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A Participatory Design experience in Malawi and findings from the sanitation campaign in Haryana (India)

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From our second day of the WEDC Conference in Nakuru, Kenya, I would like to highlight two outstanding papers presented, namely Bell’s research about sanitation approaches in India and Cole’s insights from a participatory design experience in Malawi.

Bell’s study compared sanitation approaches in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh (India), looking at the role of subsidisation and awareness raising in achieving sanitation access and usage. The approach in Haryana –where CLTS triggering tools were employed, was more behaviour centred than in Uttar Pradesh, resulting in far better outcomes. However, Haryana did not use the whole CLTS approach, and subsidised the construction of latrines. This had diverse effects depending on the specific situation of each Gram Panchayat (GP). At best, a practically open defecation free GP had had an awareness raising based and behaviour-centred campaign. The poorest families (as per the judgement of the GP leader) had received subsidised materials, but these had no negative consequences on the interactive, software-oriented campaign. This was nevertheless rather an exception than the rule; in most of the villages visited subsidies contributed to a hardware focused intervention, misuse of funds and exclusion of the poorest.

In the debate that followed the presentation, the question was raised about why subsidies were harmful in some cases and not in others. Brian answered that the key was a strong village leadership with focus on software, which had neutralized the risks of subsidisation in the case presented. However, such a commitment is something exceptional, so subsidization will be generally harmful, reducing focus on software and thus preventing behaviour change, usage and achievement of open defecation free environments.

I completely agree with this. At the end, what is important is to put the focus on community-led collective behaviour change… and subsidy has been observed to almost always contribute to derailing it.

Cole presented the experience of UNICEF promoting participatory design in sanitation in three rural districts in Malawi. The areas selected had sandy soils which pose a threat in terms of high rates of collapsing pits. The methodology consisted of a 3-day participatory workshop, in order to co-design latrines that addressed this problem. The idea was to use the collective knowledge and skills of local builders and villagers as stepping stone. The first day of the workshop, initial knowledge was assessed, including existing designs. It contributed to develop a common language between masons, researchers, etc. The second day was devoted to prototyping; trying to find designs that could combine the positive attributes of the different existing options identified. Finally, the third day was dedicated to calculating the cost of the prototypes created.

The exercises in the three districts led to several relevant design outcomes, including corbelled flooring, trapezium bricks and the use of sandbags for lining. There were also interesting findings:

  • Communities are aware about subsidies and this can severely affect the process (eg: they will want to include cement in the designs).
  • The participation of the village chief in the design session can result in an apparent but sterile consensus
  • These two aspects need to be taken into account and neutralised when designing or conducting the sessions
  • Engagement of community and researchers/engineers helps refine the design through successive feedback moments
  • In districts were CLTS had been previously utilised, there were already some innovations
  • Participatory design is more about diffusing existing indigenous knowledge than about coming up with a revolutionary design!
Date: 3 July 2013