communication for project success.
One of the key lessons learnt during the implementation of a sustainable sanitation system in Azraq, Jordan, is the importance to properly identify, understand and highlight indicators in the project’s logical framework that strongly depend on community engagement and communication right at the outset of the project and continue doing so throughout the entire project term.
Documenting and reflecting on relevant information regarding key stakeholders’ interests, their power to influence others, involvement and impact on the project success allows to foster communication and engagement.
A stakeholder mapping and analysis provided us with a guided way to communicate with local and national stakeholders on different engagement levels. However, additional community-designated analysis was required to adequately understand the internal community dynamics and relationships.
Therefore, we introduced a ‘Community Intelligence Map’. Drawing from the existing stakeholder databases as well as the existing communications with the local communities using colour cards to gradually build up a map of key community actors proved to be very helpful. The community engagement team updated this map with new information on a regular basis. This joint exercise provided us with an opportunity to jointly reflect on and update key insights concerning stakeholders’ perceptions and points of view, understand how the community is divided by interests, political camps, etc., establish who needs to be involved in upcoming activities and identify emerging risks and opposition to the project in due time.
‘De-politicize’ the project.
Given local political dynamics, it can present a risk to link the project to a single local administrative/governmental structure: Opposition groups may decide to reject the project with the intention of preventing other political leaders or parties from accepting it, or strengthening their own grip on their current position.
Therefore, establishing and formalising a Local Project Committee consisting of representatives from a wide range of stakeholders can help engage different interest groups such as political parties and the community at large. We learned the importance of formalising the committee to carry the mandate of the community.
Throughout the project implementation, it is necessary to engage the next higher level of administration (district, governorate or national level) to ‘de-politicize’ the project as well as keeping them involved in the progress.
Local governmental stakeholders often much better understand local communities and administrative procedures than (inter)national project implementers.
Since the wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) implemented under the “Innovative Sanitation Solutions and Reuse in Arid Regions” (ISSRAR) project is owned by the Jordanian Ministry of Water and Irrigation (MWI), it was essential to also closely work with local governmental institutions. To identify the capacities, roles and responsibilities of each, it was important to conduct group meetings with local authorities (such as the municipality, the Water Directorate, the Agriculture Directorate, Azraq district, the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature RSCN, etc.) at the first stage of the project. This augmented communication channels to the community and diverted focus away from the standpoint that the project is in the hands of a single governmental agency, like the municipality.
Building trust and strong relationships with affected communities to foster communication and community engagement.
Mutual trust (on personal and organisational levels and in national institutions) and strong relationships with affected communities formed the base for successful communication and community engagement.
A participatory engagement approach with selected Community-based Organisations (CBOs) was a priority at the beginning of the project. Moreover, local youth were trained to present the project’s technical and social aspects to the community in the awareness sessions. Meanwhile, CBOs were responsible for advocacy and mobilization of community groups.
However, awareness sessions alone were not enough to build strong relationships between the project team and the community. Informal meetings and talks on a personal level with Azraq locals to hear their stories and impressions facilitated access to information that otherwise might have gotten lost and enlisted their support to mobilize community participation.
Strong personal relationships and trust also helped to overcome initial mistrust in the consortium at an organizational level. In the beginning, there was a prevailing perception in public opinion that the consortium partners – being international organizations – implemented the project mainly for their own benefits, rather than for the good of the local population. In all project phases, one of the main approaches was to actively involve and engage local experts as consultants. Employing local youths for small jobs such as data collection helped to further strengthen trust and relationships on the organisational level.
Since the project is owned by a governmental agency, it was also important to build trust between the concerned national ministry and local stakeholders. As Azraq presents a special case concerning water tariffs, planning, land ownership, agricultural sector, we noted that Azraq community members mistrusted the water sector from the beginning. Therefore, we cooperated with the national ministry’s public relations teams to enhance the relationship between the ministry and local communities. A public relation strategy was prepared and signed with the project owner that included awareness raising and knowledge dissemination on the ground and on different communication platforms.
Being aware of and familiar with the historical background of the targeted area to avoid history-based opposition.
Although we performed a detailed socio-economic study during the project’s inception phase, we did not sufficiently consider Azraq’s historical background. For example, why does Azraq have a masterplan? In performing the socio-economic study, we used a questionnaire with set questions but did not conduct individual/casual meetings to hear stories. If we had paid more attention to understanding how today’s situation is directly linked to events in the recent and longer past right from the beginning, we could have e.g. better understood issues concerning land use and ownership in Azraq. These insights were gained - at a much later stage – through increasing personal meetings with Azraq locals.
Using local experts to address complex issues and queries.
Right from the project start we contracted experts from Azraq to perform studies such as the flood analysis. Doing so had the positive side-effect that any queries raised by the local community could be addressed through local experts, which therefore increased trust.
However, relaying on local consultants and experts for decision-making support on sensitive topics may also backfire. In a heterogeneous community with different ethnical backgrounds, you need to ensure not to rely on one local expert who could sway the project’s activities based on their own perception. Moreover, part of the community might have personal issues with the selected local experts which can backfire on project objectives, or some part of the community might think that experts are taking advantage of the project for their own personal benefits. Therefore, having a group of experts from different backgrounds and fields in the project activities on different levels of engagement is essential to ensure the holistic participation of each expert at the right time and on the right field. Furthermore, if already in existence, the Local Project Committee may choose the experts from a shortlist provided by the project consortium.
