​Bottom-up engagement with communities in Laos

In an interview, Tari Bowling spoke about the necessity of authentic community engagement in her work in Laos. Her stories were such great examples of how the best intentions can have unintended consequences when communities have not been brought in at the earliest stages of a project. This article details her experiences.

Implementing the SDGs has to happen in a way that uses available technology to support local livelihoods and decision-making. Without considering community participation and listening to what people actually want, need, and will use, even the best-intentioned projects will fail.

The SDGs themselves recognize that communities must be involved in the development projects that impact them. Instead of taking a top-down approach — engaging community members after a project is already taking shape — a bottom-up approach that is community-driven gets end-users involved earlier in the timeline, thus creating solutions that are tailored to work locally and meet the gold standard of “sustainability”, an often used, but rarely achieved goal of development projects.

Community engagement for WASH in Laos

In a resettlement project in Laos, households were provided with taps and toilets to address health and hygiene issues. “Around three years after one of the villages had been resettled, health outcomes had not achieved reached anticipated targets” reflects WASH expert Tari Bowling. “The company wanted to investigate why these targets had not been achieved and one of the problems that we found involved elements of water, sanitation and hygiene behaviour”.

“Groundwater was piped to individual household taps when we tested it at the source and the point of collection, which was the tap, it was clean.”

“The clean water was then boiled in a large heavy pot, and a communal cup was dunked into the water for drinking. That meant that hands were going into the water when people dunked their cups,” explains Bowling. “For half of the day, this water is warm. It’s a great breeding ground for bacteria.”

Some people were not using provided toilets and some were not using soap to wash their hands As a result, drinking water was re-contaminated.

Community development officers had to go back and re-engage the community about sanitation. A number of barriers to toilet use were found. Some community members were using toilets for rice storage because keeping the rice dry and protected was a higher priority. Some felt that open defecation in surrounding forests, where faeces could be washed away or was consumed by animals, was more hygienic than using a concentrated area like a toilet. In other cases, toilets had been used to dispose of plastics and other rubbish causing maintenance issues and the abandonment of toilets. In addition, open defaecation by children was not seen as an issue due to perceptions that children’s faeces do not pose a risk.

In summary, the taps and toilets provided did not address the main health risk, which was related to hygiene practices and how drinking water was distributed in the home.

Community participation in climate change action

In a similar scenario, Bowling says that communities don’t necessarily need to understand all of the science behind climate change. Rather, they benefit from aspects that directly affect their subsistence; for instance, when to plant and harvest.

“Often, they need to know when is rain is coming and when is the rain is not coming. How long the rain is going to be here for. Is it just an afternoon shower? Is it going to rain for three days? The wet season is shifting and without accurate weather information, entire crops can be lost, this can mean the difference between having a surplus of rice to eat and a cash income, and poverty.”

In this case, says Bowling, setting up weather stations and access to seasonal forecasts is an easy solution. People in Laos have access to mobile phones, so creating weather stations that link to mobile data as SMS messages is a quick way to disseminate important information such as a typhoon moving across Vietnam into Laos; a warning system would give farmers time to harvest crops or postpone planting.

“If we’re going to achieve these SDGs, if we’re going to be serious about it, then we really need to be open about what’s working and what’s not working — and make sure we consider that question at the local level, as well as at the national or system scale” says Bowling.

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