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The use of alternative safe water options to mitigate the arsenic problem in Bangladesh: a community perspective

Md. JakariyaM.Sc. Thesis, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, Aug 2000


The notion of community has evolved over time. Changes in society - from primitive times to modern times - due to differences in status, tradition, or religion, have affected the bonds between community members and the shape of community activities. The present trends towards marketisation and urbanization are eroding the concept of community. Modernization theorists share this evolutionary view. Under the strong influence of Parsonian Structuralism, they have characterized societies using the evolutionary labels of ‘under developed,’ ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ (Agarwal and Gibson, 1999).

Historically, most communities were relatively homogeneous. Members shared similar characteristics distinguishing them from ‘outsiders’ and lived in harmony with nature. Such harmony existed until it was ‘disrupted’, mainly by population growth. Population growth caused the over-use and over-exploitation of resources. This led to generalized poverty and further environmental degradation that created a cycle of more poverty and environmental degradation (Durning 1989). The Malthusian view saw this population growth as leading to an endless chain of increasing poverty and misery. There was another group - the Optimists - who did not subscribe to the Malthusian model and believed that people or communities had the creative capacity to overcome potential environmental disasters resulting from a growing population and intense economic activity. Examples of where the Optimists’ views have prevailed are probably China and Bangladesh. In such countries, large populations are considered to be resources rather than hindrances toward progress.

Various factors such as abrupt social change, the breakdown of traditional authority in community resource management, commercialization, the migration to urban areas, the immigration of foreign populations, and inappropriate state policies have weakened the previously harmonious link between community and nature. Therefore, what is required is to bring back the lost harmony between environment and community by recognizing nature’s capacity to sustain a maximum number of people and activities (IUCN/ WWF/UNEP 1991).

As we know, environments are constantly changing and emerging as the outcome of dynamic and variable ecological processes, disturbance events, and interaction with humans. Therefore, environments provide a setting for social action and are clearly a product of such action. People’s actions and practices may serve to conserve or reproduce existing ecological features or processes (e.g. maintain a regular cycle, alter soil and vegetation, etc.). On the other hand, people may also act as agents that transform environments (e.g. shorten the fallow, alter the soil and vegetation etc.) (Leach et al., 1997). Such transformations may involve precipitating shifts of ecological states, which push ecological processes in new directions or along new pathways. In both cases some actions may be intentional and some not, but in any case they may have significant impact on the ecology.

Now-a-day community participation is a central goal in any form of development activities. Participation generally denotes the involvement of a significant number of people in situations or actions that enhance their well-being e.g. their income, security, or self-esteem. Participation is viewed as a means to defined ends, not as an end in itself; the goal therefore is to optimize participation in order to achieve the desired project goals, not simply to maximize participation. Participation does not exists in a vacuum but is influenced by policy context, agency characteristics and community characteristics (Narayan, 1995). If different factors that influence participation can be identified, steps can be taken to overcome barriers and take advantage of the opportunities.

The kinds of participation that warrant major concern are (i) participation in decision making, (ii) participation in implementation, (iii) participation in benefits, and (iv) participation in evaluation (Cohen and Uphoff, 1980).

Figure 3 : Major kinds of Participation (Cohen and Uphoff, 1980)

Together, these four kinds of participation constitute something of a cycle for any project activity. In practice there seldom is a consistent or complete cycle of interactions. Participation in these different activities is often quite limited or unequal. Yet they constitute a tangible set of things to focus one’s attention on and to represent the major ways in which participation in any activities can be assisted and assessed. The importance of community participation in decision making is emphasized in the World Bank’s definition of participation as “a process through which stakeholders influence and share control over development initiatives and the resources, and resources that affect them.” (World Bank, 1996). Participation at an early stage of the decision-making process of a project can reduce both time and cost of the project. Participation as part of a decision- making process is most likely to achieve benefits both as a means and as an end. It is by influencing decisions that communities are best able to ensure that their needs are met. It is also important in empowering communities through changing the balance of power and increasing skills and confidence (Finterbusch and Van Wicklin, 1987).

The most important aspect of community involvement at the implementation stage is to develop the sense of ownership of the implemented activity for long-term sustainability. Community participation in the implementation stage of a project can also reduce costs and provide training and employment. It can also be used as a means of exploiting the free labor of beneficiaries. In this form, participation is nothing more than “an ideologically-acceptable packaging for a theory of economic efficiency for the poorest” (Jaglin, 1994).

Enlistment in a project can lead to at least three kinds of possible benefits: material, social, and personal. Benefits are a prime motivation for people to participate. Studies have shown that the poor are typical in that they often place great value on independence, self-respect, and freedom to make their own decisions (Wratten, 1995). The non-material benefits of participation may therefore tackle poverty to an even greater extent than the material benefits.

Because there is little written - or actually accomplished - on participation in evaluation, it is difficult to conceptualize how this kind of participation may best be analyzed and measured. It has been recognized that participation in evaluation is important but rarely carried out (Cohen and Uphoff, 1980). If direct methods of evaluation are not available, communities will invariably evaluate projects indirectly through using patterns of the facilities provided (Cottam 1997). In extreme circumstances, evaluation may take the form of violence or protest (Cohen and Uphoff, 1980).

There is a wide range of factors that could hinder and constrain the promotion of participatory development, and these often lead to the emergence of non-participatory approaches. Such obstacles prohibiting participation abound: they range from institutional, socio-cultural, technical, logistical, and are spread over a seemingly-endless spectrum. Obstacles are also ‘external’, ‘internal’, and / or a combination of both. ‘External obstacles’ refer to those factors outside the end-beneficiary community that inhibit or prevent true community participation taking place. External obstacles suggest the role of development professionals, the broader government orientation towards promoting participation, the tendency among development agencies to apply selective participation, and their technological-financial bias. Internal obstacles refer to conflicting interest groups, gate-keeping by local elites, and a lack of public interest in becoming involved. Some of the obstacles such as excessive pressures for immediate results and technological-financial bias include both internal and external characteristics.

On the other hand, factors such as culture, history, government policy, and social, political, and economic structures influence community participation. Individual and group motivators appear to be context-specific and locality-bound rather than universally-definable. As community participation grows out of a specific situation, its applicability and replication to another region is problematic, as it encounters various and complex problems. In this regard Galgart (1981) refers to the disillusionment of the realization that replication of successful participatory projects is an unsolved problem. Different authors such as Cohen and Uphoff (1980), Narayan (1995), and Moser (1989) have identified different factors responsible for community participation, and these are presented below: 

Figure 4 : Factors influencing Community Participation

Source : Toole, 1999.

Therefore, it can be said that due to the complexity of community dynamics as a human process, there are neither blueprints nor ready-made recipes of participatory processes that can be applied to promote participatory development. Cohen and Uphoff (1980) have pointed out that there is no ‘magic list’ of critical factors for participation. Some of the obstacles to community participation, as mentioned earlier, have an external influence on the end-beneficiary community (from the outside), while others are endemic or internal to the community. The way/s in which these internal and external obstacles inter-relate or interact with one another, is / are of vital importance in getting a clear picture of the impact of all the different factors and processes in promoting and facilitating community participation.


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