Engaging the right people at the right time.
Throughout the entire project term, we organised and conducted several sessions to raise the awareness of Azraq community on sustainable sanitation solutions. Various local Community-based Organisations (CBOs) were trained to approach community groups and members, send out invitations through different communication channels and livestream on social media platforms. While this approach drastically eased and facilitated access to local communities in the first place, we also realised that there is an inherent disadvantage to this approach: It is necessary and very important to carefully monitor the mechanism of sending out invitations to also ensure the presence of all relevant key stakeholders, especially those with influential power. For example, it soon became evident that some individuals attended awareness raising sessions mainly for the reason of receiving travel compensations. Moreover, a plan B should be prepared (e.g. door-to-door awareness raising activities) to also reach those people that are unable to attend scheduled sessions.
Not having the right people (in our case technical experts) attending a key decision meeting serves as yet another example for the inherent risks involved in letting others perform meeting invitations.
Being transparent in and properly documenting key decisions and official communications.
A very important document that should prove the support for the Wastewater Treatment Plan (WWTP) at the proposed location by the local community during the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process was unspecific: It lacked detailed information concerning the site selection of the proposed WWTP in Azraq. Therefore, it was easy for the community to later claim that they only gave their general support to the project, but not for the proposed site. Making sure that all decisions are properly documented by means of minutes of meeting, and that official documents provide accurate levels of information and details to avoid any misunderstanding/misinterpretations in future, cannot be stressed often enough. Also, all meetings must be attended by at least one member of the project team to provide first-hand accounts.
Engaging and employing youth.
Young people can become game changers, therefore empowering youth to promote water and sanitation solutions in Azraq was a method used to reach out to the Azraq community during awareness sessions. However, it is important to use a range of different channels that are relevant to the community to advertise for youth involvement as some people complained about not having been selected or informed. On another note, we have become aware that being very clear, transparent and using clear criteria in the youth selection process is crucial, as it is unrealistic to engage all youth in any community.
Being very clear and transparent in your cooperation with Community-based Organisations.
Based on the existing team capacities and for the purpose of Community-based Organisations (CBOs) engagement, it was difficult to select all CBOs in Azraq to work for community advocacy. Therefore, a set of CBOs selection criteria was built on to narrow down on the most suitable CBOs in Azraq for that purpose. This is a very common practice in project implementation. However, we did not send formal “rejection” letters for the other CBOs. Therefore, the project faced resistance and opposition from those CBOs that were not selected for the respective activities.
When considering working with/through local CBOs, we therefore recommend reflecting in advance on whether it is realistic to generate benefits for several CBOs in your target area. If not, what should be done? Work with one or a few CBOs and ignore the resulting resistance of others or stay away from CBOs overall? It is also essential to analyse which CBOs have turned into opposition groups and why. Do they have personal interests or concerns? Based on this analysis, decisions can be taken as deemed appropriate. In our view, there is no one-size-fits-all approach and decisions need to be made on a case by case basis. If you decide to work with a certain CBO only, make sure to transparently communicate your decision for doing so and try identifying alternative opportunities for cooperation with other CBOs in future.
Coordinate and manage internal communication and team composition.
Many work packages within a sanitation project are to a varying extent affected by the community. Proper coordination among the different project teams (technical, governance, etc.) is essential to ensuring the community communication and engagement team has all up to date information at hand and that clear communication lines and content are developed for all.
The responsibilities of communication channels and contacts within the responsible team should be clearly defined and monitored. Skills, experiences, personal relationships, etc. are important to take into prior consideration.
Being well prepared for public sessions and potential miscommunication.
Whenever it is planned to gather people to share information, feedback, get approvals, etc. the project team has to be thoroughly prepared for all types of questions and anticipate support or conflicts initiated by individuals or groups. Helpful measures for such preparation include: Selected invitation of community members, one-on-one meetings with invitees, internal preparation of information and materials, involvement of experts and influential stakeholders, and clear facilitation outline.
- Have you considered and analysed to which extend the community determines implementation and sustainability of your intervention (e.g. Environmental Impact Assessment, payment of service fees, reuse activities, etc.)?
- Have you documented and reflected on relevant information regarding key stakeholders’ interests, power to influence others, involvement and impact on the project success?
- Have you thoroughly analysed and communicated direct and indirect benefits of the project for different stakeholder groups?
- Have you established a Local Project Committee (consisting of a wide range of stakeholders) to ‘de-politicize’ the project, ensure broad support to decisions and support communication and community engagement?
- Do you properly understand local communities and administrative procedures?
- Have you built trust and strong relationships with affected communities to foster communication and community engagement?
- Are you aware of and familiar with the historical background of the targeted area to avoid context-based opposition?
- Do you have influential partners that can leverage support and lobby in the community?
- Have you considered working with local experts to address complex issues and queries?
- Have the right people been engaged at the right time?
- Are you transparent in and properly documenting key decisions and official communications?
- Have you considered engaging and employing youth in the communication and promotion of water, sanitation and health (WASH) related issues?
- Are you clear and transparent in your communication?
- Are you using the most relevant communication channels for the community?
This resource kit aims to share information and experiences on participatory methods in the context of development cooperation. The primary focus concentrates on providing practical guidance and case examples.RIETBERGEN-McCRACKEN, J. NARAYAN, D. WORLD BANK (1998): Participation and Social Assessment: Tools and Techniques. Washington: World Bank URL [Accessed: 10.05.2010]