arrow_backEmergency WASH

E.1 Key Concepts and Good Practice


Key Concepts

  • Community engagement and participation can lead to a more equitable, effective and sustainable WASH intervention and help to build the resilience of communities affected by the crisis.

  • Without participation, a small number of people will make decisions for everyone. A WASH programme needs to identify ways to enable greater participation and decision making in the WASH programme– especially amongst those who are most vulnerable.

  • More inclusive WASH programmes are not solely about more accessible facilities; it is also about enabling participation and decision making and providing opportunities to challenge the stigmatisation of marginalised groups.

  • In an emergency, it will take time to understand ‘who’ the community is, how it works to exclude certain people and how to engage with its different groups. Community engagement is a process and different levels of participation and engagement may be appropriate at different times in the response E.2.

  • The people in a community are not all the same. WASH responders need to see and understand the differences in individual characteristics such as gender, disability and age. There are no simple solutions to addressing inequality as situations and communities are complex.

  • Not everyone will want to ‘participate’ and levels of participation E.2 often depend on whether people expect to gain from the process and their past experience of it. Tokenistic participation that does not include genuine listening or take account of people’s priorities and preferences may make them sceptical about subsequent engagement.

  • To enable greater community participation and decision making, responders must be aware of the power they wield, the bias they might bring to a situation and must be prepared to question their decisions, actions and conduct. 


Good Practice

  • Ask how community engagement and participation can be improved throughout the project cycle and develop indicators to measure your progress. Community engagement and participation are an integral part of a WASH programme, not a separate activity. 

  • Find out about the community and develop a Community Profile A.7 that identifies how different groups normally live, work and play and how this has been changed by the emergency. This is also an ongoing process, not a one-off activity. 

  • Consider social, cultural, economic and physical structures, leadership, gender and power dynamics as well as WASH social norms and coping strategies B.6. WASH Committees T.55 and outreach workers may already exist in some form, but may not be representative of all sections in the community.

  • Seek support from other specialists, such as anthropologists or local research institutes. They can deepen the understanding of specific social-cultural beliefs and norms (B.5 and B.6). For example, some communities associate cholera with witchcraft or voodoo culture, whilst some religions prohibit measures such as oral rehydration salts.  

  • Listen and ask questions and be prepared to discuss and debate. Not everything that the community or specific groups want is possible or desirable. Where feasible, groups should be put in touch with each other to discuss any points of contention.

  • Avoid making assumptions about vulnerability. Not everyone from a marginalised group is vulnerable. There is an interrelationship between different social factors that can lead to discrimination-based gender and sexuality as well as socioeconomic status, ethnicity and disability. Programme decisions must be based on a careful assessment of the factors that influence vulnerability in a specific context.

  • Share information throughout the programme. People cannot participate if they do not have access to information about the response or the opportunity to question and debate it. 

  • Develop trust as a vital part of a participation and engagement strategy. Trust is reliant on open and transparent Communication (chapter  C ) and Accountability M.4. Actively seeking feedback (C.9 and T.13) using accessible informal and formal mechanisms helps develop trust, as does the ability to admit mistakes when they occur.

  • Pay attention to the language used and whether it is acceptable and understood by all sections of the community - including those with hearing, visual and intellectual disabilities C.7.

  • Use interactive tools and methods that encourage discussion and draw on visualisation to make information and ideas more accessible to people with different levels of education and literacy (chapter  T ).

  • Understand what people are currently experiencing, their level of trauma, motivation, capacity and availability to participate. Not everyone in a community will want to participate or to participate in everything. In an emergency especially, many people will be traumatised and some may initially want to relinquish decision making. 

  • Make full use of interpersonal skills, especially empathy, active listening, communication and self-reflection. They are important qualities in hygiene promoters and engineers and can support the process of gaining trust, handing over control and empowering others.

  • Be aware of personal bias and the risk of making assumptions, such as only talking to one group in the community, working only in easily accessible areas and looking narrowly at WASH issues without considering the bigger picture. 

  • Consult with men, women and children (including those with disabilities and older people), on the design, use and maintenance of facilities and WASH services (chapter  P ) and how to adapt them to meet users’ requirements. Identify the existing capacity within the affected community and authorities and support the development of partnerships between different stakeholders in an emergency response, e.g. WASH agency staff, government, community organisations and community members. 



To identify, listen to and enable different groups within the affected community to influence WASH programme decisions and ensure greater effectiveness by recognising their capacities, needs and priorities.